Can you tell me about your curatorial approach to this year’s Festival?
LIFT has always been about two things: trying to survey the world around us to find the most exciting, ground-breaking and inventive performances that we have the ability to bring to London, but doing so in a way that takes account of what’s going on here in London. While the commitment to inventiveness and presenting ground-breaking work stays the same every year, there’s always a little bit of a shift in terms of content, because artists are making work that responds to what is going on around them. It would be impossible in 2016 for artists not to be making work about the migration and refugee crisis, and the increasing body of work that says we are living in a world that is less empathetic, where we live these increasingly individualised, atomised lives, and we don’t understand or recognise the needs of others.
I’ve always been very conscious that the most important word in the title is the London International Festival of Theatre. Making sure we’re not presenting a festival that could be presented in any city of the world, which speaks directly to Londoners, their passions, their communities, that engages London as an amazing city and site. A lot of the theatre happens not just in theatres but in unusual nooks and crannies of the city. Hopefully it will be authentic to the London experience.
How do you go about finding and commissioning works across the 14 countries represented in the Festival?
I spend a lot of time travelling in order to see work. One of the things that we try to do is take the path least trodden, go to places in the world that other people won’t necessarily go to, to excavate, find work and bring it here. Over the past few years, we’ve had a lot of work not just from English language speaking countries like the USA and Australia, but also the Middle East and South America – work that directly speaks to communities living in London. Where I live in Elephant and Castle you now hear Spanish spoken on the street more than English. When we present work from the Middle East, we get huge audiences. We know there’s a really voracious appetite from the Middle Eastern community to see that kind of work. Wherever I go, I’m always thinking ‘what’s the connection back to London audiences?’
The process of finding work involves being overseas on the ground meeting a lot of artists, talking to peers, getting recommendations, getting excited by seeing work. It’s very seldom that I’ll see an artist and say in 12 months’ time, I want to programme them. It’s far more likely that I’ll see an artist’s work that I admire, and over the course of three or four years, I’ll see more and more of their work and get to know them, because I want to be sure that they’re going to work for London. It’s quite a long term process. Although we’re about to go into the 2016 Festival now, I’m already having conversations with artists that will be presented in 2018 or 2020.
Are there any pockets of the world that are producing particularly interesting or exciting new work?
I think one of the most exciting parts of the world at the moment artistically is the Middle East. Because of what’s happened over the past five or six years since the wave of civil protest and the Arab Spring, in many countries civil society has broken down. The institutions that supported culture have broken down. Many of these institutions in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and other parts of the Middle East were deeply conservative before 2011. The work that came out then wasn’t particularly interesting. Since the Arab Spring, there’s been an explosion of independent artists making work in all sorts of spaces, because theatres have closed down or been wrecked. Artists are making work on the street, from the rooftops, with a very independent voice.
LIFT has historically engaged with political concerns of the day. What are some of the urgent political issues that this year’s Festival engages with?
We are interested in presenting work about some of the bigger issues that are going on in the world. We’ve commissioned a piece by a British artist, Claire Patey called The Empathy Museum. There is an increasing body of scientific data that shows our ability to empathise, to understand the needs of others, is being diminished by an aggressive, highly individualised culture. Work by neuroscientists suggests that we spend a lot more of our time, proportionately, looking at screens than we do people’s faces. That, in itself, is limiting our ability to empathise. Claire has made a work in response to this, an installation called A Mile in Your Shoes. Over the last six months, Claire has been gathering stories from all sorts of people, many of whom are newly arrived in London. You’ll walk into a huge container, crammed like an oversized shoe box. You put on headphones and real people’s shoes, and then you walk, literally for one mile, while you listen to the story of a migrant who is now working as a street cleaner.
Are there any shows you’re particularly excited to present?
We are interested in the stories of the world, but I think it’s also really important to say there’s a huge amount of the Festival that offers a great night out. It’s unusual, entertaining, inventive work. We’re doing a show at the Barbican called Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, which involves 25 performers representing a movement in Japan of obsessive fans who come to concerts. They pre-rehearse their dance routine and coordinate their costumes on social media. This is a kind of craze in Japan, and it’s the most brilliantly bonkers 50 minutes that you’ll spend in a theatre. It’s a cacophony of noise and sound, where the audience wears ponchos, as they’re sprayed with sushi and food. It’s a loud, gregarious and fascinating insight into Japanese youth culture that will literally give you an experience that you’ve never had in the theatre. And it’s an incredibly exciting 50 minutes of your life. You walk out of that show thinking ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ll never see anything like that’. That’s the kind of thing we try to do at LIFT – those once in a lifetime experiences.
Another show that I’m personally excited about, as someone who grew up in the 1980s, where one of the defining political moments was the Falklands War, is Minefield. When Britain sent a task force to remove the Argentines who had invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, the war became a point in which Britain became very nationalistic – it was a real ‘flag-flying’ moment. It secured Margaret Thatcher’s premiership for the remainder of the decade, and was a pivotal moment in recent British political history.
Minefield is a co-commission with the Royal Court. We are bringing together on stage a cast of six, three Argentinean and three British former soldiers, who in 1982 were literally firing weapons against each other across the battle fields of Port Stanley. Bringing those former enemy combatants together to make a theatre show, talking about their experience of war, and their life after, debunks a lot of the myths that the government at the time created, as a way of understanding this jingoistic sense of nationalism. That feels like a really important thing to do, particularly as we send out soldiers, in our name, to go into combat in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. We need to feel a sense of responsibility of the impact of that, and this show perfectly captures the soldier’s experience.
How has the evolving cityscape of London influenced the type of work LIFT programmes?
We invite artists who are interested in London as a site to create work – not just generic work, but bespoke work for London’s nooks, crannies and interesting spaces.
Depart comes from a brilliant Australian circus company, Circa, who are devising a site-specific circus piece in Mile End Cemetery, which is a hidden jewel of London – an extraordinary deconsecrated church full of graves of people buried there over the past 200 years. It’s like walking into a Tim Burton film, as the fog rolls over the gravestones. To bring artists and audiences in, to animate and discover that site, is really exciting. That’s an example of the way we connect a physical location, but it’s also really important that we connect to London’s people.
We know from our research that Spanish is the second most common language spoken amongst our audience. So it’s a no brainer for us to bring more work from South America that directly speaks to that Spanish speaking audience in London. As London’s communities continue to evolve, so too will LIFT evolve and respond.
One of the things that defines this year’s festival is that audiences and artists are increasingly less interested in work that feels like a single artform, like a piece of theatre. They want work that puts them at the heart of the experience and engages with a variety of artforms. One of the big shifts that you’ll notice at this year’s Festival is a move away from theatre which ‘happens’ to people, to work that puts audience at the heart of the experience. We are programming work that lies somewhere in between music, dance and theatre. We know that’s what our audiences want –they’re much more promiscuous in their cultural appetite.
LIFT Festival 2016 will run from 1 June until 2 July 2016.