Daniel Goldman in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Daniel Goldman, is the Artistic Director of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival and of Tangram Theatre Company.

Goldman, a graduate in Spanish and Portuguese Literature at Cambridge (Sidney Sussex College), founded in 2007 CASA, an annual festival of Latin American theatre and culture that takes place in London in September-October.

He is young and beaming with enthusiasm. He switches from English (mother tongue) to French (his mother is French) to Spanish, with enviable ease and fluency.

We met at the large hall of Rich Mix Cultural Foundation in Shoreditch. It is a weekend and the place is busy with performances for the young and the coming together of those actively involved with the centre.

This year, 2013, the festival featured plays by companies from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil which were staged at the Pleasance Islington, Rich Mix and for the first time at The Pit, Barbican Centre, whereTeatro de los Andes, in its first visit to the UK, transposed one of the Shakespeare’s great figures to Bolivia, in Hamlet de los Andes while Ecuador’s most famous company, Teatro Malayerba, tackled dictatorship in Argentina in the 70s in La Razón Blindada (The Bulletproof Reason) .

Goldman said: “When you start an international festival in a crypt as we did six years ago, you dream of one day being at the Barbican. It’s a brilliant feeling to be here and to be able to show off two of Latin America’s most ground-breaking theatre companies at a venue that is still the most exciting space for international work in the UK.”

RJ: Why call the festival CASA?

DG: ‘CASA’, in Spanish, means ‘home’. And that’s what we’ve tried to create, a home for the theatre but also a home for the people who come to the festival.

RJ: What was the driving force behind setting up CASA?

DG: I lived in Argentina in 2001 -2002.  I had seen theatre that for me was different to the theatre we make here in England and I wanted to build a bridge between two theatrical cultures.

I was there in a very interesting period, in 2001-2002 six months before the economic crisis and six months afterwards, not just an economic crisis but also a political crisis: there were five presidents in two years, people lost three quarters of their wealth overnight, huge social change was taking place and it was incredible because the theatre was reacting, theatre makers were reacting to those events and creating socially and politically engaging theatre. I think that’s what we miss.

That was fascinating for me and I wanted to share that social-political engagement here. And so I came back from Argentina super-enthused in 2002 and it took me another five years to set up the festival because I’d finished university and I went to a theatre school in Paris and then I needed to work out what the British theatre system was like before I could start this festival.

We started in 2007 in a crypt in Saint Andrew’s Holborn underneath a church and we did plays in translation. The second year, we moved to the Union Theatre and did plays in translation. We were going to do the same in 2009 but we took a long hard look at ourselves and said ‘Actually, are we doing what we set out to do?’ which was to bring the very best of Latin American theatre to the UK. And the truth was that we weren’t because we were presenting work in translation, performed by London performers some of whom were Latin American, some of whom weren’t.

We decided to not do the festival in 2009 and to completely change how we were going to work and in 2010 we started inviting theatre companies from Latin America to perform in the UK. It was a huge shift for us and that’s been the best decision the festival ever made.

This year, 2013, for example, we’ve got five companies performing at the festival from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Some of them are leading theatre companies of Latin America, some of the most influential, and at the same time we’ve got emerging artists, new companies that are just starting out and that’s always been part of our programme – to bring the established very best and then the people we believe are making work of the highest quality but have never had the opportunity to tour Europe. None of these companies, in 35 years, have performed in the UK.

RJ: Does Argentina host foreign theatres?

DG: I went to an international festival in Buenos Aires where every week there are 700 different plays put on, which is three times the amount we have here in London. You could probably combine London and New York, and Buenos Aires would still have more theatre going on than both of them. At the same time, it’s a very different theatre scene because the fringe is 680 shows and there are only 20 mainstream plays. And also plays aren’t done in the way that they’re done here. You don’t have a Monday to Saturday run or a Tuesday to Sunday run, you perform once or twice a week. So each theatre will present six or seven different plays every week. It’s almost like being at a massive Fringe Festival all the time.

I came back to the UK and I discovered that, yes, there was Latin American cinema and a couple of festivals and the occasional movie would make it here. There was a big interest in Latin American music, Latin American art was doing well – the Tate’s had a big Latin American artist every year for the last fifteen years and that’s fantastic but nobody was doing Latin American theatre. You’d get the occasional play like Death and the Maiden but it would be a translation performed by important actors here. There was absolutely nothing that was celebrating or Latin American theatre, such a rich theatrical tradition. Literature, fine. You’ve got someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others who have found a voice here but nothing in theatre and I guess that I saw a hole and wanted to fill it. And that’s how the festival started.

There was a big shift between performing translations and bringing companies over because what happened when you performed in translation was that you got your typical London audience. When we started bringing plays from other countries, suddenly we started reaching the Latin American community in London. And that community is an important community. The current census is 185,000 Latin Americans live in London and that’s growing. There’s also a huge Spanish population which is getting bigger and bigger every year because they’re leaving Spain because of the Spanish crisis, and the Portuguese community.

One of the things that we’ve done is try and reach that community, work within it, engage it through theatre. We do a number of different things: one, all the plays are in the original language with surtitles. Surtitles are not the easiest thing to do in a theatre and it’s one area where we can still definitely improve the presentation of the work but the fact that the shows are in Spanish and Portuguese means that people who might feel excluded from theatre because of language – theatre’s the hardest art form to get into, I think, for a couple of reasons; language reasons and  financial reasons – are now included.

RJ: So you’re targeting the Spanish-speaking community?

DG: Yeah, absolutely. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to reach the normal London theatre going audience, we do. But we do as much as we can to create a linguistic access, a financial access and an information access.

RJ: In what way do you do the financial access?

DG: Our tickets are at £10 across the board at Rich Mix, an arts centre in Shoreditch which has a programme of international work, it’s a fantastic arts centre. There are two theatre spaces and we’ve done talks and workshops here and have used the cinema. At the Barbican we had four events, two performances of two plays (Hamlet of the Andes and The Bulletproof Reason). Here we’ve had about 45 events.

RJ: You say these theatre groups are different from British ones. How would you describe that?

DG: Well obviously it depends play to play but generally it’s not the aesthetic form that’s important, it’s the political agenda. They [the companies behind Hamlet of the Andes and The Bulletproof Reason] don’t create work if they haven’t got something to say. They are independent and receive absolutely no funding.

How is Latin American theatre different? You can generalise all you want and say that one is more political than the other and that changes the tone.  It’s perhaps because the Latin American context is more politicised, we’re more apathetic politically, but these companies both live in little villages, receive no funding, they are under no obligation to do anything that they don’t want to do, and the stories they tell are stories they want to tell and that they feel are necessary. Whether that’s making plays about the legacy of the Argentine dictatorship or whether that’s making plays about state corruption in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Hamlet is not Hamlet, it’s a play that talks about issues in Bolivian society. That’s something that I think we don’t do as well in this country.

I’m a theatre director and my theatre making process is Latin American rather than British. It’s generally independent, it’s political, it’s angry, it has something to say, it’s content first and form second. The form is determined by the content – everything starts from the thing I need to say. That’s different to the way that we work, generally, in this country.

RJ: Apart from the annual festival, are there other activities?

DG: Yes. We also support Latin-American groups in the UK and work with the Latin-American community. To give a few examples of that, we ran a scratch festival where we invite Latin American groups who are based in the UK to present 10 or 15 minutes of a new idea they might have.

Six groups present their work, we have a jury of theatre professional judges, and we give the winner £3,000 to make a full piece of theatre.

The Arts Council support us and are super generous, they appreciate what we do in engaging a new community and starting the habit of going to the theatre. I think the best way of describing it is that we open a door. If people want to come through that door, they’re welcome. If they don’t they don’t, but the important thing for us is to open the door. We have partners and we work with the embassies which support us. We are a charity and this year we raised £120,000 to do the festival and we’ve probably received another £80,000 of in-kind support because the festival costs around £200,000 to put on which is a lot of money and this is only the second year we’ve paid staff salaries.

For the first four years everyone worked for free and we lost money. Now we’re in a more sustainable system with Arts Council support which provides around 60 percent of our funding and that’s fantastic for us because it allows us to do what we do. This year we’ve run community theatre companies and we’ve teamed up with ten social care organisations who work with the Latin American community to give people they work with 150 free tickets to the festival. Next year we hope to make that a subsidised scheme. The aim is that disadvantaged members of the community can come to the theatre. Next year we want to do street theatre, we want to decentralise it from London and take one or two of the companies to Manchester or to Birmingham and to Leeds or to Edinburgh. There’s so much we still want to do and can build, the future’s very exciting for the festival.

RJ: How many people are working with the group?

DG: We’ve got a core team of five then we’ve got people who manage certain projects, interns and volunteers.

RJ: Are they all Latin-American?

DG: Some of them are. In our core team we’ve got a Mexican, a Brazilian, a Bulgarian, an English person and me, and I’m half English half French, so it’s a very international team. Most of our volunteers are Latin-American. The total number of people who work it our team on the festival is about forty or fifty. Our interns are paid postgraduate students from the University of Essex.

RJ: So what’s the plan for next year?

DG: More companies. I don’t know, after the festival ends we have to talk to the venues. We already have a sense of what shows we want to bring, which countries we want to bring to the festival next year like Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, and maybe Peru as well.

RJ: Were you sold out [at this year’s festival]?

DG: Thirteen of the fifteen theatre events we’ve had so far have been full which is fantastic for us, we’ve had a great reception.

RJ: So you’re very optimistic about the future of the festival?

DG: Yeah. I suppose the last thing to say is in two or three years’ time I want there to be either a Latin American Artistic Director who takes over from me or a Co-Artistic Director who’s Latin American. That’s the future of the festival; it needs to be run by Latin Americans so that’s my hope.

Daniel Goldman travelled to Mumbai, India to direct in Hindi for six weeks and in January he goes to the University of Cumbria in Carlisle to direct theatre students, teaching acting, then he’ll direct two plays next summer and at the same time run the festival. So a bit of everything!