This week, PAAL Chief Rep and PICT founder Lydia Milman Schmidt sat down with Alice da Cunha, Artistic Director of the Physical Theatre Festival in Chicago to talk about their opening tonight, May 31, and the childcare they’re providing attendees on June 2!
They also have some pretty rockstar conversation about allowing children to be part of the artistic pursuit.
STAY TUNED FOR THE PODCAST RECORDING!
Check it out the interview here:
LMS: I want to start by asking you how the festival originated.
AdC: Both my husband and I studied physical theatre in London, where we met. The London Mime Festival every January brought so much physical theatre to London and I had fallen in love. I worked for a theatre company called Conflict Zone where we spent seven months devising and creating a play. I got really interested in this way of making of theatre. Somebody was reading a Le Coq book during this process and I read it too. I applied for the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) and got on to this journey of making physical theatre.
LMS: Then you came to Chicago, and there isn’t really the same community of physical theatre as there is in London or Europe.
AdC: Yes. We got to Chicago and what I found was an amazing theatre town with over 200 storefront theatres with amazing acting, with amazing storytelling, with amazing theatre professionals, but where this type of physical theatre wasn’t represented. There are companies, of course, doing it, but they’re not the majority of the companies in Chicago. We felt that there was space to explore, to bring in companies and to promote physical theatre in the city?
LMS: How did the first festival happen? I also know it was related to you becoming a parent artist and an artistic director at the same time.
AdC: Marc and I loved the London Mime Festival. My background was as an actor, but I also worked a lot in festival production. When I was leaving London, I was working at the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival in London as their marketing director. We came to Chicago and we always dreamt of doing the London Mime Festival here, a huge physical theatre festival, but it was something we thought we were going to do in our 60s. When we retired. We talked about it as if it was a distant dream.
One day we were in a coffee shop and I was three months pregnant. Marc had worked a lot with Links Hall with his own theatre company. We received an email from Links Hall looking for applications for a curatorial program, and the deadline was that afternoon. We were like, ‘Oh, we don’t have anything to do for the next three hours. Let’s apply. In three hours we dreamt a festival. I think it had been brewing in our minds, because it was the easiest application we’ve ever done in our lives. We applied, we sent and we didn’t think about it anymore. A month or two later, we received the reply saying that we got it. Then it was one thing after the other, and six years later we are here with the sixth edition of the festival.
“My son was four months old when the first festival happened.”
LMS: So you were three months pregnant when you wrote the application. When was the first festival?
AdC: My son was four months old when the first festival happened. I have to say, we always joke that it was a mixture of ignorance and arrogance that made this festival happen. I didn’t have the idea of what having a baby meant. I thought delivery, and then the baby’s going to sleep and it’s going to be fine. That’s it. I didn’t think very much beyond that and the realities of having a baby. For a short period of time I had twins because of the baby and the festival at the same time. We say our third child is the festival.
LMS: How has your experience been as a parent artist, both with the festival and as an actor in Chicago?
AdC: I think it’s been good. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of planning and managing. Free time doesn’t exist anymore. I think one can nurture the other, but it’s just a process that you have to learn. I strive to keep in the mind frame that one can nurture the other, and they can. It’s very easy to tip this balance and become chaos, but I think I’m always trying to put that perspective into place again.
LMS: Are your kids around the festival now? I feel like physical theatre can be very playful and that is an ideal environment to have kids in the room. They, just by the nature of being children, inspire that playfulness. Are they around?
AdC: More and more I want them to be. That’s why we created these programs in the festival, the babysitting for the one play. There’s also a clown that’s going to do a show for kids in the festival. In the beginning they weren’t. I couldn’t handle both at the same time.
Also, I didn’t see that example. I got into rooms where nobody had children. All my friends didn’t have children. In the beginning I kept things very separate. I got a babysitter and my children would stay at home, and then I would go and play this role at the festival and then come back. Of course, during the day I would do errands with them or meet the artists. Everyone was always very welcoming to them. Because I didn’t see it around, I didn’t do that. For auditions I would ask friends to come and take care of my children so I could go to auditions. With my second, and now as I get more at ease with both roles, I want to incorporate them more and I want the spaces that I create for artists to be welcoming of that.
“I want to incorporate them more and I want the spaces that I create for artists to be welcoming of that.“
LMS: You’re providing childcare for a performance on June 2, and then there’s another performance that’s for children. How did that come about?
AdC: I really want to be inclusive in this festival of all people. More and more I become conscious of that. It starts with the programming. I wanted the festival to have close to half women performers, half people of color, half European. I wanted the festival to be inclusive of everyone and then also for the audiences. I want the space to be welcoming to everybody. Parents are a part of that. It’s so hard sometimes to do things with kids because you have to do the things for your kids, therefore you’re not doing what you want to do. Which is natural because when you have a family, the priority becomes what will make the family happier. Why not have one performance of this play that I love? It’s the first play that we’re bringing back to this festival. It was first performed in 2014 and it was a huge success. For all these years we’ve had people begging to bring this play back. Why not make it accessible to parents by providing babysitting next door in the theatre? The family will get into the lobby together, they’ll separate for an hour where the kids will be with babysitters from Willow Tree, where my children go. You’ll watch a play with your partner or your friends, and you’ll meet back in the lobby an hour later and go home together.
LMS: You make it sound so easy. I know this performance hasn’t actually happened yet, but what advice could you offer other producers or theatre companies that want to offer childcare? In the past few years more and more companies want to provide this as something for the audience. Do you have anything that you’ve learned along the way so far?
AdC: It was very easy to do. I was determined to make it work. The doors opened very easily in front of me once I put the thought and talked with people. I called Stage 773 and said, ‘I’m thinking of doing this, but I need a space.’ They’re like, ‘Okay. If it’s only for an hour and a half, of course you can have the space next door. Nobody’s using it. Let’s do this.’ Then I was thinking of who’s going to take care of the children? I need to have some guarantee that they’re professionals. My children go to day care, I’m going to talk to the director at my day care and see if somebody’s available. These are people who are used to taking care of children from 7:00am to 6:00pm. The director was, ‘That’s a great idea. I love the motivation behind this idea. Let’s make it work.’ She sent an email and I have three teachers coming to do it. They’re used to taking care of kids of multiple ages. It was very simple.
LMS: I think that’s the lesson. Once you have the will to do something to make your festival more inclusive to parents, you can do it. It’s not cost prohibitive, it’s not something that’s going to get in the way of the rest of the festival.
AdC: The funny thing is, it is a gain to the festival. I’ve sold more tickets to that Sunday afternoon performance because of the babysitting than to the other performances. I’m also trying to get audiences that I wouldn’t reach otherwise. It’s a gain/gain/gain. It’s a no-brainer for me. I’m getting the sales every day and it’s selling very well.
LMS: That’s incredible. I think that’s amazing. I want to thank you for telling me about this. We’re going to share this through PAAL and hopefully you’ll get more of those ticket sales. It’s always great to connect and share resources from parents and support each other.
Details for the Physical Theatre Festival here!
May 31-June 9