With loving eyes for Latvia

Interview with Bek Berger, curator of the International Festival of Contemporary Theatre Homo Novus and artistic director of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, which produces and presents projects and long-term collaboration programmes together with local and international partners regularly organizing the Latvian Theatre Showcase. This year, with the Showcase Academy, the Institute has chosen to focus on education rather than presentation to provide Latvian theatre industry professionals with additional opportunities to realize their stage art works at an international level. In conversation, Bek reveals the reasons that led to this choice, presents the mentors of the Academy programme and shares personal and professional advice from her experience as a curator, creative producer and artist who has worked internationally for fifteen years.

Why did you decide to hold a Showcase Academy instead of a theatre showcase this year?
Just over a year ago, we were all unable to do anything in the theatre – we were in a lockdown, in complete crisis. But there is this remarkable transition that’s happened from being in lockdown with zero prospects of theatres opening again to this point of overproduction and this rampant showing of premieres that had been made during the pandemic. And now, this time, when we have all this incredible artwork, we thought maybe instead of over-producing and producing another showcase let’s reflect on the skills that would ensure the success [of these performances to travel]. Let’s look for the potential gaps in education, knowledge or practice that exist within the wider industry on every level. Let’s reflect on how to ensure the best possible chance of an international platform being successful, really looking at the tools that are needed to make that happen.

What are those tools?
The main tools are communication tools, marketing language, technical riders, dossiers, all the very technical marketing materials that are simply not required in Latvia, because between each other, we know these things, right? We also want to dive deeper into where each individual artist, artists, theatres and practitioners’ work sits best in the world, because not every artist fits every context. We are looking at the possibilities of artistic resonance, of financial context, of audience. And through the lines of different ideas from curators, we are using this Showcase Academy to identify where the best possible place for each person could be. That’s speculative, of course, but we will try to identify which festivals specifically, or what house or what theatre specifically, would resonate most with the concrete work, or more generally, it would be around a country or its geographical locations. Because the work that might be really appropriate for a festival in a mainstage in Poland probably doesn’t fit a festival in the south of Italy. They’re just not compatible generally, in context. So, it means mapping out this kind of bigger context.
Then we will also be talking about the language and the tools that are required to imagine an artwork in a space, what the tools are that are generally needed, when pitching a work or describing a work in the space… And, given the tools like this, producing videos, producing different ways for curators or programmers to imagine your artwork or an artwork in their space. These are really specific skills that [are necessary] in the performing arts industry as a whole.. It’s about building this knowledge network to be able to make this happen. So, with Showcase Academy, we’re trying to overcome that quicker, by providing these incredible minds to the participants who have been doing this both as programmers and artists.

How did you choose the mentors for the Showcase Academy? Who are these people?
There’s this nice mix of perspectives. But first of all, these are international eyes that look lovingly at Latvia. So, they’re not foreign eyes in a foreign way, they are looking at us through our context, over a longer period of time. So, we have Roman Pawlowski, the theatre curator and deputy artistic director at TR Warszawa, who was the curator of the Baltic Transfer festival in Warszawa (in 2021) and has spent a good year and a half researching what is happening across the Baltic states and really handpicking works to then feed into this whole festival. He’s a playwright, a critic and a dramaturg himself, also the one of the programmers of the house, who already loves Baltic work. Julia Asperska joins us with multiple identities and positions within an international performing arts ecology. She is one of the associate curators of Tanzmesse – the largest European dance platform, she collaborated with performing arts organization and agency Something Great (Berlin) on their collection project and she has been responsible for significant tours from her collaborators in Uruguay. Julia truly has an international practice as she is based in Poland while maintaining all these relations. And then we have Laia Montoya who is both an agent and producer from TINA Agency. She is working in a different way as someone who is looking at the distribution of artists, across borders and contexts. She works with an opera company that is based in Germany, as an individual choreographer, and then everything in between consulting across Germany and Spain. She is working with artists, advising how to better communicate themselves to presenters, to agents, to people that can help them move their workplaces. And she is a big fan of Riga, she came to the Homo Novus festival in 2019 and a symposium called the Possible Futures Forum, she is still connected with many Latvian practitioners. This is an opportunity to bring her back to Riga to also reconnect with artists and offer advice on how better to communicate work abroad.

Will you mentor something, too?
I’ll be there the whole time, more like a supportive person. Obviously, my experience is one of being a programmer here at Homo Novus and being an artistic leader. I think the perspective that I can offer and that is maybe different from everyone else, is the fact that I’m also a touring artist, and have toured more than 20 countries in the last five years with choreographer James Batchelor, so I have this programming and producing perspective on festivals, but as an artist who is quite well known outside of Latvia. So, there’s also this duplicity of my identity and I’m happy to share my learnings.

And what is your practice? How do you choose the artists for the festival?
Well, I’m happy to talk about our curatorial perspectives from the Homo Novus festival, because I’ve never been shy about this. Each year it’s a bit different depending on the needs of many different factors. For example, in 2024, we are hosting the final symposium of the European project, BEPART: Art Beyond Participation and it will actually hold around half the programming, which are works that are dealing with co-authorship and the ethics of working with different communities. The works will come from all around Europe, specifically ones that have been made by our networks, but also ones that may be complementary to that, which leaves very few spots for other things. But we are really wanting to ensure that we are also sharing some of the best practice in theatre, and performing arts right now.
We also have the Baltic Take Over festival next year, where I’d love to highlight some of the works that are going to be created for that platform. I think the way I curate is through intuition that is developed through 15 years of practice. But also spending the time getting to know what is happening, that involves a lot of traveling, seeing hundreds of shows, live and online, and also meeting artists. But generally, we don’t program without a relationship with an artist. And that relationship may have been formed through seeing a work or through knowing a practice. But personally, I don’t cold curate through emails. I think most curators follow a very similar pattern to what I do.

Any tips from the perspective as a touring artist?
As artists, if we want to form relationships, they can happen by visiting a festival and making yourself known. To see, does my work fit here? Could my work engage with this audience? And, sometimes the answer is no. And, it’s okay, I don’t need to pursue this relationship or I could pursue it in different ways. Obviously, platforms help, but they are not a sure thing. And, in terms of all the platforms that with my own artistic practice with the choreographer James Bachelor we discovered that the smallest ones that have been the most effective. We have been a part of seven or eight platforms in our career, which is a lot. But actually, just performing in different contexts shows have produced more future work than the showcasing in platforms. The platforms are helping in a strategy of elevating one’s practice, but a platform alone will not do that work. It has to be in conjunction with many other things. The key is to meet people, make friends and to genuinely be interested in the context in which people curate. But that’s only if you want to tour internationally. I think it’s really important to understand that. And, I think it’s really important to look at one’s work and understand – is this for an international audience or is it specifically local and not really translatable? And, that’s fine. That work should exist here, and it doesn’t need to go elsewhere. Because touring internationally doesn’t mean that it’s the best or better. It’s just a different mode of working.