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Onwards to 2017! London International Mime Festival talks us through the programme highlights for their 40th year

Gandini Juggling with Smashed

If it weren't for the London International Mime Festival, January in theatre would feel like an extended hangover barely nourished by the increasingly stale leftover crumbs of Christmas. This year LIMF celebrates its 40th anniversary and, remarkably, it's still co-directed by the man who co-founded it: Joseph Seelig, who noted a gap in the 1970s landscape for work that wasn't weighed down by text, and has remained committed to that ethos ever since. His co-director, Helen Lannaghan, still calls herself “a newbie” despite joining the company in 1986. Their combined enthusiasm could power half of London: an hour in their cosy office, up in the roof of Somerset House, proved the cure for every kind of winter blues.

Maddy Costa: As a festival bringing in work from across the continent, what impact have you already noticed following the EU referendum?

Helen Lannaghan: It's had a financial impact, in that we've lost value on sterling against the Euro – it's 15-18% down.

Joseph Seelig: We had bought Euros in advance, which covered our risk to a large extent. But it's a big chunk: we had by then agreed fees with several companies, who want to be paid in their own currency, plus the travel is in Euros. It also meant prospecting in the summer at festivals was more expensive, and there were some difficult situations: our colleagues on the continent didn't feel sorry for us, they just think we're mad.

HL: People ask us: why did you do it? I didn't – but there are people who feel disaffected, and we feel our role is even more important now: we've got to keep those conversations going and not play into the hands of people who feel they've been legitimised to voice unpleasant ideas. We'll keep going as long as we can: the Arts Council has made clear that everyone is going to get the same money, so effectively we're being asked to do more for less money. Buying Euros ahead is a short-term solution but when it comes to the next festival, we'll have to bear the full brunt of buying Euros.

JS: But we're not economists, we're not speculators: we have to accept what's happening to the currency at the moment and just do our best with it.

Euripides Laskaridis / Osmosis with Relic

MC: The fact that the work is non-verbal has always meant it attracts people for whom English isn't a first language: it feels as though that's become a political statement in the past few months.

JS: The festival started because we were interested in non-verbal theatre, and then you realise very quickly that this appeals not only to people who like that sort of thing, but also to people who are hearing-impaired, and then London is a great big cosmopolitan city, yes – but it's not really a political thing.

HL: In Arts Council-speak it's “diverse work for a diverse audience”, and we have discovered through surveys that 54% of our audience is non-British. But also, people come because they want something different: they know they're going to get something from the theatrical waifs and strays field, which is absolutely what we love – the things that don't quite fit.

JS: We do – not that waifs and strays is a phrase I would use! It's interesting that what we have done now informs programming in places like the Edinburgh International Festival: we put on a particular kind of show and people think, 'Ooh, that must be weird, it's in their festival' – but you put it on at the Edinburgh International Festival and people don't think twice.

MC: When this kind of work has reached other festivals, and the general programme of venues such as the South Bank, how do you maintain your sense of your own distinctiveness?

JS: Well we have to try and keep a step ahead. When we've tried to be more commercial, it doesn't work for us, because the audience doesn't expect us to do that, doesn't want us to do that: they want us to be more risky.

HL: We've been asked if we're going to the arts market in Australia this year but it's going to be full of British programmers, so no, there's no point. What we need to busy ourselves with is going to the places where there's work that hasn't been found, that gives something fresh. New artists, new work, new ideas, new experiences. There's also the sense of festival when putting those things together. We're writing a book about the history of the festival and a Russian artist said he views us like a tree: the shows are like individual branches, and it's only when you put them together that you can see the whole tree. It's a lovely analogy.

Familie Flöz with Teatro Delusio

MC: What difference does it make that the festival hasn't changed artistic directors in 30 years, and is still run by the same person who founded it 40 years ago?

HL: You're able to follow shifts and trends, and there is that huge back knowledge: we see almost 300 shows in order to come up with 17 or 18, so the curation process is fairly agonising just to come up with what you think are the strongest shows across a range of art forms. Something that we might see in one year might just not feel quite right in that festival, but the following year – sometimes there's like a vibe, and you think: 'That show we saw, it feels like the right time to do that now.' It's a strange connectivity with what's going on in society. Also, you build up networks, while always getting new voices in.

JS: I think there are, perhaps more than ever, really wonderful creative people putting together the sort of shows we like and can find an audience for. That's why we keep going: we like the people who do this work. Sure, you can't have a proper Christmas because you're sitting there worrying that someone won't get a visa or whatever, but these are tiny details: we're very lucky, as is everybody who works with creative people.

MC: How much do you work separately, how much together?

HL: I'd say we do 90% together. That really helps because we can both talk about the work, talk about the technical needs of it, talk to marketing. It's quite difficult to describe the work, and you stand a better chance if you've actually seen it. Then you can enthuse about it and say: trust me.

SMASHED a Gandini Juggling Performance from Gandini Juggling on Vimeo.

MC: Saying that, shall we have a look at the programme? What are some of your key shows this year?

HL: Opening the festival, Gandini Juggling are going to do a special version of Smashed, which is one of our favourite shows. The original had nine jugglers, this will have more than 20; it started off as a tribute to Pina Bausch and now Dominique Mercy, who has joint custody of Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal, is coming in as outside eye. He saw it in Paris and loved it, so it's lovely to have that connection, it becomes a very special event. The fact that it's our 40th anniversary, it would be easy to say, let's bring back some of our favourite shows, but actually they live better in the memory.

JS: And anyway, it's all about going forward.

HL: So Mathurin Bolze/Compagnie MPTA's Baron's Perches is a follow-on from a show which we did in the Laban 10 years ago: that was a solo, and this is a very beautiful, atmospheric two-hander with a young acolyte Mathurin met at a workshop. His speciality is trampoline and that will be the floor of the set.

Compagnie MPTA / Mathurin Bolze with Barons Perchés 

JS: It's based on a story by Italo Calvino about a young nobleman who gets fed up at dinner with his parents, and of being told what to do all the time; so he goes out into the garden and climbs a tree and stays there for the rest of his life – not in that tree, but in the trees. So it's intelligent, beautiful circus theatre, and if you're interested in that, there's also Joli Vyann's Imbalance, a lovely young British company called Silver Lining, and a French duo called Sacekripa – all doing different work that is about something. It's not just people who are good at juggling: there's got to be a story, there's got to be a point for them to do it.

HL: Puppetry is another strong element of the programme – although puppetry for adults, not children. We do present work that is family-friendly but they're not children's shows: the minimum age is five or six because you do need that level of concentration and quiet. So we've got the crazy Les Antiliaclastes from France, who are doing something quite bizarre based on the Shakespeare authorship debates. It's very dark, very Monty Python, and really strange.

JS: Again, all the puppetry shows are about something: we also have Stephen Mottram, a British-based puppeteer who lives in Oxford, whose new show is about neuroscience. And we have a show from Finland, from the Nordic Puppet Ambassadors, based on the Anne Frank story: you look into a series of peepholes in suitcases and it's very very moving.

HL: And Plexus Polaire, who use life-size mannequins to tell a story based on a book about an arsonist. They've been really ambitious in their form, in that they're using projection, the puppets and live actors. I suppose Thomas Monckton and Theatre Re are the closest to mime: Theatre Re explore memory loss, and Thomas Monckton's show is really stripped-back, it's just his hands, very quirky – a very brave thing for him to do after having such commercial success with The Pianist, to come and do something which is just you, your hands, doing little things. Then there's a live-art side of things.

JS: There's two shows to pick out there: one is by a Greek performer, Euripides Laskaridis, called Relic; it's queer theatre, and it's unlike anything that we've seen before, and it's very odd that it should come from Greece, maybe it speaks about the current madness that's happened there. He takes his time over it, and it's not slow: he's someone you feel completely confident with, you're in the palm of his hand, and you don't know what he's going to do next.

HL: Yes: you don't quite know what to make of it, except that you are in the presence of someone who is a really interesting performer and artist. He works very closely with a sound artist, whom he describes as the second performer, because the timing and the strangeness of all the sound effects that are created as part of the show are really wonderful.

Dewey Dell with Marzo

JS: The second show is by Dewey Dell, they've created a manga comic story that takes place in a crater on a distant planet, and the characters are manga-costumed: it's quite sad, a love story that suddenly comes to a tragic end, and again it's highly original.

HL: We always have someone in the programme doing theatre-clowning: Leandre is Chaplin-esque, his timing is so beautiful, while Sacekripa are more Beckettian clowns, two drunks who have a labour-saving house to do the least amount of work to get the drink.

JS: And then there's a show that's obviously entertaining: Familie Floz's Teatro Delusio is all set backstage at a great opera house, and is almost like Michael Frayn's Noises Off. So there's a great big range of different skills, different ideas – and nothing that requires you to understand a word of English.

The London International Mime Festival is a festival of contemporary visual theatre running from 9th January 2017 to 4th February 2017. You can find the festival's calendar here and find out more about the festival here. Follow updates on LIMF on Twitter at @MimeLondon.