Blog – the Porous Borders Symposium in Prague

Theatre Bristol supported producer Helen Edwards as a TB Agent to attend the Porous Borders symposium as part of the Prague Quadrennial. Here she reflects on being a producer in a very new context, and her experience speaking at the event with director Agnieszka Blonska.

Reflections on the Porous Borders Symposium
12-14th October, Prague

I used my Theatre Bristol Agent Bursary to help me attend the Porous Borders symposium in Prague. This trip along with another visit to Warsaw in September was inspired by my ongoing working relationship with director Agnieszka Blonska.

Since the beginning of the year I have been working slowly and steadily to find out more, meet possible contacts and experience theatre in international contexts. Before 2017 I had not travelled abroad for work and yet I was working closely with an artist whose career was split between the UK and continental Europe. To best serve my own interests and the artists I was working with I had to know more about working internationally. The Porous Borders symposium is part of the Prague Quadrennial and took place in the lead up to the next quadrennial taking place in 2019.

I had applied to speak at the symposium as part of the open discussion programme entitled ‘Porous Borders – Crossing Points’ which I felt had a resonance in my work with Agnieszka right now. There are a plethora of ways in which the term porous borders could be interpreted. When we talk about porous borders are we talking politically, geographically, culturally, in terms of job descriptions or blurring the boundaries between genres and forms of performance? Or all of the above? The main focus of the symposium was exploring scenography and theatre design as this is a major thematic pull for the main Prague Quadrennial programme. At various times in the symposium I felt like an alien who had been dropped into not only a new country, but also a new context in which to consider, discuss and make performance. I was a foreigner and I also approached the conference as a producer, unlike almost everyone else in the room. Luckily I travelled with Agnieszka and so we both had the familiarity of our working relationship in a space that felt different. Coming from a different professional context put me on my toes, made me listen hard to what was being talked about and interestingly took away some of the inner fear I had about getting it wrong. I found it was very difficult to say the wrong thing, in a space where I was openly positioning myself as a learner. This was a refreshing change because as a producer I find I am often called upon to be ‘the expert’ in the room. An idea which is both flattering, but also anxiety inducing because it doesn’t always permit the more honest and more creative answer ‘I don’t know let’s find out together’.

I listened to speakers from across Europe, Peru, Canada and Russia talk about a range of subjects from how scenography has evolved as a practice since the Second World War, to the lost crafts of indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest and bang up to date observations about how theatre or cultural organisations should respond to the Catalan independence movement. Some of the topics really sparked my interest and some washed over me amongst the huge number of stories that were being told. What linked every talk was that we all had a story we wanted to tell about borders – be that a political border, a social border, a cultural border or a psychological border – we all wanted space to talk about how the frames we draw around things can affect us as human beings and as a consequence effect our creative practice. 

My talk, alongside Agnieszka, was about our professional collaboration and the plethora of ways it could be considered to have ‘porous borders’. Our work moves across countries, projects, contexts and job descriptions and we are still learning what it means to work together. We wanted to create a space for us to talk about collaboration, but also acknowledge all the unknowns and the things that are motivating us to continue working together. In reality this falls into two distinct camps – one which is purely collaboration, we enjoy working together and developing these conversations about theatre, the other is political. Agnieszka and I started working together around the time of the Brexit vote and in our small way have been banging our drum about the importance of international (and specifically European) collaboration in the face of the UK leaving the EU. What Agnieszka and I found in Prague (and earlier in the year in Warsaw and Bucharest) was that people want to have this conversation. Nationalist and anti-immigrant attitudes are spreading across Europe and beyond. The UK might have taken a dramatic decision to leave the EU, but the ideological thought behind this decision can be found everywhere. With that in mind it’s now more important than ever that the arts sector is a strong voice in favour of collaboration. In favour of porous borders, no matter which definition you choose to ascribe to that term. 

This is a very brief overview of the symposium. If anyone would like to talk more about this, feel free to email me on [email protected]

My trip to Prague for Porous Borders was supported by a Theatre Bristol Agent Bursary, Arts Council England and the British Council. 

If you would like to apply to be a TB Agent, and be supported by Theatre Bristol to attend an industry event or conference, find out more and apply here.