FESTIVALS Playing home

Journeys Festival International opens in Leicester on August 23 before travelling to Manchester and Portsmouth with its showcase of the work of refugees and asylum seekers, created by ArtReach, the contemporary arts development agency

Maria Alyokhina, Masha, is the Pussy Riot singer who was jailed for two years after the band’s anti-Putin performance 2012 and a heroine for freedom-loving young people around the world, and many not so young. Masha is in this country to make her acting debut as part of an adroitly timed festival of displaced artistic tal- ent, the culture of the refugee. It opens in Leicester later in August as Journeys Festival International and moves on to Manchester and then Portsmouth. It goes ahead despite one hoped-for European grant being denied on the day of the European referendum, while another is still pending.

Masha has teamed up with the extraordinary Belarus Free Theatre (BFT - and pictured together here in rehearsal), the Minsk-based company forced underground after a Russian crack-down following the refusal by Belarus to support an invasion of Ukraine in 2014. BFT’s founders, Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin, both human rights activists, along with associate director Vladimir Scherban, are exiles in the UK and having to work with their actors via Skype, and hoping for political asylum here which so far has been withheld.

But in the meantime, they have been commissioned by the cultural development agency ArtReach to create a centerpiece for journeys, Burning Doors, that focuses on the experiences of three activists - Masha, the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky who was jailed after setting fire to the doors of Lubyanka Prison in Moscow (providing the play’s title), and the Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov who is serving a 20 year sentence for allegedly plotting acts of terrorism in the Crimea, which he denies. “We don’t have time to sit and wait” says Khalezin. “The people who desperately fight for art, who desperately say what they think, and sacrifice so many things, are worth our solidarity and support”.

“It is an extraordinary piece” says David Hill, one-time theatre director and founder and director of ArtReach which is celebrating 20 years as a multi-disciplinary consultancy. “The sto- ries are harrowing and the passion is palpable, but the very high quality of the production makes it a great piece of theatre.”

David Hill was a director who found money scarce to put on new plays, so turned to fundraising. He was good at it, and was asked by arts organisations to help. For a theatre in Blyth he was able to get £60,000 from the European Social Fund, and while still working as a theatre director found his meagre salary augmented by his budding consultancy.

In 1996 he was asked to take on the fundraising for a new arts centre in Maidenhead, Berkshire by formulat- ing an application to the new National Lottery Fund, and decided to formal- ise his operation by creating ArtReach and basing it there - the Norden Farm Centre for the Arts opened in 2000 at a cost of £9m, more than £5m of it from the lottery, and is now flourishing.

Capital projects became ArtReach’s specialism, with projects from the People Centre in Leicester to the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, but then it began responding to requests for business planning advice, and help with programming event direction that led to its festivals strand. Between 2005 and 2007 it created the Three Cities Festival for Derby, Leicester and Not- tingham.

ArtReach created its own festival format in 2005 following its involvement with a Mexican embassy project that developed into a Nottingham event and then one in Trafalgar Square in 2008. By 2015 there were Night of Festivals manifestations in Lincoln, Hounslow, Barking and Leicester, where ArtReach now has a second office (and where Hill serves on the board the Curve theatre). Night is now part of the European Freedom Project of which ArtReach is a partner in with institutions in Germany, Bulgaria and Romania, and the 2016 version has toured to Gabrovia (Bulgaria), Hamburg, Hounslow and on August 6 and 7 it was at More London next to Tower Bridge.

Then, on the recommendation of the Arts Council with which ArtReach had worked in the past, the Refugee Council asked Hill to create an event celebrating the artistic excellence hidden in the cultures of refugees and asylum seekers in this country, and the result was Journeys. He worked with partners such as Oval House and Counterpoint Arts to source funding from ACE and the Baring Foundation to create online sup- port for refugee artists. That resulted in the first Journeys in Leicester in 2013, which encouraged the Arts Council to make its recent grant of £655,000 over three years from the Ambition for Excellence Fund.

“We’d built relationships with refugees in the East Midlands, and we were able to put on platform events, like a band playing at Nottingham Contemporary and visual art on the mezzanine at The Curve” Hill says, “but we thought it needed to be de- veloped. We made a list of other cities with refugee communities and sought partners to work with in Manchester and Portsmouth.”

Opening on August 5, the Leicester edition has Burning Doors at The Curve, a visual art show, Look Up, with art displayed on city buildings, the Container Project in which installations, pop up exhibitions and performances take turns in a shipping container set centrally, and Coffee Shop Conversations when refugees share their experiences and observations with the public over coffee and cake.

Major museums, theatres and arts centres in Manchester and Portsmouth are partners in Journeys and are programming for October, with Burning Doors appearing respectively at the Contact Theatre and the New Theatre Royal, but for each city a different programme is being tailored. The attitudes of Portsmouth, its council and its people are different from those of Manchester – the first voted heavily for Brexit, the latter and Leicester the other way.

Journeys will develop over the next three years with funding help from the local authorities, sponsors and charitable trusts, but hoped for funding from Europe so far has failed to materialise: a bid to one fund was turned down on June 24, the day after the referendum vote, and the response to another is still awaited.

“It is such a poignant time and such a universal issue that it has to be addressed, and by focusing on the extraordinary creative accomplishments of refugees we can help to negate prejudices” Hill says. “Whatever the politics, climate change is ensuring the people around the world are on the move. Before Brexit we had hoped to extend Journeys overseas, and maybe we can find away through partnerships, but we are determined to estab- lish it here and hope that these three cities and more in the future will make it their own.”


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