MAYK was fortunate enough to experience two radically different international perspectives in October, taking Still House’s Of Riders and Running Horses to Tbilisi in Georgia and travelling to Seoul in Korea as part of a delegation of UK organisations exploring potential cultural exchange opportunities in 2017/18.
The Tbilisi trip, part of Tbilisi International Theatre Festival, came about as a kind of precursor to a cultural programme in 2018, planned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the twinning of Bristol and Tbilisi (who knew we were twinned with Tbilisi?). Eka Mazmishvili, the Artistic Director of the festival, had seen the show at caravan and rather than wait until 2018, decided to bring it over this year as the only UK show in the festival. The show took place at the far end of Agmashenebeli Avenue, one of the most beautiful and historic streets in the city. This was one of the few times Of Riders... has been presented in a public street and it made for an electric, if a little unpredictable, atmosphere. And there was some pretty magic dancing at the end of the show from the locals.
Arts Council England also supported a small delegation of Bristol cultural organisations to go on a kind of fact-finding mission (I was joined by Jo Bannon from Theatre Bristol, Ruth Hecht from Bristol Museums and Mike Tweddle from Tobacco Factory Theatres). As well as presenting Of Riders and Running Horses, we met with cultural organisations, visited some of the city’s cultural destinations and attended an event hosted by the British Ambassador designed to encourage British business in Georgia.
And then on to Seoul, where PAMS (Performing Arts Market Seoul) was taking place (as a side note I really think it should be called Seoul Performing Arts Market, the acronym is much better) – a huge showcase of international performing arts. Alongside representatives from a range of organisations across the UK, we were hosted by the British Council in Korea and guided through a pretty intense few days of meetings, performances and showcases designed to give us a very well-rounded sense of what’s happening now in South Korean performing arts.
I suppose the grass is always greener, but it felt like in Seoul, the government really understood the value of culture as a driver of regeneration/renewal. One of our most interesting afternoons was at the Seoul Street Arts Creation Centre, situated in an old water-purification plant a little out of the downtown area of the city. This place, which included a huge making space for circus/street arts, work-space and meeting rooms, seemed to be a hive of activity, and surely the kind of place that Bristol could benefit from. We also visited the exquisitely restored Culture Station, a vast labyrinth of rooms, studios and performance spaces situated in an old train station right in the heart of the city and right next to a disused railway line that will shortly become a Korean version of the High Line (one of my favourite examples of community-driven culture driving regeneration).
In both Tbilisi and Georgia, it felt particularly interesting being part of promoting UK culture abroad at a time when our own sense of who we are and how we perceived around the world is being fundamentally challenged. Incidentally, David Cameron’s GREAT Britain campaign featured heavily in both locations, which feels increasingly at odds with an imploding sense of national identity, but hey.
Seeing a little girl come back two nights running to watch Of Riders and Running Horses and hardly being able to hold herself back from joining in at the end reminded me that whatever kind of existential meltdown our own countries might be going through, culture is still such a powerful way of coming together, sharing an experience and reminding ourselves that we’re not all so different after all.