It’s been over a month since I flew back from Porto, and the dizzying experience that was IETM. This was the second plenary meeting I’ve attended (thanks to the support of the British Council and Unlimited) and it couldn’t have been more different to Brussels. That particular meeting was overwhelming, attended by nearly 900 delegates; the cold, wet, windy weather didn’t exactly make for an inspiring backdrop; and low-energy levels and fatigue kept me in second gear for most of the trip.
I decided to do things a little differently this time around. I booked a few extra nights in an AirBnB and arrived a couple of days before the conference in order to have a break from work and get to know the city a little better. It’s a really beautiful place, divided in two by the Douro river which is spanned by a magnificent bridge. The views at night are magnificent. I went on a tour of the ingenious Casa de Musica, strolled around some seriously impressive Gothic churches, and bagged a seat at Tapa Bento, a cute little restaurant recommended by my friend, Xav, while lines of people got turned away.
My recollection of Brussels being long queues, crowded sessions, late nights, and a sense of needing to chat to as many people as possible, I thought I’d need to save up my energy for IETM. Things were much more manageable in terms of scale at Porto. The biggest change was my sense of urgency to get as much out of it as possible (or lack of it). I went to a briefing meeting at the British Council offices in early April, where the team clarified that IETM is not a “marketplace” for selling your show: that it’s more about the conversations and connections that you build up informally. The most preparation you need to make is to get some business cards done.
I’d also decided to keep a pretty light schedule. Alongside the artistic programme, the meeting offers a mix of practical sessions and more reflective discussions, which can be very thought-provoking (this meetings’ theme was ‘Other Centres’, a debate on “how art relates to the processes of transforming centres of creation, dissemination and decision-making”) but most of the past-participants I’ve spoken to – predominantly artists – told me the biggest value of the meetings is the networking.
I spoke to a lot of people in Brussels, but the majority of them were people I knew in the UK already and simply needed a long-overdue catch-up with. Perhaps it was through being a little intimidated as a first-timer. By the end of this trip, I’d met artists from Spain, France, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Iceland, Australia, Poland, Iran, and, of course, Portugal. Far from being some kind of mercantile exchange of details, the ‘networking’ was a really enjoyable, laid-back experience. An example: having taken a gamble on worming my way into a city tour I hadn’t booked on – and failed – I turned to someone else who’d had the same idea and suggested we get a coffee instead. They asked someone if they’d liked to join us. Soon enough, there was a little gang of us sitting and chatting in the sun about the theatre industry in our respective countries.
Things weren’t always sunshine, coffee and nice chats. The meeting programme didn’t shy away from difficult conversations: the keynote speech featured a bracing performance-lecture from artist, Fernanda Silva, denouncing the conditions of Native Americans in Brazil and putting Portugal’s colonial legacy squarely on the stage, which felt like a ballsy move from IETM. Some things were less well-considered, the programming of the closing party in an inaccessible venue (adding to the already considerable challenges of a city that’s already difficult to navigate). But I was hugely impressed by the delegation’s collective act of solidarity in deciding to stay at the late-night meeting point instead, and IETM’s public acknowledgement of their mistake. At a meeting themed around ‘Other Centres’, it was interesting to see how quickly and responsively the planned centre of celebration shifted.
A few people have said to me that you need to go to IETM more than once to figure out how it might be useful for you. Based on the differences between my two visits, I’d totally agree.
Thanks once again to everyone at the British Council, Unlimited, and to all the people who made it such an exciting trip.