In the festival programme, the description of events scheduled for our final day together includes a passage that eloquently captures the spirit and purpose of ICAF.
“Over the past four days – and if we count the residency projects, much longer – we have been exploring sounds of change rising from many different community arts projects. Some are melodic, some rhythmic, some loud and emphatically activist, some soft and empathically caring. These multiple and diverse sounds represent all gender positions and under-represented communities from around the globe. Many different voices, accents, and cultural inflections could be heard in our workshop spaces, on our stages and screens, and at our lunch and dinner tables. And even if we couldn’t hear all of it we instinctively understood the quintessential message underneath them all: that meaningful art created in caring, innovative, and creative joint ventures between artists and community residents is indispensable for tackling the huge challenges that our troubled world faces.”
As a writer, I couldn’t help but notice the use of “passive voice” in the construction of one of the key sentences in this paragraph: “Many different voices, accents, and cultural inflections could be heard in our workshop spaces, on our stages and screens, and at our lunch and dinner tables.” This one sentence embodies the gist of what I would like to call attention to in my last blog today. These voices were heard, and yet none of us could see, hear, and relish all of them. As much as I have thoroughly enjoyed serving as rapporteur for this year’s festival, my reporting has inevitably been meagre. Equipped with just one set of ears and one set of eyes, I could only attend and write about a fraction of the enormous variety of experiences that have been showcased here in Rotterdam. The implications of that reality came into focus during the initial event following lunch at Theater Zuidplein.
Those still present at the festival on Sunday afternoon gathered in a circle in the small auditorium, where we were treated to a dynamic exploration activity facilitated by the delightful Dessa. She is a performer, teacher, organizer, director, playwright, and co-founder/director of Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts (YATTA) based in Dumaguete City, Philippines. True to the etymology of the word “facilitator”, Dessa has a seemingly effortless ability to make things so fun and easy (facile) for everyone present. Despite the large number of people involved, Dessa had us moving kaleidoscopically around the room, connecting with others in pairs, trios, and six or more at a go. Singing and dancing together each time we “docked” at each other’s ports, we exchanged brief stories about our respective experiences at the festival, including what had inspired us and what we plan to adopt into our own work once we return home. Asked to sculpt corporeal images of how we imagine the future of ICAF, specifically ICAF 2026, we naturally produced a whole range of ideas. A theme that sang through all of them (from what I heard as only one set of ears in the midst of it) was an appeal to continue finding ways to make ICAF more robust. By this I mean even more accessible than it already is, even more visible, and even more diverse. Looking back to the opening evening, when Anamaria, Jasmina and Amy stood on the stage to welcome us, this is so clearly the vision that they hold. That night they introduced us to Koh Hui Ling, Co-Artistic Director (with Han Xuemei) of Drama Box in Singapore. Anamaria told us that, during the pandemic, Drama Box became ICAF’s first ever international Hub partner, initiating what will continue to grow into a global network of more hubs so that community artists around the world can better see each other and hear each other. The idea of re-envisioning ICAF Rotterdam as part of a network of hubs rather than the sole and core wellspring, appears to be a direction they are taking.
When I was a graduate student, I bumped into the writings of postmodern theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who introduced me to the term “rhizome.” For those who haven’t yet come across it, a rhizome is a plant structure that grows laterally, or horizontally compared to a plant that grows vertically from the ground up. Deleuze and Guattari played with the applications of rhizomes to characterize human relations and organizational structures that embrace a way of being and expansion that do not rely on a single central source. This is why I chose Rhizome for the theme of today’s final blog for ICAF 2023. It was clear at the closing workshop that our friends in Rotterdam are thinking along these lines. How can we make this work we do more robust? By strengthening the lines that connect us all through networks of theatre companies, arts organizations, individual performers, facilitators, directors, producers and teachers, emerging artists and senior mentors around the globe. Establishing hubs are a starting place. There are plans in the works to build a variety of easily accessible online means to connect laterally with each other. The pandemic anchored our understanding that we can remain tethered to each other even when physical travel is limited. We can build relationships that keep us connected and sharing our learning in real time from month to month, year in and year out. This healthy, vital, rhizomatic community becomes stronger when we are connected with each other and that, my friends, is the future we are creating.
Following Dessa’s workshop, we all flooded outside to take part in a celebratory parade around Zuidplein Theatre with rhythm and music makers led by MetX’s BRUiTAL from Belgium. Along with the joyful sounds there was, of course, a joyful sight. They brought with them a 6-meter-high new moon that, with expert rope handling by volunteers, was rolled through the streets and public spaces, heralding new journeys and new adventures to come.
For the penultimate event, we gathered again inside the main auditorium to hear the glorious sounds of voices and instruments offered by The Sheikhs Shikhats & B’net Chaabi led by Laïla Amezian with Laurent Blondiau. Their songs based on the art of Aïta (literally ‘call’ in Arabic) were traditionally practised as “a means of transmitting a collective and sometimes revolutionary message.” What a stunning emblem for the work we do.
And finally, in the theatre lobby, we took our good time saying farewells to one another. We had confirmed that nothing, not even a global pandemic, can derail the community we have built. There was such tremendous gratitude in the air for the hard work that Jasmina, Anamaria, Amy, and the entire family of co-creators and makers of this festival past and present have put into making a beautiful dream into a reality. The grand new moon that MetX’s BRUiTAL brought to the festival this year is an apt metaphor of what is to come. Let us all pick up a rope, share the work of keeping it in balance and aloft, and together move it forward rolling ever father and further along the path that lies ahead.