JLife speaks to John McGrath, artistic director of Manchester International Festival, ahead of the star-studded citywide event from 4th to 21st July.
It’s John McGrath’s second time at the helm of Manchester International Festival (MIF). As artistic director and chief executive, he shoulders the responsibility of having the final say on what makes the cut in a festival which has evolved to accommodate an immensely diverse 18-day programme of events across the city.
“Because it’s a biennial festival, people often ask me: ‘but what do you do for the rest of the time?’ I have to convince them that’s it’s a full-time job nurturing projects on this scale. We’re already in conversation about some of our bigger works in 2021.
“You’re following your nose, but it’s not only about trying to decide which projects are going to be right for this festival, but which are going to be ready – many are three, or even four years in the making.”
John trained as a theatre director at Columbia University, working in New York for nine years before heading to Manchester to head the reopening of Contact Theatre. This redevelopment at the end of the 1990s bore many of the hallmarks of MIF as a young, ambitious venture, as John established a new kind of theatre with a focus on up-and-coming artists.
In 2009, he left to take up the role of founding artistic director for National Theatre Wales, bringing theatre to non-traditional locations across the country, from taking over Port Talbot with actor Michael Sheen, to inviting 1,000 local residents (and sheepdogs!) to perform halfway up Snowdon.
Eight years later, John brought this spirit for experimentation back to Manchester, building on MIF’s reputation for taking work into new spaces and redefining perceptions of what performance can be. Since it was founded 11 years ago, MIF has cultivated line-ups to rival some of the world’s biggest festivals: “We’ve always been really ambitious to show Manchester can play host to some of the best artists in the world. We’re really pleased with our line-up, bursting with household names like Idris Elba and Laurie Anderson – but we try to strike a balance between names people recognise and those we’re confident are ready to take the leap to the next level, such as Ibrahim Mahama and Tania Bruguera.”
All the projects showcased at MIF are new works which encourage artists to explore uncharted territory: “It’s a completely different process to a traditional festival where you’re booking finished work. In our case, the team are working with the artists to bring works to life that no-one has ever seen before. People can’t just go to another festival in Vienna or New York and see the same piece.”
With the artists’ projects constantly morphing, John and his team often don’t know what the finished product will look like until the day itself: “New things are being imagined in rehearsals as we speak. Sometimes during the festival, artists will be changing work as it’s presented. That can be scary and thrilling – depending on which way you look at it!”
This experimental ethos has nurtured an adventurous audience, willing to embrace risk taking: “People are willing to come along and give something a try because it sounds intriguing, even if they’re unclear of what it’s going to be – and the reason they’re not clear, is because we’re not quite clear yet either!”
There are no set themes for commissions, yet despite works being created across continents and disciplines, common strands will often emerge: “Our ethos is always ‘what would you like to do as an artist, that you’ve not had a chance to do before?’ Yet despite the absence of a framework, you still find crossovers arising, as artists respond to global situations. An interesting theme that we’ve seen this year is utopia, as artists imagine different worlds in the future.”
John and his team make a conscious effort to present work that attracts a range of communities and demographics, shunning the idea of simply catering to a traditional audience: “Older people tend to go to arts festivals in cities and younger people go to festivals in fields, but we’re trying to mingle those audiences. We’ve got classical music elements, such as our Shostakovich project in Bridgewater Hall, family activities in our free Animals of Manchester project in Whitworth Park, as well as chart-topping grime acts like Skepta.”
It has also stepped up its efforts to make the festival as accessible as possible – every festival now kicking off with a free public performance: “We want to make sure it’s easy for people to take the first steps into the festival. This year, Yoko Ono’s Bells for Peace invites people from across the city to ring bells together in Cathedral Gardens, while the festival hub in Albert Square will host music and performance throughout the festival from major acts like Horace Andy and Janelle Monáe – that’s completely free for people to just turn up and be part of.”
While the festival continues its partnership with traditional arts venues, from director David Lynch at HOME to composer Philip Glass at the Royal Exchange, the festival has become renowned for exploring the hidden corners of the city. An underground beer factory is currently being constructed in the hidden tunnels beneath Victoria Station while Mayfield, the former railway depot, will become the court of Kublai Khan.
“Manchester has a fascinating, unexpected and chaotic architectural mix and for artists that’s terribly exciting. We spend a lot of time early on taking them to look at spaces, which will often inspire their final work. These projects are built around Manchester – they simply couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
To find out more about the unique events taking place across the city, visit Mif.co.uk.