Five years ago, we were two artists (Alice De Cunha and Marc Frost) based in Chicago who decided to start an international physical theater festival. We met in London and were inspired by the variety of work presented there from around the world -– especially each year at the London International Mime Festival. Seeking to provide Chicago audiences with a similar breadth of contemporary and international theater, we applied to a curator residency program at a local arts incubator. Fortunately, the proposal was accepted and the first edition of Physical Festival Chicago came to life over nine days in the summer of 2014. Two years later, the Festival moved to a larger venue, doubling its seating capacity. As the fifth edition is set to open in one week’s time, we’d like to share our top five harwon tips we’ve learned over the past five years for building a festival and keeping it growing at a healthy rate.
# 1 – Program Work That You Love
Our artist-based festival is dedicated to introducing audiences and artists alike to the type of work that we love to see ourselves. This is why we decided to focus on physical theater and to give it the name Physical Festival Chicago. It is definitely the most rewarding part of the festival –- being able to promote the work of fellow artists we admire and having audiences see it for the first time. Nothing keeps us more motivated during all the boring and stressful moments than remembering why we are doing this year after year.
#2 – Hold the Vision
We started with a 9-day festival dedicated to physical theater and five years later we have a 9-day festival dedicated to physical theater. While it can be tempting to try and change your idea and formatting every year, we have found that sticking to what your vision is brings rewards. It helps your audience learn about your Festival more quickly and allows your team to stay clear on what it is you are trying to accomplish. You cannot communicate your vision often enough, to yourself, to your team, to your audience.
#3 – Work with People You Trust
You are only as good as your team. We have been very lucky to find people who are as passionate about the Festival as we are and are willing to work hard to see it come to life. You cannot do everything so at some point you have to delegate. In our case, we actually started delegating in the first year by giving people responsibilities such as volunteer coordinator, house manager, etc. Over time, we have added more staff positions and it’s been great to see some of those positions filled by a healthy mix of original folks as well as new faces. In the end, you want to trust these people to do a great job supporting and representing your vision!
#4 – Respect Your Artists
We have been honored to work with dozens of artists from around the world over the last five years. It is so important to respect your artists and their needs because they are the Festival. Everything else, marketing, graphic design, sales, administration, it doesn’t happen unless the art is great. And for the art to be great, the artists have to be treated well. Sometimes, that means managing expectations, especially if you’re just starting out with your Festival, but treating artists well pays dividends. In the first year, our venue had a lot of charm but lacked some basic resources and we had to work pretty hard to talk the artists through that and make sure their pieces looked as good as possible. Putting that work in then paid off down the line when we moved to a space with more resources and the number of artists applying for the Festival has multiplied. Artists talk to each other and word spread about their experience of the Festival. It’s very gratifying when the artists say they have been treated well.
#5 – Respect Your Audiences
Never forget that the audience is who you do it for. All the work, all the sweat, all the stress! It’s all for the audience. Make sure you engage them in the lobby between shows and whenever you can. They are there because they want the Festival to exist. Even if you feel you are showing them something new or different and they aren’t “getting it” yet, keep listening to what they have to say. We have done audience surveys, and this year we are doing a ‘Meet the Curators’ event which will include a Q+A. But most of all, you have to be in the lobby every night between shows to take part in the conversation. Artmaking is having a dialogue with an audience. Never give up your vision, and equally never stop listening to how that vision is being received by your audience. Ultimately, if you do a good job, they will support your vision and help you refine it over time.
Marc Frost Co-artistic Director Physical Fest USA Marc has started two theater companies and one theater festival. At Tufts University, he co-founded Bare Bodkin Theater Company to give student playwrights a platform for their work. In London, he co-created and curated "Physical" (a scratch night for new pieces of physical theater). Back in Chicago, he founded Theater Unspeakable to create devised, physical theater.
All photos courtesy of Francesca Bonifacio & Physical Festival Chicago