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London International Mime Festival: “Doing nothing wasn’t an option”

Image credit: Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry, photographed by Rosie Powell

Brightening the dark days of January, the London International Mime Festival brings a globe-trotting roster of visual theatre artists to the capital each year. For 2021, they’ve defied the odds to deliver an online and onscreen version of the festival. Co-directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig discuss the events on offer; programming in a pandemic and why they were happy to see Bill Bailey on Strictly.

Rosemary Waugh: The London International Mime Festival has gone online and on-screen for 2021. Let’s start by talking about the programme. What events are you running this year?

Helen Lannaghan: So, we’ve got workshops, talks, short films and 28 videos of previously recorded shows. The online workshops address everything from clowning to mime illusion, puppetry, devising and improvising, object theatre, corporeal mime… it’s a really wide range.

Joseph Seelig: Then the ten talks cover the essential foundations of the festival. They start off with a conversation between myself and Nola Rae, which is partly about how the festival started. Following on from that, there’s the wonderful German masked theatre company, Familie Flöz, who have been in the festival on several occasions, and Sean Gandini who is going to be talking about juggling and [iconic choreographer] Pina Bausch. Other highlights include Amit Lahav from the dynamic Gecko on overcoming adversity and dance duo Thick & Tight talking about the queer aesthetic.

Helen: On top of that, we’ve commissioned five short films. These include one by Kristin & Davy McGuire who make mixed media work using paper cuts and projections - which we’ve had to give an over-18s certificate to - and one of BSL interpreter Jacqui Beckford signing Little Jimmy Scott’s version of Nothing Compares 2U - it’s just absolutely gorgeous. Even though they were made separately, the films are all quite sombre, tender, emotional and a bit scary in some places. We’re really pleased and proud of them.

And finally, there’ll be 28 shows available to watch online between 18 – 31 January, including the Olivier Award-winning Belgian company Peeping Tom. It’s a great opportunity to catch work you missed at previous Mime Festivals, or revisit old favourites.

Rosemary: Can anyone sign up for the workshops, or are they aimed at professionals already connected to the performing arts industries?

Joseph: They’re designed for all levels. So you can learn the very basics of mime illusion or study something a bit more advanced like corporeal mime, or how to adapt your puppetry for Zoom.

Rosemary: A lot of the names on the bill are stars from previous mime festivals. Did you feel like you were selecting a sort-of ‘Greatest Hits’ line-up when programming for 2021?

Joseph: We weren’t specifically trying to do that. We wanted to show the best of the best, but inevitably a number of our favourites are missing because so many of the shows we’ve presented haven’t been filmed. So we made a selection based on the best shows on video.

Rosemary: The mime festival’s remit goes far beyond the art of mime. How would you describe the types of performances audiences see at the festival?

Helen: Mime just means ‘to mimic life’, that’s all. It doesn’t mean white face, pantomime, mime illusion etc., it’s much broader. We include puppetry, live art, mask work and so on. The basic premise is that it shouldn’t be driven by a spoken text and we don’t programme pure dance.  

Joseph: Critics have often found it quite hard to categorise or define the work. What really matters is that it’s an extraordinary, exciting, off-the-wall, visual show that people aren’t expecting to see because they’ve never seen anything like it before.

Rosemary: Do you think the switch from live-on-stage to online and on-screen will mean you reach a different audience this year?

Joseph: It will be a much bigger audience, we think. We’ve made a big effort to programme everything so it’s time zone friendly. We’ve got students enrolled in the workshops from Canada, China, France, Greece and Hungary - to name just a few.

Helen: Also, the videos of shows are not geographically limited. They can be watched anywhere in the world, at any time. All you need is access to the internet.

Rosemary: Since the pandemic started in March, most major theatre festivals and events have been outright cancelled. Why did you decide to go ahead with the mime festival, despite the obvious challenges?

Joseph: Well, you could say that doing nothing wasn’t an option for us. I mean, of course, it was but we decided that we should do something, even if it wasn’t live performance. There was a time last year when every day you received another email about another cancellation of some event or festival, obviously for good reasons. We didn’t want to be part of that welter of bad news, and we wanted support the artists we programme.

Rosemary: Were there any dark moments where you worried it simply wouldn’t happen or it would be easier to cancel for a year?

Joseph: I think we did have some, but we are people who work with artists and they are optimistic and incredibly creative people, so I think our dark moments were few and far between.

Helen: It was always going to be hard with Brexit. The funny thing is that when you’re pushed almost over the edge, it makes you really realise how much you don’t want to leap off that cliff. The Arts Council were fantastic in taking the pressure off, and we were also aware that our artists needed support so that’s why we were commissioning work.

Rosemary: Has preserving the festival’s international element been tricky with the Covid outbreak and Brexit?

Joseph: ‘International’ is a very important part of our title and always will be. We know that with the new rules there will be more work, more bureaucracy, more admin, it will be more expensive. And that’s going to be a problem for a festival like ours.

Helen: The people it will affect are the small-scale international companies with sets, if they haven’t got the means to pay for all the additional admin. So it might cut out a swathe of the really interesting, quirky, wonky shows that we’re good at finding and mean it’s just the larger-scale companies that can go to places like the Barbican or Sadler’s Wells. But we’ll do what we can to prevent it.

Rosemary: And finally, is there anything else you’d like people to know about this year’s festival?

Joseph: I think it’s interesting how the festival’s announcement produced a huge response of relief. It’s been really rewarding knowing people out there have something to look forward to and they’re not going to be disappointed.

Helen: It is indeed, it’s heartening. As it also is that Bill Bailey was on Strictly! Because he was in the mime festival once.

Joseph: I was going to say that right at the beginning - our alumni have done really well! I mean, we’re not taking any credit for his success, of course…

London International Mime Festival
Running until 31 January 2021

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