A short history of ICAF
The International Community Arts Festival (ICAF) began in 2001, when Rotterdam was European Capital of Culture. The organizers of this high-profile event had offered some funds to the Rotterdams Wijktheater [‘Rotterdam Neighborhood Theatre’, RWT for short] to organize an international community theatre festival. It was a time when, in the Netherlands, terms like cultural diversity and participation in the arts had begun to appear in arts policy papers and in cultural debates. For RWT, however, these issues were far from new. After all, the company had been co-creating original theatre productions for, with and by residents of popular neighborhoods in Rotterdam since 1992. And long before that, its co-founders, Peter van den Hurk and Annelies Spliethof, had already been doing similar work in the east and south of the Netherlands. Just like their colleagues of Stut Theatre in Utrecht, the other Dutch community arts pioneer, they had their roots in radicalized theatre academies and the message-driven political arts scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The first festival in 2001 introduced the English term ‘community theatre’ to the Netherlands. It also provided a relatively broad audience the opportunity
to become familiar with what that possibly could be through debates, lectures and live performances on the stages of Zuidplein Theatre. Participating groups included community-based companies from Brussels, Antwerp, Berlin, London and Los Angeles.
The second festival in 2003 focused on methodologies of how to create and how to produce community theatre. This time, the event was a mix of discussions, workshops in which guests demonstrated (or talked about) their methods, followed by performances in the evenings. These included shows by companies from Lima, Soweto, the Bronx, and Europe.
The third festival in 2005 was the last one to exclusively concentrate on theatre. By this time, the term ‘community art’ had well and truly landed in the Netherlands and the practice was quickly diversifying all over the country. It was a trend that could no longer be ignored. The 2005 edition of our event also contained embryonic versions of elements we would continue to develop in later festivals: informal talk shows, extended and much more interactive workshops, and our very first artist-in-residency. We were no longer satisfied only to showcase or verbally present work; we wanted to leave something behind that would last. Creating work together within the confines of the festival seemed a productive way to do just that. Besides including other art forms, after 2005 we also let go of the two-year rhythm. The biennial frequency was putting to great a strain on our staff at the Rotterdams Wijktheater. They were already making three original participatory productions each year and anyone familiar with our field knows how intensive and unpredictable that work can be.
After serving as an advisor to Peter van den Hurk for three festivals, in 2008 Eugene van Erven came on board as programmer. The opening night of the 2008 festival, which for the very first time was now renamed ICAF, was a resounding success. The first performance of the festival, a large-scale show involving close to one hundred participants to celebrate the 100th anniversary of soccer club Feyenoord, filled the main auditorium of Zuidplein to capacity with soccer supporters mixed with festival visitors from around the world and television crews in the aisles. The remainder of the 2008 festival was an equally exhilarating experience. For the first time, we managed to present community arts from almost all the continents. We had guests from Asia, Africa, South America, North America and Europe. We also succeeded in including other art forms like film, music, circus, visual arts, and dance. In each festival we live and learn, also from the feedback of our guests. 2008 was particularly rich in that respect. It was also the last festival directed by Peter van den Hurk, who retired in 2010. And it was the first festival in which Eugene van Erven had the good fortune to work with Anamaria Cruz as a producer. Since then they have formed an inseparable team. In many ways Anamaria embodies the spirit of ICAF: the smile, the warmth, the intercultural communication, the improvisational and organizational skills, the ability to stretch one Euro into a hundred, and a sheer limitless determination to do whatever it takes to realize whatever crazy ideas we dream up.
In 2011, we took our interdisciplinary and global ambitions to another level. For example, two weeks before the festival proper we organized five artist-in-residencies in different neighborhoods. These featured art disciplines that were still relatively underdeveloped in the Dutch community art sector. Dance United from England, for example, went to work with a group of troubled youngsters in the Moerwijk neighborhood of The Hague. They came up with a spectacular contemporary dance performance. Swedish choreographerPaloma Madrid from Bottkyrka Community Theatre collaborated with local participants to create a site-specific dance performance in someone’s apartment. And Favela Forçafrom Rio de Janeiro came with performers, a theatre director and a video artist to work with Capeverdian and Caribbean youth on a musical multimedia performance. Art exhibits, concerts (with the Allstar Refjudzji Band from Prague), workshops, seminars (with Professor Jan Cohen-Cruz from the USA), an interactive choral recital (withMerlijn Twaalfhoven), and all manner of performances (including truly impressive Aboriginal shows from Australia and Canada) completed the picture. In hindsight, 2011 may well have been a turning point for ICAF. More than before it caused a buzz that visitors to our event took home and passed on within their own networks. As a result, we received requests and invitations from all over the world, which in turn led to new contacts in places like Portugal, Spain, and Francophone Africa. One of the suggestions we had received after ICAF-5 was to open up more space for different kinds of conversation in addition to the more academic seminars. Someone else challenged us to become more visible as a festival outside the Zuidplein Theatre building, on the streets of Rotterdam. From there, it was not a huge stretch to come up with ‘space’ as our festival theme for ICAF-6.
With ‘space’ as our theme, in 2014 more than ever before we programmed events outside: an Aboriginal storytelling performance by Debaj from Canada on one of the harbor wharves, a colorful and musical streetparade co-created with many local participants under the supervision of Catalina García of Barrio Comparsa from Colombia and a fully functioning outdoor bread-oven built by Peter Schumann of Bread & Puppet.We did not only consider ‘space’ in the geo-physical sense, with site-specific performance and community arts in public space, we also considered ‘space’ in the representational sense: art with, for and by under-represented groups who wish to express who they are on their own terms and in their own voice, body language and cultural taste, or who delegate representational power to professionals to do it for them. Elderly Caribbean women from Bristol, inmates from the Quatre Camins prison outside Barcelona and mentally challenged puppeteers from Poland all fall into this category. We also looked at ‘space’ in terms of the current cultural debate on the social relevance of art. We wanted to explore what might be a legitimate place for community arts in society and in the cultural field. Associated with this question is ICAF’s conviction that powerful, beautiful, moving, unsettling community arts products should not be restricted to platforms in peripheral neighborhoods alone, but should also reach regular arts consumers so that peripheral perspectives and little heard voices and accents also receive a platform in the center. And the participatory processes that generate this unusual art open up creative spaces in the mind, stimulate the imagination, bring collaborators in contact with different ways of being, and explore alternatives to current realities. They are, in fact, creative laboratories for the future.
ICAF itself is also a laboratory of sorts. We experiment, we investigate, we critically reflect, we succeed, we fail and if we do we always try to fail better the next time. Our artist-in-residencies and workshops are perhaps the clearest examples of this. In 2014, we had three residencies that we developed together with CAL-XL, a Dutch national networking organization for community art, among which were multimedia artist Ludmila Horňáková from Kosice, Slovakiaand choreographer Filip van Huffel of Retina Dance Company. At ICAF-6 we furthermore created space for sharing transferable methodologies. In the Netherlands and many other places, community art projects tend to be (and remain) dependent on trained artists. But if culture is a basic human right, as many believe, then ways of decreasing that dependency might also be worth looking at. For that reason, we invited Insightshare, the world’s leader in participatory video, and the Philippines Educational Theatre Association to come demonstrate their methods in hands-on training sessions.
As you can see, ICAF is a temporary school, a lab, a gathering, a seminar, a meal, a dance, a moveable feast, and, yes, also very much a festival in the festive sense, both for insiders and outsiders. We clearly have a history. We are connected to a worldwide cutting edge and highly relevant arts movement. We hope, finally, that our words and images intrigue you enough to come find out more about it at our next ICAF in 2017. So don’t be a stranger.