While my passport would confirm that I'm a fifty years old Athenian, I understand myself rather as a citizen of the world. I have lived in different countries and have discovered that the status of the 'foreigner' makes me feel quite at home. That's because it allows me to be an observer, which is something very natural to me. Being an observer does not mean staying outside the social and political reality of the place I live in - quite the contrary. This, for me, is the real meaning of citizen: not connected to citizenship, tied to a birthplace, but part of the place in which one lives and works. In every new place, I'm fully immersed and devoted.
I have lived in Italy, France and Germany, and I speak these countries' languages as a native speaker. I have lived for shorter periods in the UK and the USA and my English is fluent as well. A language for me is timbre and rhythm, and, probably due to my musical background, I learn it quite fast which allows me to adapt without any difficulty to different places and cultures – at least so far within Europe. Of course, apart from Greece, the country closest to me is Germany, as I have lived and worked there for a good thirteen years.
Although I first studied music and worked as a young pianist, I was always attracted to the stage, so naturally I was led to theatre. While officially I was doing my doctorate in musicology in Paris, 'unofficially' I was doing everything related to arts and culture: theatre at the Lecoq School, jazz, street theatre, dance and cinema. In addition philosophy courses with Julia Kristeva and semiotics with Umberto Eco. Things weren't easy and I had to live with very little money, but I didn't want to set my mind on a career before I knew what I wanted. I needed to test not just the medium but also my own skills. And I was curious about everything. Curiosity is a great motivator. Looking back, I know that I wouldn't want to have done things differently. I met amazing people who influenced me and I learned a great deal. Besides, if I had rushed to a career, I would have compromised myself, my sense of who I am. Now, I can comfortably say: I'm a political animal that does theatre.
I'm a theatre director who is interested in new writing, in contemporary theatre texts, but also classic works from the international repertoire. I move comfortably in different genres and different countries. I also often translate the plays I direct. I have translated and directed works by Sarah Kane, Elfriede Jelinek, Saara Turunen, Peter Verhelst and others. I like working with large groups of performers and enable them to become an orchestra of voices when working on plays that allow the use of a chorus. I did it in directing ancient Greek Tragedy in Hambourg, Dantons' Death by Buechner in Berlin in 2011 but also in the directing of Jelinek's About Animals in 2010 and of poetic texts by Kavafis, Brecht and Mueller last year in Athens in a scenic composition of my own. However, I can just as easily focus on a single actor and work on a monologue. I also like contemporary opera and working with contemporary choreographers in dance-theatre projects. I directed an opera of Maurice Ohana in New York's La MaMa back in 1996, but also operas of various contemporary composers in Germany and Italy. I have worked as a director or as a dramaturg with many choreographers in Italy, Germany and Greece in interdisciplinary dance-theatre projects.
Programming in a cultural field requires that you have a deep understanding of the type of arts you programme as well as of the framework in which you programme them. Contrary to what some people might think, programming arts for a festival is different from programming for a specific venue which again is different from programming for a city organisation and so on. Not least of all, because they have different audiences.
My own ability as a programmer is based on the fact that I have an excellent knowledge of very different types of performing arts, either in theatre or circus or street theatre or music or dance or even literature presented in public spaces, or installations or any kind of performance. And I have a good knowledge of educational work as well. I have studied and worked on many artistic fields and I keep myself informed with the artistic production not locally but internationally. Having worked in different countries and frameworks, I understand how the production conditions vary in different contexts and I have learned to adapt fast in new environments. I have developed a great flexibility in order to understand production situations, mentalities and expectations, and I take all these into consideration in my programming work.
I am not particularly interested in any star system. What drives me is merit, craft and artistry. For that reason, I have been considered as unconventional and different from other programmers. When I receive applications, I am interested in the concept and the craft. I pay less attention to whether the work matches my personal taste or if it is trendy or if it suits a specific agenda or ideology. It is the idea and the craft that interests and excites me.
Of course, I don't only rely on receiving proposals; I also value my ability to commission work, to imagine possible collaborations and projects. I challenge artists to go in directions they haven't been before, to try new things, to form collaborations they haven't yet imagined. This does not mean that I encourage artists to do the things that I would do as an artist. I spend time with their work, I 'read' their own potential, discover possibilities for them. In a sense this is also the job of the curator.
No programming should take place without consideration of the audience. You have to know the audience you are programming work for. But this knowledge should not limit you as a programmer. It doesn't mean that you will fulfill their expectations, but rather that you have to understand them in order to challenge and expand their cultural horizon. It's not about stroking their ears, but challenging them and taking them further. It's not about serving them what they think they want. As a programmer, you have to challenge them, and that involves respecting them and taking them seriously. This is the essence of the job, in my opinion: to invite artists whose presence wasn't guaranteed, and to do the same with the audience.
This is how I worked in the Olympic Games of Athens in 2004, where I headed up the Cultural Programme. This post held the responsibility of designing and implementing all the cultural programmes that were happening during the games, in and outside the Olympic venues. Practically, this meant a programme with very different sections, with different audiences (spectators of the athletic events, or the athletes themselves, people of the city, events of the torch relay). It meant hundreds of events. And, although the Olympic Games was of course an international event with very strong commercial aspects, and complicated issues relating to sponsors' interests, within the overall political agenda of the games, I worked in the way I explained. It was hard work but it certainly paid off.
In the case of Cultural Capital of Europe - Patras in 2006, where I held the post of the Artistic Director, there were more complications. I got appointed at the very last moment, and I needed to do within a few weeks things that would normally need three and four years of preparation. What I was really asked to do was not the 'normal' job of the artistic director, but a rescue operation of the 'five minutes before the catastrophe' sort of thing. My high achievement was that it did actually happen. Against all odds, and having an enormous pressure from specific local lobbies, reactions from the internal organisations and also from the central government, and with the local press trying to sabotage it all the way. But the Cultural Capital of Europe - Patras 2006 did take place: the programme was rich and challenging, with a great number of unexpected events, with bold programming, with international artists and imaginative collaborations.
Now I am seeking new challenges. Ideally I would love to work in a framework where I could employ all aspects of my artistic identity: the programmer and the director, the teacher and the researcher. Most importantly, somewhere where it would be meaningful and make a difference. If you know of such a place then let me know and I'll be there.
October 21 - November 19, 2013
4 week intensive lab with final demonstration/work-in-progress at Russian repertory theatre
Only several spots are available for international participants.
The four-week Lab in Russia is inviting experienced performers from different parts of the world with strong background and versatile skills seeking international network opportunities to find new collaborators and to start new projects. Discover, create and exchange the boldest ideas for contemporary performance together with colleagues from Russia and different countries!
The working languages are English and Russian.
Russian Visa support and inexpensive accommodation are organized for participants.
The nearest international airport - Moscow Domodedovo Airport.
More information: http://www.iugte.com/projects/dancelab
Mike van Graan graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the early eighties, having majored in English, and with a BA Honours degree in Drama. He is currently registered at UCT’s Drama Department for a Masters degree where he is exploring the (relative absence of the) theme of HIV/AIDS in mainstream, professional theatre since 1994.
Prior to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, he served in leadership positions in numerous anti-apartheid cultural NGOs such as the Community Arts Project, Congress of South African Writers and the National Arts Coalition. He was appointed as a Special Advisor to the first Minister responsible for arts and culture in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, where he played an influential role in helping to shape post-apartheid cultural policies.