Interview with the creators and producers of Virtual Variety Fest

Learn about how to create an online arts festival

Interview with the creators and producers of Virtual Variety Fest

Hello! Could you both please introduce yourself?

M: ¡Hola! My name is Maria Cuervo, and I am a Colombian theatre-maker and producer. I trained as an actor in Bogotá, where I was born. Since I was 5 years old I've been involved in the art world and haven't stopped! 

Little by little, I started to fall in love with producing and one day, during a party after the last show of an immersive play where I was performing, I said to myself: I want to take this further (what a place to have such reflection, right?). 

So, in the middle of the party, I told a colleague that I wanted to start a producing company. That day, we founded Media Naranja. 

J: Hello! My name is Jose Canseco. I am a Mexican Creative Producer. I have been living in the UK for 7 years now. I studied my undergraduate at Royal Holloway, University of London where I discovered that acting was not my thing. I decided to follow a producing path after co-directing, marketing and producing a show for the Play! Festival. I founded my own theatre company in 2019, The Rose Company, which specialises in bringing amazing stories from across the world to UK audiences.  

Tell us about your latest project, Virtual Variety Fest, in 3 words. 

M: Community, Creativity, Empowerment

J: Emotion, Togetherness, Resilience

Tell us more about Virtual Variety Fest and why you’ve chosen to create this event during Covid-19. 

M & J: Virtual Variety Festival (#VVF) is a digital arts festival that aims to provide an online platform for artists to showcase their performances. The Festival, in itself, is our creative answer to these challenging times. It has allowed us to keep making bold performances and build bridges between artists and audiences.

We are aware that performative arts are in themselves an act of presence. However, it is our creativity that pushes us to explore new forms to create and continue making what we are passionate about: art. 

Virtual Variety Fest sees artists from around the country performing from their homes. What impact do you hope this will have on the artists themselves and the audience? 

M & J: VVF is about togetherness despite the distances. It is all about creating a community regardless of nationality, location or language and deconstructing the boundaries that may exist in the arts. 

We hope that artists see this platform and this community as a safe space to come together (digitally) and challenge themselves to create new adaptable pieces of art. 

We know the pandemic has not been easy for artists. Definitely uncertainty and fear are present and can be extremely overwhelming. But by demonstrating that they can present themselves in front of a camera, doing what they are most passionate about, can certainly be empowering.

The Virtual Variety Fest is there for artists to keep creating, build bonds with audiences and other artists and present themselves to the world. 

2be3384e83e1afa6a77ebed3903ea5ed1711ab7c.pngYour first edition of Virtual Variety Fest was in April 2020. Tell us how this went and what you’ve learnt from this experience. 

M: On a personal level, it was an enjoyable experience. We learned a lot about social media and live streaming platforms. All those things they would tell us about producing a festival were now being reflected in real life. It definitely was a great way to see how art intersects with digital platforms. 

I learnt that live arts are essential for humanity and no virtual platform will replace them. However, VVF proved that we can create together, feel close to each other and that it is possible to build relationships between artists and audiences. I had the opportunity to connect with artists from several countries and with friends from my home country too.

My father - who doesn't use social media at all and is at home alone - had the chance to watch the performances and distract himself. Watching the same performance my father was watching, although we were in different places, made me feel closer to him. It’s this kind of connectivity that VVF is all about!

J: I feel like Maria here summarised everything pretty neatly! The first edition was an adventure for me. It was the first time I had produced a festival and it turned out to be a complete party and completely surpassed my expectations.

I was constantly caught between scheduling artists, scheduling live-stream tests, designing social media material and marketing plans. It was definitely a lot of pressure, but I had so much fun doing that. 

In the first edition we had dozens of applications, but we ended up selecting 16. All of them were amazing. I was in tears watching their performances. It is incredible what people can make with the limited tools they have, so I cannot wait to see what these new performers will show us on the next edition.

Finally, just like Maria, I learned a lot about social media and live-stream platforms. I am an expert now! Even though this is a digital version and the real deal might be a tad different, I feel like I will be prepared to tackle any future “festival” projects. 

Have you faced any particular challenge so far in the project?

M: Indeed, it is a big challenge to produce a whole festival from home, but Jose and I are an excellent problem-solving team. One challenge was understanding how to live stream works and deciding the best option for the artists, the audience and the Festival. I remember we did dozens of live streams on YouTube, Instagram, Meet, Skype, Twitch, Vimeo, Jitsi Meet, and Facebook meanwhile Jose and I were video calling each other through WhatsApp or Messenger. It was very challenging to understand each platform and to decide which platform was best for all artists. But in the end, it was a rewarding learning experience.

J: I couldn’t agree more. Those live stream platforms were a huge challenge for us. Also deciding whether to use PayPal for donations or not; or which currency we would use. I am happy we decided to go with Facebook Live. It is super easy to use and teach. 

What has the process been like when compiling a virtual festival programme and promoting this to audiences?

M: We wanted variety and quality in the Festival: theatre to video performance, spoken word to music. This was the most significant premise when making the programme. Then, thinking about the elements of each proposal, the level of engagement it could have, and the time zone differences. 

Audiences are the core of the scenic experience and the other end of creation. So, we created a social media strategy for the Festival based on visual designs and the target audience for each performance. Also, we knew artists had their followers and fans so they could tag along. We are still learning how promoting works and exploring different ways to attract spectators. 

J: We scheduled each performance as best as we could. In the four days of the festival, we had a combination of art forms, would not call it an artistic buffet but it could be an artistic buffet.

What advice would you give to young people on how to stay artistically motivated during Covid-19?

M: I could suggest a few things to my fellow creatives out there. 

  • Try out all those crazy ideas you have in mind. 
  • Do not be afraid of making mistakes or being “silly”. 
  • Sing if you are not a singer, dance if you are not a dancer, act if you are not an actor, write if you are not a writer, paint if you are not a painter. Maybe you will discover something you like, enjoy or are good at.
  • Creation is a learning path, be patient. 
  • If you lack inspiration, observe nature; all human creations have come from it. 
  • Work with people you like to work with. 
  • Take care of yourself and your love ones. 
  • AND regardless the circumstances, believe in yourself.

J: I think you can see the silver lining of this situation too. Definitely we have more time for ourselves and for the things that we like to do. We also have more time to explore new things of course, although I should remark here that you do not have to be super productive all the time. We all have this idea that pressure us to exceed ourselves and our expectations. To work, and work and work. Sometimes that can 

It’s like when you’re a kid and you see a movie or show that inspires you and you immediately go out and perform it, as a game. A show like ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Jurassic Park’. It was all a game, but we were getting inspired by all these things we would see to a point that we wanted to make them our own. 

How did you get into an arts job?  Have you also worked outside the arts?

M: I simply fell in love with theatre. I have performed in several theatre plays as well as contemporary dance shows, live performances, and films. I have also worked as a drama teacher, actor trainer, and movement director for musicians. The only job I have had outside of the arts has been teaching Spanish. When I am teaching, I feel like I am on a stage performing as "the teacher", so maybe it is not that far from the arts!

J: I woke up one day and I was already a producer. I’m joking! I have always wanted to be a positive influence to people. I found that arts are a good way to reach people on an emotional and intellectual level. I think to get into the artistic sector you have to believe in what you do and in the power that it radiates on to people, communities or whole societies. 

I created my company because I saw an opportunity to showcase the talent and experiences of those that were not commonly represented. We see a lot of Western stories, but I believe that a story from Brazil or Mexico can also have a positive impact on audiences here in the UK, and can also be presented in a similar quality as those presented in venues like Young Vic, National Theatre or West End. 

Have I had another job outside of the arts? Absolutely. I have been a Starbucks barista and it’s not good when you are trying to stick to your diet because you just drink all the Frappuccinos there are. 

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

M: Observe! I learn a lot by observing others. Go to the venues and check how the box office is set up, the kind of audience that assists, check the programme and the names of the creatives, google them and check what they have done before.

  • Check tutorials about how to use Excel or a spreadsheet. It will be beneficial for you.
  • Watch video tutorials, read articles or online books about producing. 
  • Write down all the ideas you have. Doesn’t matter if they seem impossible to make. 
  • The best way to learn is by doing, so try out that idea you have in mind!
  • Join the UK Theatre Producers Facebook Group. It is an amazing and supportive community of producers that will be happy to help.

J: A very talented producer once told me that the best way to learn is by actually going out and doing it. This festival is living proof of that. I learned so much by organising this festival – definitely more than I learned at uni! 

One really important advice I may give you, and that I know it may be hard for some, is to listen. Even people who might seem like they have nothing to do with what you are doing might have a point! I certainly wished I had followed what some people had told me to do, it would have made my work so much easier. 

Besides this, I would also advise you to follow those UK Producers groups on Facebook. Read about Julius Green, James Seabright and Sonia Friedman. Get yourself a group of creative friends and set yourselves the goal to present a show at a venue. Ask people, don’t be afraid. Ask me or Maria! Contact small venues like Camden People’s Theatre, Blue Elephant Theatre and ask if you can get involved in a placement. 

How can people find out more about this event?

You can follow the festival on Facebook www.facebook.com/VirtualVarietyFest.

Find Maria on Media Naranja’s social media below.

  • Facebook: /media.naranja.colombia
  • Instagram: @media.naranja.colombia
  • Twitter: @MediaNaranjaCo

Find Jose on social media too. 

Author

Sienna James

Sienna James Assistant Editor

Sienna is the Voice Assistant Editor and author of the Creative Education series. A de-caf coconut-milk latte gal who spends most of her time in Cambridge cafes, Sienna is currently on a gap year before studying History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

Instagram: sienna_jamez

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