Silvia Fratelli

ISAN Member in the Spotlight:

Silvia Fratelli, Mimbre

Mimbre: Bench (Katie Abbott)

Silvia Fratelli is joint Artistic Director and co-founder (with Lina Johansson and Emma Norin) of Mimbre, the all-female acrobatic theatre company.

(First published: June 2016)

Who are you?

I’ve been performing  since a young age, first as a competitive gymnast in my homeland Italy, then as a physical theatre performer  with the local theatre company in my home town and finally with Mimbre since 1999. I moved to London in 1994 and completed the former BTEC course in Performing Arts –Circus at NCCA (then called Circus Space), where I met Lina and Emma. Upon finishing the BTEC we went to train in Cuba for a few months, at the Circus Professional Development Centre in Havana and when we returned to UK we created Mimbre (Spanish for ‘wicker’, to represent the intricacies of our trademark choreographies and a structure that is strong but flexible).

I’m the only original member still performing in our shows and occasionally work for other projects. Most recently I’ve been part of the cast of the silent physical comedy: Ruby Robinson, produced by Sky Arts TV.

How did you first get involved in Outdoor Arts?

When we came back from training in Cuba, summer was just beginning in UK. With a brand new act packed full of all the exciting acrobatics we had trained in Havana, we started approaching a few agencies and festivals that friends recommended. The first positive answer we got was from Brighton Festival, and that’s where our very first appearance in the Outdoor Arts sector took place. We never looked back… we just loved the direct and uncompromising relationship with the audience.

What is one of your earliest memories of Outdoor Arts?

The first year of performing our first full-length show ‘Sprung’ has left me with many memories. This was about 16 years ago and that’s when we developed some of the strongest sector partnerships with have today.

It felt that we were riding a big wave and from then on the Outdoor Arts sector started to take off.

I have fond memories of the excitement we felt about being invited to perform at Chalon dans la Rue Festival. I couldn’t believe that the audience would come and sit down an hour before the start of the performance to make sure they had a good view!

The same year we also went to perform in Tàrrega and a big fuel strike was taking place in the whole of France (yes, a bit of a deja’-vu here…). We were so determined to get there with our first vehicle the ‘Mimbulance’ (an old former Ford ambulance we converted into a tour bus), that we kept begging truck drivers to sell us a bit of diesel every few kilometres, so we could keep topping up our tank.  The trip took double the time it would have but we did get there in the end. We felt like heroines!

What performance or Outdoor Arts experience has made a big impression on you?

I love Kamchatka’s work. The connections they create with audiences are just beautiful.  I saw ‘Fugit’ in Tàrrega a couple of years ago and I cannot remember the last time a show touched me so deeply. The way they deal with the subject of immigration is simple yet very powerful and the journey we were asked to take as an audience was so revealing and immersive. It really impressed me how the audience fully trusted the artists to take them into this voyage, giving up all their possessions and follow. We became a big part of the ‘experimentation’ and it felt like such a genuine piece of outdoor theatre. I didn’t want the show to finish.

Until Now - ~Valladolid 2011 mimbre in Alnwick Gardens mimbre_thebridge_future_by_Eric_Richmond

What’s the best artistic advice you’ve been given?

I grew up in a fairly conventional Italian family, but my mum was quite forward thinking and a very positive female role model for me. After finishing high school I was in a big dilemma whether to go directly to university, as everyone my age was expected to do.  She suggested I should go away for a while and travel, maybe I’d find what I really want to do. Well, I did and never looked back and till today I keep reminding myself of her advice: ‘’Just do what you love, not what other people expect from you’’.

Where do your ideas come from?

General observation of the world, issues that have touched me personally or that particularly affected me when hearing about them. Sometimes visual images, especially pictures, can trigger the beginning of an idea or a feel for something I’d like to explore and talk about. Motherhood has inspired a lot of our latest work in one way or the other…!

Very often ideas come from pure physical play as well. I’m a very physical person and I need to be able to move my body to express myself and communicate best.

I much prefer being on stage performing in front of a few hundred people than talking to a handful….

What’s your best advice to someone wanting to work outdoors for the first time?

Create work that you really care about and the audience will feel and appreciate that. The conditions of performing outdoor are less than ideal: ‘weird’ surfaces, inclement weather… just be prepared for that and the rewards will be incredible!

A piece of work is never finished until performed in front of a real audience: its reaction will dictate what direction the show will take and it’ll never be exactly the same experience twice in a row. The outdoor arts sector makes a great school on learning how to deal with the unexpected and allowing for the discovery of a few new things about one’s self…

What’s your funniest or most bizarre Outdoor Arts experience?

It’s really not that funny or bizarre, but we just came back from premièring our new show ‘If I Could I Would’ in Rastatt, Tete-à-Tete Festival and it felt like fate played a trick or two on us…

On departing the UK, Martha was stricken with a very strong virus and was just passed out at the back of the van, very ill and unable to speak. I then lost one of my tooth fillings whilst driving and to top it off we were worrying about the French fuel strike all through out. I then proceeded to develop a nasty virus myself, which culminated in a perforated ear drum and a couple of visit to A&E… when Martha got better with the virus she lost part of her tooth brace…after the festival the fuel strike was still on, so we had to drive back on an alternative route, which saw us driving for 9 hours under torrential rain… we did make it back in one piece, although I’m still deaf from one ear… I’m proud to say that the première went really well, we were able to perform all shows against all odds, had a fantastic response from the audiences and also managed to  win an award for our work as women in the Outdoor Arts sector… what a roller coaster of a trip!

Describe a current project or future piece of work that you’re really excited about.

I’m excited about our new show ‘If I Could I Would’. It just premièred in Germany and it feels in a great place to keep growing ad flourishing right now.

It follows the day of an everyday woman and it plays with the superhuman efforts she needs to deal with the demands of everyday life.

Here’s a lovely take on it from Lucy Loves Circus’s blog: ‘’a heart-warming testimony to female resilience, emotional as much as physical, and to the efforts of all super women out there supporting each other’’.

We had lots of women coming up to us after the show, saying they could totally identify with the story, that made me really happy!

The show is on tour at the moment and will première in London at GDIF 25-26 June 2016.

Mimbre: Bench (Siem Akkerman) Mimbre: Sprung (Eric Richmond)

What are your impressions on the current health of the Outdoor Arts sector?

The Outdoor sector has grown a lot in the past few years, with more festivals being created, more opportunities for commissions and funding, and a lot more support and guidance for emerging companies. It really felt like it was an unstoppable force.

Governments had recognized the importance of the sector, with its enormous reach and impact on audiences from all walks of life. It’s so accessible and this has been reflected in the amount of investment in it.

Unfortunately, we’ve started to feel recently that the winds have turned and things are getting a bit more difficult again.

Where do you think the sector will be in 4 or 5 years?

It is hard to tell, but I’d like to think and I really hope that things will pick up again and Outdoor Arts will be given another boost and the chance to flourish even more.

I think we will see the creation of more and more outdoor theatre companies, as artists realize the potential of creating work for and responding to unique spaces and that we’ll see an even bigger growth of audiences in love with this sector.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and how do you plan to meet them?

It seems more and more difficult to aim for larger productions and trying to get break from the mould… lack of financial investments, funding to local authorities, festivals decreasing budgets and a general shift in the political climate throughout the whole of Europe (where most of our tours take place) can leave companies like us in troubled waters.  I feel producers and festivals are less keen to take risks… even with smaller scale productions.

We are trying to create more opportunities for collaborations and commissions and to diversify the range of people we work with.  Partnering up with one or more organizations seems to be a more solid way of working at the moment…and of course we’ll keep pushing our work to be seen by as many people as possible!!!

Who inspires you in your work?

Other artists, my colleagues and other women doing good, relevant work of any kind. We performed twice at WOW Festival at the Southbank and it really helps me getting inspired. The atmosphere is always buzzing, lots of talks to attend, so many stories to listen to and so many more to be told yet! One of the best women’s festival in London!

How do you follow what’s happening in the Outdoor Arts and cultural sectors – what blogs, tweeters, websites, organisations do you recommend?

I read various newsletters: ISAN (of course!), NCCA, Without Walls, Circostrada, Circus Futures, Circus Development Agency, Xtrax.

I peruse other theatre/dance/circus and outdoor theatre companies’ websites/facebook pages/ blogs, if I find their work inspiring and interesting.

I read the Guardian online and Internazionale, a monthly italian magazine which collects the most interesting articles from newspapers around the world.

During the creation of our last show I read Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism blog quite a bit…

What’s a favourite book/film/concert that you’ve encountered in the past 2 years?

Last year I saw Angelique Kidjo in concert at Malmo Festival, Sweden. She is 55, tiny, a bundle of energy on stage and full of positive political messages, especially in regards to women’s equality issues in Africa and the rest of the developing world. So inspiring and great music to dance too as well, everyone was jumping around throughout the concert! I felt super energized!

Since having a child I’m finding it a lot more difficult to read books… I simply have much less time on my hands and I get too tired when on tour. The last book was a classic re-read: ‘’To kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, so touching…

I also love Haruki Murakami’s work, like ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, with stories presenting themselves in a very strange manner. He’s got a theatrical way of writing that transports the reader in magical, surreal worlds.

And not to forget my roots; the work of Pirandello and Moravia. Too much to choose from…

What non-Outdoor Arts cultural experience has made a great impression on you?

Frida Kahlo’s exhibition at Tate Modern a few years back. So much suffering and beauty comes out of her paintings.

Who would you have at your dream fantasy picnic?

I’m assuming I can choose deceased and non….: Frida Kahlo, Angelique Kidjo and Harper Lee… (that was an easy one….), maybe throw Bridget Christie and Caitlin Moran in the mix for extra laughter and wit!

Any final top tips for Outdoor Arts practitioners?

Go and see a lot of outdoor arts work, see what works for you. Don’t be afraid of being different and don’t underestimate the significant impact you can have on people as an outdoor artist!
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