I went to Krakow last weekend for IETM. This was my first visit to Poland. It was my first IETM. And I went as we were strongly advised by a British Council officer earlier in the year that it was the way into developing better pan-European links.
IETM is the Informal European Theatre Meeting. Part conference, part discussion forum, part festival, part booze-fest, it has been going for around 30 years and draws people from the world of dance and theatre from across Europe and from much further afield – Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US were the homes for a number of people I met. I rocked up after an insanely early start and cramped Ryanair flight to be greeted by a stunning city bathed in bright sunshine and fulfilling everything that people had told me in terms of it being a pretty and ancient town. OK it didn’t stay like this with rain and freezing weather but it was the most stunning introduction to a city I’ve had in some time.
Krakow is the former capital of Poland. It is the cultural seat hosting a huge number of theatres and festivals, home to the university at which Nicholas Copernicus discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, and in more recent history the Nazi command centre that sought to implement the horrifying ‘final solution’ at nearby Auschwitz during World War 2. Today, it attracts tourists by the coachload. There were groups large and small meandering through its cobbled streets, and I was struck by the sheer number of young people – students and tourists alike, taking in the sights, and supping the delicious local beer.
For such a touristy town, it really didn’t feel overrun by gawpers, or packed with people trying to get money out of the visitors. In fact, the Polish people I met were friendly and warm, willing to talk, hospitable and seemed happy that we were there. So late in the season this was truly a surprise.
The meeting took place over a number of locations around the main, enormous market square in ancient palaces. There was the newcomers introduction fuelled by vodka and speed dating (networking really, but on the same model!) to a news sessions where participants introduced themselves and drank vodka if they went over time in old master filled former ballrooms; to plenary sessions about how the arts can and should respond to the world financial crisis, cuts to funding and arguments with politicians hosted in a modern theatre created in an ancient assembly hall, the whole weekend was packed with talking. A lot of talking. But in a good way. Talking about art, about performance, about the wider world and what it is like where you come from, about ideas for visits and collaborations, about the work we’d seen or the people we’d met or the session we’d sat in, or through, or avoided. It’s exhausting talking to strangers all weekend, mainly in English that puts all of the Brits to shame in their own foreign language abilities. Late night drinking was the place to unwind, and really relax with new friends in different bars, mainly fuelled by bison grass vodka.
The meeting is categorically not about selling shows or products or touring. Taking away that pressure really opens up the possibility of getting to know someone and understanding their situation. Which in turn leads to collaboration and touring and shows. It’s a really good approach to avoid a market place and let arts professionals talk. I came away with an enormous stack of business cards, lots of thoughts about other places and challenges to how we do things, and hopefully the start of some new relationships with venues and companies in other parts of the Europe that we can take Actors Touring Company to in the future.