WHEN Manchester International Festival 2017 released details of its first four shows last week, two things in particular came to mind. One, despite the usual variety of originality and artistry - this year manifested in a huge Piccadilly Gardens fashion runway, amongst other things - was the lack of ‘celebrity’ names which usually pepper announcements. Two, a quirky concept running up to the event called ‘Festival In My House.’ But back to that later.
Participants will work with MIF staff to stage the event on a £1500 budget
Whilst it’s true that the festival does have a new director in the form of John McGrath, and hence an inevitable change of artistic direction, he tells me that he hasn’t actually dispensed with the ‘bigger’ names; we can expect some familiar personalities when the full programme is announced in March.
Yet it’s interesting, and significant, that he’s chosen to announce what are arguably more community-led events first; from What Is The City But The People? to My Festival and What If Women Ruled The World?
MIF Artistic Director John McGrath
As the theatre director’s background proves, it’s indicative of what McGrath is about. Following a period of producing plays in New York, he reopened Contact Theatre following its 1999 refurbishment, introducing in particular a focus on young people. Most recently, he was Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales; where he produced a lot of site-specific large-scale works everywhere, from hangars to mountaintops, as well as strengthening engagement through digital channels. Whilst MIF is his first festival position, it’s clear that the emphasis on community remains.
With last year’s concerns that MIF had ‘forgotten’ Manchester, forgoing locals in favour of cultural tourism, more involvement with the local community is arguably a necessity - although McGrath is keen to point out he doesn’t think the ‘Manchester’ element should outweigh the ‘international’ one.
“I think it’s important we have people visiting and enjoying the arts alongside residents. To be a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, we must have a cultural offering that appeals to audiences both global and at home.”
His point is backed up with the Factory - a £110m development which is set to be the future home of MIF, reflecting both ‘contemporary Manchester’ and a ‘modern world’. And, as with previous years under former director Alex Poots, 2017’s programme will appeal to a diverse demographic through over twenty brand new commissions.
The Factory will be MIF's permanent home when it opens in 2019
This year, however, there’s something only locals can get their mitts on in the lead up to the festival - and that’s an unusual new scheme called 'Festival In My House'. No guesses to what it involves, but how does it work? And who can get involved?
“We’re planning on nine ‘micro-festivals’ altogether,” says John, “one for each month in the run up to the festival starting in July. Anyone can take part - whether student, singleton or family - but we’re anticipating a lot of applications so, although subjects can be broad, ideas need to be very focused”.
MIF is piloting the project with two invite-only fests in Cheetham Hill and Levenshulme. M8 Festival will be based on social dance forms, while The Mehndi Festival invites local artists to create their own contemporary henna designs. While one is a lot more wide-ranging, John tells me, both caught curator’s attention with a clear sense of direction and ‘big ambition on an intimate scale’.
Mehndi is a popular tradition on the Indian subcontinent
So we know what they’re looking for - what happens if you’re chosen?
"Participants will work with MIF staff to stage the event on a £1500 budget, from commissioning performers to lighting and design. We’ll also help to market it, although obviously there’ll be limited capacity. But whether it’s just for the neighbours or further afield, it doesn’t matter. There’s a festival in Brazil where artists perform in people’s homes but we’re turning the idea on its head - the idea here is to show people what goes in to organising festival rather than just the end result.”
So, if you fancy playing MIF director yourself, get brainstorming and applying now: full information can be found here. As for the rest of the MIF programme, we’ll have to wait until 8 March - but something tells us McGrath will be pulling a few more surprises from his director’s hat yet.
Manchester International Festival