“Manchester is good at spotting an opportunity and going for it.” John McGrath from Manchester International Festival talks to Northern Soul
Last year was a harrowing time for Manchester. I spent the weeks following the terrorist attack on Manchester Arena in Kenya where I caught glimpses of the international news coverage and was moved to tears by the city’s courage, warmth and resilience.
Manchester International Festival (MIF) 2017 opened a month later, the first one for new artistic director and chief executive John McGrath. Having taken over from founding artistic director Alex Poots, McGrath launched MIF during a time of heartbreak and loss, but also of enormous hope and pride.
“The attack impacted the context of the festival,” he says. “People said that this was what we needed, and I think it helped.”
The opener What is the city but the people? – where the public were invited to witness individuals from across Manchester walk along a runway stretching more than 100 metres through Piccadilly Gardens – celebrated the city’s diverse population and took on an even greater resonance in the aftermath of the tragedy. “All of those works were impacted by the Manchester attack. Particularly in the way they were received.”
There were also smaller projects like Music for a Busy City which saw six composers choose a public place in the city to create a new composition. Set in St Ann’s Square, Mohammed Fairouz, a composer of Islamic descent, wanted to create what he called a secular call to prayer.
“That had been planned and written before the attack,” McGrath tells me. “But it became very relevant. Olga Neuwirth, who is a wonderful Austrian composer, created a piece for Manchester Victoria Station, so right on the doorstep of where the attack took place. In a way, it was a demonstration of a principle which has always been there with the festival. Manchester has a strong sense of why culture is important to the city.”
McGrath is no stranger to Manchester. While he has worked as a theatre director in New York and London, and been artistic director of National Theatre Wales, from 1999 to 2008 McGrath was artistic director of Manchester’s Contact Theatre.
He says: “What a festival allows you to do is dig in and ask ‘OK, well what is that culture? What can it become?’ and ‘who can we invite into the mix from across the world?’ It’s a point a celebration but also of reimagining what culture is to the city. There’s something about artists and creativity that almost senses what’s needed, even when we don’t know what the events are going to be, and that sense of coming together as a public and how we think about ourselves as a society was already present and the horrors of the attack raised that in specific ways.”
But programming a multi-art form festival must be challenging, particularly when it involves commissioning entirely new work?
“There’s a lot of risk and maintaining confidence in everybody’s instincts. Any other festival director, at this point, will have at least seen some of the shows and still have some to see. We’ve not seen any because none of them exist yet. We’ve had workshops and design meetings, but everything could, and should, change at the last minute.”
“It’s nice to have had a longer stretch going into 2019,” McGrath adds with a laugh. “It means that certain projects, that are maybe a particularly ambitious mix of art forms across a larger scale, will be more prominent in 2019 having had those two or three years to work on them.”
In a rapidly changing political climate (2017 saw the Brexit vote plus Trump’s win across the pond, and 2018 has been the year of the #MeToo movement), does McGrath think this uncertainty works in MIF’s favour?
“It works in so many ways. It makes Manchester a real go-to festival worldwide because there are significant artists trying new things. It makes us much more creative as an organisation than if we were simply programming already existing work. It’s also terrifying and an amazing juggling act, so you’ve got to be someone who thrives from risk.”
Last year’s MIF was a £40 million pound record-breaker. What aspirations does McGrath have for the festival in the coming years?
“A lot of my hopes are tied in with individual projects. All my energy focuses on those. There were three strands that we introduced last year that we want to develop in the next ones. Those were working in public space, so we will do another big opening event. It will be a unique art experience, not your standard opening event, but something quite different. We will create other work in public spaces in the city so that there’s free work people can see almost by mistake. So, you can end up going to the festival almost without intending to. We have a big network now called My Festival that anybody can join, and you can do your own projects. We have a great project called Festival in My House where we support people to run their own micro-festivals. There’s lots of ways that that you can get involved.
“Then, the third area, is digital. Last year, we commissioned our first game piece and we’re going to continue to do that but, also, rather than just have a website, we introduced a live site throughout the festival where content was appearing all the time.”
Of course, another area the MIF team is building towards is The Factory, a £110 million, 13,500 square metre cultural space in the heart of Manchester which will be MIF’s permanent home “We have now established a programme called pre-Factory events. We’ve got some events this autumn and more during the festival and during the build-up to the building.”
But what kind of work will be presented and what does it mean in terms of bringing more focus and funding to the North? “The Factory is a base where artists from around the world, that can be as far away as Sydney or Mumbai or as local as Manchester city centre, can come to create new work. Unlike most venues, it’s not predominantly somewhere where we’re booking in shows on tour from around the world. It’s a making space for artists of international quality. It’s also a training space where people of all ages, but particularly young people, can get the skills to work within the creative industries. It should be a place where everybody from Manchester and beyond can come to meet, have a good time, eat food and connect with each other.”
So, why the North?
“It comes out of the moment, which seems like a while ago now, where there was a lot of talk about the Northern Powerhouse and the Government trying to think about the ways in which the economy and life in the North could be better supported given the imbalance of resources to London. Manchester has a vibrant cultural life, but it doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure that London has so it’s about bringing some of that balance to the North. And then, importantly, and whatever our criticisms might be of the Government in London, they created pots of money which not only was money that Manchester hadn’t had previously, but it was money that the arts hadn’t had previously. It’s new money that covers most of the building and running costs. Manchester is really good at spotting an opportunity and going for it.”
Both McGrath and I agree that it can be difficult to sustain a living in the arts in the North but that things are – possibly – showing signs of change.
“It’s about having all the different bits of infrastructure, isn’t it? HOME is a great addition to the infrastructure, and the festival has been an important addition. What The Factory does is create a landmark building that does something a bit different than anywhere else in the country, if not the world, in terms of being predominantly a making place. I’m interested in independent artists in the city and how we support them, and Manchester and the region being a great place for artists to be based so they no longer have to go to London to start a career in the arts, they can stay here. That’s why we do the big training aspect, so that there’s opportunity not just on stage and in the painter and artist’s studio, but backstage and in the office for people of all backgrounds.”
I wonder what the North mean to McGrath. “The North is where I’m from. My family is a Liverpool Irish family so, it’s funny, I was talking to my mum the other day about whether she felt Irish and she said, ‘I don’t feel Irish and I don’t feel English, I feel like I’m a Liverpudlian’ and I think that sense that you get up here, that you’re from the North as a place and not some other national identity, is really strong. So that’s a big part of who I am.
“Manchester, for me, was very formative. I ran Contact Theatre for nine years at the point where it was reinventing itself and a lot of the artists I continue to work with now, and that are friends of mine, came through that space during that time. Like most people, I’ve always had quite a deep connection to the music of the city and that has always been quite intrinsic. There’s a sense here that the politics are different, that class doesn’t get in the way in the North like it can in other parts of the country. I think, as we talked about with the attack, Manchester proved itself as a proud multicultural city at that point. There is a political hope. The way that young people get involved and get active here is dynamic.”
But with a big international festival comes the worry that events become disconnected from their host city and, over the years, there has been criticism that MIF doesn’t engage with local people, venues and press. In fact, criticisms have been levelled that the festival is ‘Manchester’ in name only. Is McGrath aware of this and, if so, how does he plan to shape the festival?
“The goal is to be ever more international and ever more local and not to see those as contradictions in anyway and, particularly with The Factory, we will need to be both of those. Certainly, the response I got from artists visiting last year from across the world is that they felt a connection with the city and one of the things that excites them at being at the Manchester International Festival is the experience of being in the city for considerable periods of time while work is being made and the way that nourishes them creatively. We want to create more opportunities for local artists to connect with the festival and The Factory.”
McGrath carried out several consultation sessions with emerging and established artists. During these, he asked what the one thing was they wouldn’t want to lose from MIF. Their response was this: they didn’t want to miss the excitement of international artists coming to this part of the world and making work, but they’d like local artists to “get inside the work more”.
“That’s why we created projects like the Jerwood Creative Fellows where six Manchester-based artists were funded to be part of the creative process and rehearsals of six projects. We had another project called Creative 50 which was a much more down and dirty involvement of artists involved in the festival.”
He adds: “We must keep our focus. But, now that we’re a decade old, there are lots of ways that we can connect in ever deeper ways with the city and its creative communities.”
Photos by Chris Payne
Information about pre-Factory Events: Everything that happened and would happen, October 10-21, 2019.
Special Edition featuring Bonobo, Bugzy Malone and Bicep, November 3-10, 2019.
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