Culture Editor Olivia Boyce interviews Aaron Wright, Artistic Director of Fierce Festival, and talks everything from politics and art to performance rabbits

Recent graduate BA English, current MA Literature and Culture student. Print Editor for Redbrick Culture. Appreciator of all things literary or stagey. Often found singing musical theatre tunes when I think no-one is watching.
Images by Fierce Festival , Alex Eisenburg , Esteban Wautier

Aaron Wright is the Artistic Director of Fierce Festival, a festival of performance that takes place in Birmingham between the 16th and the 22nd of October. Culture Editor Olivia Boyce sat down with Aaron to discuss the festival, the local arts sector, and advice for students interested in the arts.

Hi, Aaron. I wondered if you’d like to introduce yourself and the festival in your own words?

Fierce is a festival of international performance, and it has been going since 1997. It was founded by Mark Ball, who then went on to run the London International Festival of Theatre, and now is working on the new Factory Arts Centre in Manchester. Originally, Fierce was called Queerfest, and had a focus on queer art and culture, but it changed the name to Fierce after a couple of years – I think that we realised that we were actually interested in a wider, more intersectional politic, and so the change reflected that. We’re not an LGBT+ festival in that sense, but the festival is informed by a queer politic.

The festival itself features a really broad range of performance work, from experimental theatre and dance to performance art, installation, public engagement projects, and also things like club nights and parties. There’s a real interest in Fierce about blurring and f*cking with our understandings of lowbrow and highbrow culture and what that means, and in making experimental practices and work that might be considered challenging more accessible and approachable.

'There’s a real interest in Fierce about blurring and f*cking with our understandings of lowbrow and highbrow culture...'

With it being such a large programme of events, can you give us a taste of what sort of thing those attending can expect?

One of the big events is our Grand Opening on Wednesday 18th October, of our festival hub space. We have this massive cavernous warehouse space in Digbeth that we are taking over for the week of the festival and doing loads of events down there. That opening night is essentially a sort of party, but people can come down, it’s totally free, and from six till ten we are going to have different performances all over the building. We have a piece called Duchesses where two dancers, Francois Chaignaud and Marie-Caroline Hominal, hula-hoop naked until they are completely exhausted and can’t hula hoop anymore. We have a piece by a Swedish duo called Quarto, who always carry this mile-long piece of rope around with them, and over the course of two hours they manipulate and make this rope come to life, and them doing this in this big warehouse space makes it just so incredible and beautiful to watch. There are also lighter performances: we have the band Splash Addict playing, which is artist Suzi Green, who has an exhibition on at Grand Union gallery currently, and then the night will be topped off by the feminist riot grrl punk cabaret band Double Pussy Clit F*ck, who do sort of really outrageous and mad performance.

Dorian Electra, part of the PILOT Nights event

That’s one of the big highlights, but then over the weekend we’ve got another huge party on the Saturday night headlined by Parisienne DJ Kiddy Smile, and a rapper from Serbia, a brilliant female rapper called Gnucci, and then there’s loads of just amazing stage shows happening in the usual venues, the REP, the mac, DanceXchange, some really brilliant work, some really clubby dance shows, with sort of techno soundtracks. A brilliant dancer, Lucy Suggate, dancing to the music of James Holden, a techno-producer, and Michele Rizzo has made a brilliant piece we’ve got at 10pm on the Saturday night, called Higher, which he sort of studied people dancing in clubs, developed a choreography from that research, and that’s soundtracked by Lorenzo Senni, who is a warp records artist. So, there’s lots of stuff for young audiences who might like clubbing, and it’s about trying, perhaps, to make the arts more accessible and reach wider audiences than perhaps people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in going to see, say, an Oscar Wilde play at the REP.

The festival includes 6 World Premieres and 12 UK premieres -what is it like to try to bring together such a large collection of artists? Is it a challenge?

This is my first year as director, so it’s the first time I’ve run a festival, and it’s a massive operation, so we really depend a lot on the partners that we work with, and the venues we use are all heavily involved with the planning as well, and we have a really brilliant team who are making those productions happen. We have to get people visas, fly them over, and a lot of the projects are really really complicated. One project, we’re having to build a massive brick wall with a thousand bricks, in a space for a German performance maker to dance and move around. One show requires a rabbit, another one we are trying to source thousands of live flies for this installation for a New York artist called Preach R Sun- so it’s an incredibly complicated festival, it’s not simply lots of easy tourable stage shows. Some of the projects have really complex stuff happening in public spaces, where you have to get licenses and things like that, so yeah, it’s challenging! 

'Theatre and dance can be really cool, really relevant, really experimental and interesting...'

You mentioned that this is your first year – what is it about the festival that drew you to take on the position?

So, I grew up in Kidderminster which is down the road, and I also went to the University of Birmingham, so I came across Fierce as a teenager. I picked up a brochure for it in the library, and opening up that brochure really opened up this whole interesting, sort of quite subversive underground world of performers, and it was the first time that I thought, you know, theatre and dance can be really cool, really relevant, really experimental and interesting. I was just sort of blown away by this incredible programme, artists like Franko B, Ron Athey, and Kembra Pfahler just making incredible, subversive, often very queer work. It was pretty mindblowing, and then prior to me taking on the job, the former directors Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison, just did a really brilliant job of establishing the festival internationally, so bringing over loads of work that no one else in the UK is bringing over, and contributing to art discourse in the UK, by bringing over these artists that are contributing to our culture over here. I followed the festival really closely while they were directors, and saw some amazing things, artists I’d never seen before, and just, Fierce is a really brilliant brand, the festival has always had a real sense of fun, they are good nights out as well as seeing good work, and a real brilliant sense of community at festival events has formed.

You mention as well that some of the works and events that go on are considered quite subversive, quite unconventional – do you think with times as they are now, with all going on in the world, that it’s important to shine a light on these types of work?

Yeah. I feel like the world is obviously having a bit of a wobble at the moment politically, some strange things are going on, and I think that, yes, some of the artists are absolutely outrageous, but what many of them are trying to do is to imagine new ways of living. They’re unhappy with the world in its current state, and so they’re trying to think about how we might do things differently, drawing attention to problems in the world, and sometimes just doing things that on the surface might seem completely bonkers, but actually, when we watch these performances and watch performance art, we might not immediately understand why an artist made certain decisions and decided to do certain things, but they often make us feel some very complicated emotions that aren’t easily understandable, and I think that’s a good thing. I think a lot of the time with art, people can shut down and not engage because they think that they’re missing something , but it’s okay to not fully understand a work of art, or why a performance is making you feel a certain way, and that’s where interesting ideas and conversations and real learning can happen.

Lucy Suggate

Activism, or performances that could perhaps be considered activist, are billed as part of the festival. What role do you think that activism has within the arts sector?

I think the best art is political art, responding to the current contemporary moment that we find ourselves in, and it’s that attempt to change people’s perspectives, to challenge people’s understandings. There’s loads of work by trans artists in the festival, and there’s a big political moment currently about increased trans visibility and the importance of that. Artists can create real change, and really highlight those important causes.

We curate the festival very much with Birmingham in mind, looking at what we think will appeal to audiences here, and have a relevance or strike a chord here, and so one of the artists we’re bringing over from New York, Preach R Sun, makes lots of action, interventionist performances on the streets, and often they’re politically very highly charged, making work about blackness, about race politics, and so this will be his first performance in the UK. We’re working really closely with him to develop a performance that will really respond to histories of colonialism in Birmingham, and Birmingham does have this colonial past, with huge links to slavery, and that’s going to be a really powerful work that people will respond to. There were mass immigrations to Birmingham in the fifties and sixties, and I think it will really resonate in the city.

Fierce is approaching its 20th year – what do you think it is about the festival that has led it to endure for 20 years, and that will lead it to go on for many more?

It’s interesting, because there are other brilliant festivals of performance in the country: there’s a brilliant festival called SPILL which happens in Ipswich, and one called In Between Time in Bristol, and they’ve not been around as long as Fierce, but I still feel like Fierce is actually sort of the cheeky younger sibling to those festivals. We’re very much interested in young audiences and youth culture, but we can be quite abrasive, perhaps irreverent, in how we talk about the art, and the name itself, Fierce…originally, the tagline was ‘Fierce: the festival that bites’, and so it came from that idea of fierce creatures. We’ve sort of managed to stay really relevant by not taking ourselves too seriously, that this sense of fun and just being a bit cheekier and a bit out there, means we’ve not fallen into some of the structures that perhaps other bigger organisations have. There’s something about, you know, we’re really small, really flexible, and we’ve had a number of directors, and all the directors have been quite young – Mark was really young when he set up the festival, Laura and Harran??? Were both in their twenties when they took over, I was 27 when I took over, and there’s something about actually having a younger person at the helm of a public organisation that just brings in fresher, newer ideas I think. There are not many young directors working in the arts, and it just brings a different perspective.

'I think the best art is political art, responding to the current contemporary moment that we find ourselves in...artists can create real change...'

With UoB having a thriving student performance scene as well as many students interested in the creative side, have you got any advice for young people looking at, not only going into the performance side, but also perhaps the directing, organisational positions, or looking to get involved with something like Fierce further down the line?

I think really doing your research, getting out there and seeing as much stuff as possible, and really know who is doing what, going to different venues and seeing what they do, and taking a risk on seeing different things. It’s also about finding your own voice, because it is a difficult industry and your heart has got to be in it, but finding that unique voice and working out what makes you different to others, what you can bring to the table that perhaps other people can’t, is really important. Persistence too, that it won’t happen immediately, it will probably take a number of years to happen, so to not give up at the first hurdle, and to be aware that, if people are trying to make it artistically as directors and things like that, that it can take years to really develop and hone a voice, that unique artistic voice. Sometimes, people can be scared to just go for it, and sometimes people can be successful because they’ve just bothered to go for it whilst others might have been too scared to. There are lots of factors why you might not do something you want to do, whether it’s putting on a production, or trying to open a venue, or throw a club party or something like that, but actually, if you can take that first step and commit to doing something, that’s absolutely the hardest step, and beyond that you can work to make it happen.

If you could go back now, and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of this whole process, what do you think it would be?

(Laughs) Oh, do about 20% less! It’s a huge programme! And… just double check what animals people need before you agree to present something!

Aaron’s Top Ten Picks…

Only time for one event? A Very Fierce Grand Opening

For Techno Heads? Lucy Suggate, Pilgrim 

New to performance? Louis Vanhaverbeke, Multiverse

Best for a raucous night of cabaret? Erin Markey, Boner Killer

For gig-goers? Colin Self, Siblings

Cutting edge queer black dance with fierce politics? $elfie$

For those who hate theatre? The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, NOTORIOUS

For experience seekers? Simone Aughterlony & Jen Rosenblit, Everything Fits in the Room

Unleash your inner activist? Fierce and Free Radical Present Late at the Edwardian Tearoom

The Big Party? Club Fierce: We Are Fierce

Gnucci (Photo: Esteban Wautier)

Click here for information on the festival, including the programme of events.