I love eclectic mixes: whether a batty Great Aunt’s jewellery box, a feast of tapas, or a well-stocked jumble sale. It’s not surprising then, that OffBeat is my favourite festival of the year, with its sheer number and range of shows, each carefully crafted, all new, all intriguing. Traditionally a stop on the pre-Edinburgh Fringe circuit, OffBeat offers audiences the heady feeling they are part of the creation of these pieces, rather than passive consumers. It’s conspiratorial, in the best sense.
We were lucky enough to speak to some of the shows’ creators, writers, performers and directors before the festival. Some shows had begun life years ago, some were on the point of touring when Covid arrived, many have had to change format or found their content evolving in light of current events, but given how hard hit the Arts have been over the last year, both logistically and ideologically, there was an optimism - here we all are, creating events, finding ways to make it work, with real audiences once again! And as you’d expect from such an inventive bunch, there are all sorts of ways to use these new formats we’ve been forced to explore.
OffBeat launched with a dance event in the Westgate, and dance has always played a big part. This year there are two Kathak shows - an Indian classical dance form. Drishti Dance’s Colour Me Rainbow comprises four short dances exploring colour, from the physical to the spiritual. They keep their dance style classical, adapting theme not form to appeal to new audiences.Their show is both in-person and live-streamed. Kattam Katti takes a different approach - Urja Desai Thakore describes their style as Neoclassical in this piece set in the Gujarati Festival of Kites. This filmed dance theatre looks at love, loss and social hierarchies, and can be performed live but has a separate filmed identity that is touring film festivals too.
Jason Mabana’s Ina Ama has a sombre backstory but a cheerful tone: it follows the practice of Bayanihan, where villagers in the Philippines often change the location of their houses, by picking up the bamboo beams on their shoulders and literally moving house. It’s a communal affair, and resonates with helping people to move on with life. This recorded and streamed dance piece is borne of Mabana’s desire to commemorate the fact that 20% of the NHS staff who died early on in the pandemic were Filipino. He himself is part Filipino, part Belgian, and the Filipino diaspora is vast, as evidenced by his call for Filipino dancers - 50 applied for the four places in Ina Ama. And Filipino nursing staff continue to play a vital part - the first UK vaccine was administered by a Filipino nurse.
From dance to circus - in one of the shows especially made for children, Aidy the Awesome discovers she and her granny have Super powers, and a baddy (named Ronda Chocolate) is out to steal them all. It’s an aerial show with counterweights and is presented as a film, and The Gramophones Theatre Co applied specially for funding to film it not just from the audience’s usual perspective, but soaring with Aidy! Full of fun, female characters who get to take credit for what they’re good at, it is not surprisingly having a second life shown in schools, though Gramophones are really looking forward to performing live one day soon and getting the immediate feedback from real life audiences that they miss. For now, though, you get to see the filmed version.
Kids (of any age) who like pirates can follow Flotsam and Jetsam’s Voyage to the Trash Vortex, as WhatNot Theatre let their characters loose during a refuelling stopover in Oxford. Lucy Hoult says she loves plastic - it’s an amazing resource, so this show is simultaneously rehabilitating its reputation, and pointing out how much we waste in the Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a live show, with three performances in one night. See Wellington Square gardens transformed into a seascape, inhabited by plastic crabs, turtles and other creatures.
Two shows really pushing the boundaries of Zoom are This Tatty Old Heart, and An Open Community Reading by the Marston Players of 1978's The Butterworths are Coming to Supper Originally Starring TV's Patricia Routledge. The latter is Nova Theatre’s specially written interactive comedy thriller. Get drawn into an ongoing feud via WhatsApp and Zoom, in their new script in the style of Ayckbourn. “Think Handforth Parish Council but AmDram,” says Alex Coke. With the audience taking part this is one show that may be different every time. Meanwhile in one-man show This Tatty Old Heart, Richard Marsh plays a Dad trying to parent and making mistakes from the best of motives. An uplifting drama exploring the nature of grief and healing, it pits the hard things we have to convey with the small but immediate worries of the moment. And his Zoom inspiration? His own kids, nieces and nephews: trying to have family meet-ups over the last year he was struck by the children’s inventive “disrespect for authority and gleeful thirst for play”. It’s life’s big questions while trying to get your child to eat veg.
If your show is both live and live-streamed, you can make your two audiences compete! Ginger Tart has always wanted the power of hosting a game show, and so began the idea of TartMaster. It’s been a hard year - cabaret doesn’t have a fourth wall and relies on audience interaction, so it just doesn’t work online. So she and her team of performers have been wilting without the delicious chaos of unrehearsable performance. With technical wizardry, there’ll be star turns but plenty of work for the audience. You won’t be safe at home either - a projector and video calls ensure everyone could be picked on!
Proving that the hard-hitting can also be entertaining, Powersuit Collective’s Numbers For Girls is an installation dedicated to the facts and figures about life as a woman. It’s an opportunity to face the hard figures we’re used to seeing online - but this time you can’t scroll past. Book slots to visit this male gaze version of a girl’s pink and fluffy bedroom, in the OFS.
Black Women Dating White Men is Somebody Jones’ rich and beautiful take on race relations. It began as a series of interviews, separately, with women who didn’t know one another. But as a series of common themes emerged, the interviews were spliced into this piece of verbatim theatre. There are specifics (as you might guess, hair comes up a lot!) but many themes are universal to most relationships. Is it emotionally fraught? Oh no, says Jones, “The genre is ‘hopeful’ for sure.”
There are far more shows in OffBeat than we’ve covered here, and we didn’t get to hear firsthand about all the events, but do check out the program online. There are indoor, outdoor, live, streamed, and prerecorded shows, many of them free or under £10, and for all ages. Seriously - if you can’t find something that intrigues you then I’ll eat my pink OffBeat branded hat! But I’ve saved till last the show that just hearing about makes me most nostalgic for nights at the theatre. It’s live, in the Burton Taylor Studio and a modern fairytale.
The Gift by Atticist Theatre Co is a story of transactional magic - that good old fashioned Grimm magic where you may gain something but you have to forfeit something too. It’s a monologue, written by Rafaella Marcus for her sister Olivia to perform, about a young woman who goes for a walk and receives a small gift from the universe. Rafaella describes it as “of the pandemic but not about the pandemic” - we might imagine it’s one of those meandering lockdown walks, but perhaps it could be anywhere, anytime. Your social bubble of up to 6 can come and experience it in the BT and see for yourselves what the gift consists of, and what it costs.