Liverpool International Theatre Festival - Paul Fowler on adjudicating a truly unique event.
The town of Liverpool stands at the mouth of the River Mersey, a friendly, bustling community with a thriving arts scene and an international theatre festival – LITF -that has been going for 30 years.
But this is not the Liverpool of the Liver building and Red versus Blue football. This is Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada, a picturesque town that’s quiet, verging on the sleepy – home to around 2,500 people – where I recently spent a week as their festival adjudicator.
The event runs every two years in normal times but its more than three years since I was asked to officiate there, just before Covid 19 interfered to change all our lives put everything on hold.
It’s a tribute to the fantastic festival team of volunteers that there was never any doubt the event would go ahead eventually… but it was scheduled and postponed three times from its original date of October 2020.
Here in the UK we are learning to live with Covid 19, but in other parts of the world things aren’t quite so simple and a number of teams – or troupes as they call them over there – proved unequal to the battle against red tape, travel restrictions and the rising costs of pretty much everything.
Companies from Uganda and Mali, Georgia, Egypt and Algeria had to withdraw – a couple of them at the last hour. But others battled on and a delightful company from Morocco secured their visas just a day or so before the event was due to begin.
Battling bureaucracy, cajoling embassies to speed up visas and generally encouraging teams to persevere were new Artistic Directors Vic Mills and Neil Maidman, who hail not from Nova Scotia but Wales.
The pair had first travelled to Liverpool N.S. as participants back in 2008 when they took their Welsh Final winning production of David Tristram’s Last Tango…. to the competition. They fell in love with the delightful event and its warm-hearted ethos, making numerous friends and subsequently holidaying there. They returned again with plays in 2012 and 2018, and it was then that the organisers asked them if they would bring fresh ideas and energy to the event then scheduled for 2020.
“We agreed pretty much straight away. We love the festival and the locality and for us it was a great opportunity to become even more involved,” recalls Vic, a former secondary school deputy head who now runs a professional theatre company.
When Covid struck they created an online festival called Short Cuts which attracted entries from all over the world and kept the Liverpool International Theatre Festival on the theatrical map.
This year’s event was a true celebration of community theatre in all its variety, beginning with a non-competitive opening night which featured a parade of teams through the town to the theatre – led by the town’s own RCMP “Mountie”; the playing of the national anthems of all six competing teams, as well as the host nation; a welcome dance and song from members of the area’s First Nation indigenous people – the Mi’kma’ki; and a spectacular entertainment from the Smile Group of Canada – a fast-paced music, juggling and puppetry show that was a real visual delight.
The competition began the following evening with the Belgian entry The Raise, based on a 1968 novel by Georges Perec and freely adapted by the company – the wonderfully named Lucky Leo. The simple premise – one employee is about to ask their boss for a raise – was played out in multiple sequences featuring stunning physical theatre, disciplined ensemble playing and constantly evolving stage pictures that were kaleidoscopic in impact. Versatile costumes were shed bit by bit along the way to indicate the stripping back of individuality and it was all played out to a complex industrial soundtrack that was rather like a combination of Kraftwerk and a circus band. It reminded me a little of Chaplin’s Modern Times and was a hugely impressive performance to open the festival.
LITF is unique in many ways, not least in its demands upon the adjudicator. In pursuit of a level playing field for the companies, it had been decided beforehand that I would not read each play as would normally be the case. That took care of the language difficulties. So the process was that I took to the stage immediately at the end of the performance and gave a short appreciation of what we had all just seen.
The following morning teams, organisers and audience members are invited to a “coffee critique” where a fuller adjudication, followed by a question and answer session took place in the local curling club – HQ for the festival. This was certainly a first for me! All the teams and the highly theatre literate audience members participated fully in this forum style event and everyone went away from the 40 minute or so sessions with plenty of food for thought. Me too!
Second up was Guilsfield Amateur Dramatic Society from Wales, invited following their appearance at the 2022 Welsh Finals. Their production of Nick Warburton’s Music Lovers could hardly have provided a bigger contrast in theatrical style and approach. A realistic single set play which seems to begin as a wooing but ends with a murder, it featured solid performances from its trio of actors and provoked lively discussion at the coffee critique session.
Theatro Movimento from Mexico gave us a rather macabre piece of theatre in which a giant guillotine dominated the stage throughout the tale of jealousy, infidelity and revenge. In their original production the dominant instrument of dispatch had been solidly made of wood and metal, but the strictures of air travel rendered that impossible so the resourceful company concocted a convincing ten foot guillotine out of cardboard and plastic tubing that could be packed away in a holdall. The result was a gripping piece of comi-tragic theatre with top class performances.
Next up was the Little Theatre of Norfolk Virginia from the USA with their four woman rendition of The Commedia Rapunzel – part panto, part fairy tale and all action. With just a costume cart and a ten foot ladder the versatile foursome played everything from ogres to horses to a prince and a Witch Monkey (yes really!), swapping costumes, props, headgear and roles with energetic ease in a pacey performance that left the audience breathless. It was hugely entertaining and a fitting final directorial appearance for retiring director John Gillis.
The performance of the Moroccan company, Fantasia began as the audience entered the theatre with a mint tea ceremony, complete with traditional biscuits, and henna tattoo demonstration. Their play Head to Head by director Anouar Hassany, proved a complete contrast - a moving and unflinching examination of the difficulties, triumphs and decisions faced by conjoined twins – a boy and a girl. The characters had the chance for surgical separation but one of them would die… Through a combination of gritty realism and expressive dance the moral dilemma was examined and the right conclusion reached. And all this was performed in English – for the cast, their fourth language. It’s fair to say the play itself is a work in progress, but what an achievement!
Last up were the Italian company – Avanzi di Scena Cultural Association from Civitavecchia, just outside Rome. Their play, The Italian Movie Factory, was a multi-media celebration of post war Italian Cinema and its directors, actors, musicians and composers. It featured physical theatre, music, projected movie extracts, modern dance and a cast of seven that filled the stage with creativity and moved the audience to tears of laughter one minute and emotion the next. It was a worthy winner of the overall festival and also carried away the audience appreciation award.
LITF is a truly unique festival that involves the whole community whether as volunteer drivers, team hosts, caterers or in a myriad of other roles. It attracts companies of all abilities from all over the world and if you ever get a chance to take part in any capacity, I urge you to seize the opportunity with both hands.
Belgium's Lucky Leo in The Raise
Festival winners Avanzi di Scena from Italy
They always get their man! Adjudicator and his new best mate