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London International Mime Festival: “Many people in our situation would have just given up – but we’ve kept on going.’

Image: Photograph of the production 'KIN' by Barely Methodical Troupe, showing at the Peacock Theatre as part of the London International Mime Festival, 26-29 January

Despite the dual tidal waves of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, the London International Mime Festival is fielding a full-sized programme of live theatre in London this January and February. Rosemary Waugh talks to the festival’s directors, Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig, about programming more British acts than ever before, trying to pandemic-proof a festival and why this year’s line-up features live, on-stage baking.

Rosemary Waugh: You’re opening a major festival of live performance from 12 January – 6 February 2022 in London. Talking about the big shadow cast over things by the continuing pandemic seems almost too obvious – but also necessary. However, I thought that before we covered the more difficult side of things, we could start by talking about what the programme itself is like. So firstly, could you talk me through some of the acts that audiences are (hopefully!) going to be able to see live?

Helen Lannaghan: The topics are actually very interrelated. Because of the pandemic, we tried from the outset to make a programme which was as COVID-proof as possible. Normally, the majority of the shows we present are international. But this time, the vast majority are commissions from British companies. During the first lockdown in 2020, we used our Arts Council grants to commission work from these British-based companies with a view to programming it in January 2022, and it’s those works which audiences will see at the mime festival this year.

Joseph Seelig: We do, however, have two big international companies also included, both are performing at the Barbican and both are fabulous. One of them is Companie 111, a wonderful French company created by Aurélian Bory. They’re presenting aSH, the third part of a trilogy created for a solo dancer, in this case Shantala Shivalingappa who has worked with Pina Bausch and Peter Brook.

HL: The other international show is Stellaire by Stereoptik, two amazing guys who create this kind of live cinema. So they’ll use sand and ink and paint, and then scrub and scrape and do all sorts of things with an overhead projector to create this film on a screen at the back of the stage.

RW: What kind of work are the British companies bringing to the festival?

HL: Well it’s sort-of in the title, but Gandini Juggling are bringing a new juggling show inspired by the works of Merce Cunningham. They previously made a show based on Pina Bausch and this time they’ve gone for a different choreographical great.

JS: We actually discovered that it’s very hard to find a contemporary UK company making work that relies exclusively on physicality and movement without any inclusion of a text. But of the ones we programmed, there are various shows which use circus skills to tell their stories. For example, Barely Methodical Troupe have Kin, a piece about relationships told through circus, and Charmaine Childs who is an Australian circus strong woman is showing Power. There’s also visual theatre from Vanishing Point, a Scottish Company, who are presenting Interiors, a play originally written to be performed by marionettes.

HL: There are also three shows with a strong queer aesthetic. There’s Sadiq Ali’s The Chosen Haram which uses Chinese Pole to tell the story of being a gay Muslim man. And then there’s Thick and Tight’s Short & Sweet, with its wonderful array of queer characters. And, finally, there’s Jean-Daniel Broussé’s (le) PAIN, about growing up queer in provincial France. JD is the third generation of French bakers and he should have inherited the family business but instead ran away to join the circus. Bread is going to be baked live on stage so the auditorium will be filled with that wonderful smell of fresh bread.

JS: And as far as we know, he thinks he made the right decision…

RW: Picking up on something Joseph just said, why do you think contemporary British companies aren’t making work that focuses exclusively on movement? Do you think it’s to do with training in this country or our traditions of making theatre or…?

JS: It’s very, very difficult to say. I don’t think it’s just the mime festival that finds this. If you see a performance at Dance Umbrella or any contemporary dance festival, it’s often not just movement but also text. The arts, the whole idea of creativity, continually changes. There are trends and there are different periods of time when people want to express themselves in different ways.

HL: I think it’s to do with people wanting recognition and wanting to be taken seriously. I think there are lots of companies who start of making work that is silent and have then gone to texts because that’s actually quite good for getting audiences in or attracting bookings more easily. For me, I think it comes down to certain elements of prejudice because theatre is a bit hierarchial. And those companies who want to grow and get on the major stages, maybe they feel they need to take on texts to be taken more seriously. Every year we get reviews that start with: ‘I usually hate mime but…’

JS: It is very tedious that after so many years that’s still the case but… there you go.

RW: It looks – fingers crossed - like we’re not entering another lockdown. But did you build the possibility of the theatres being closed or people not being able to get to them into the programme?

Yeah, so we do have a collection of films available to watch online. There is one by Heather Henson - daughter of Jim Henson who created the Muppets – whose company Handmade Puppet Dreams have commissioned a series of short films with independent American puppeteers. Those will all be available to view for free during the festival. There’s also Cold by Open Sky Theatre, a full-length feature film told in the style of a dark fairy tale which, at its heart, is about miscarriage and baby loss. A lot, though not all, of the workshops can also theoretically go online – and in spite of the threat of lockdown we’ve actually got a waiting list for several of the workshops because places have been so popular.

JS: Funnily enough, we’ve got a mask workshop…

HL: Which, ironically, was the first to sell-out!

JS: We should also mention that we did organise ourselves so that, in the unthinkable event of things having to be cancelled, our artists would not be out of pocket.

RW: The 2022 programme was created in exceptional circumstances, but going forward do you imagine you’ll continue to programme so many British companies?

HS: Our speciality is really working internationally: that’s where our raison d’etre lies.

JS: I mean, nothing ever returns to what it was, or if it does, it's not really successful. But I think we must, especially after Brexit, we must continue to be an organisation that brings work from overseas that offers another perspective. If not, well, I'm not really sure we have a function.

RW: And finally, is there anything you’ve taken from the experience of putting on a festival during a pandemic that feels like a positive or useful thing to have learnt?

JS: One of the artistic bonuses was discovering that many of the workshops worked just as well online as in-person, and last time that meant one person could be giving a workshop to people on five different continents. We were also really chuffed with our short films last year – these were things we produced because of the pandemic and they turned out to be really wonderful. But I’d also say that it’s been very difficult for people and many, in our situation, would have just given up. But we’ve kept going and we’ve largely kept going – I must say – because Helen is fantastic. She’s supported British artists and been a great force in allowing these people to continue working and giving them hope.


The LIMF runs from 12 January – 6 February 2022 at venues across London and online.

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