Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Speech given at the launch of the Flare Festival, Contact Theatre 31st May 2011

I am delighted to be here in front of you today launching the Flare International Festival of New Theatre for 2011.

We have been working for about the last 8 months pulling this together, gaining the generous backing of Arts Council England, Manchester Metropolitan University, particularly the Contemporary Theatre and Performance degree at MMU Cheshire, and the performance directorate at Salford University, and the Opal Foundation attached to Opal Student Housing.

We are also hugely grateful to our venue partners – Contact here of course, Zion Arts Centre and Capitol Theatre in the MMU School of Theatre - without whom this festival simply couldn’t happen. It has been fantastic to work with people who have been so enthusiastic and patient, as we have pulled our schedule together, and gradually put all the components of the festival in place.

This festival is about the future of theatre, where theatre might be going and who is going to take it there. This is new theatre by new theatre makers, artists re-imagining the form of theatre to create live performance experiences that speak to the times in which we live. Perhaps against the flow of recent developments, most of the work will happen in theatres, on theatre stages – this festival is not about moving away from theatre and theatres, but re-invigorating what theatre can be in the future.

Over 120 experimental theatre companies applied to be part of this festival – we had over 20 applications from Russia, as well as some from Chile, the Philippines, the Ukraine, Latvia and all over Europe. And we have selected just 24. 24 artists and companies who have made theatre events that we believe people will find hugely engaging, entertaining, challenging, funny, moving and thought provoking. We have packaged the work so that everyone can get to see a good range of pieces, even if they can only come for one night.

Being fundamentally about live performance this work doesn’t really transfer to TV or video, so doesn’t get beamed into peoples homes and develop the mass audience and the financial backing that goes with it. Being separate from most of the long established traditions of theatre means this work can’t assume established theatre-going audiences are going to flood in too.

And yet there is boundless creativity, and energy, and intelligence in this work. It needs to be celebrated, and the artists making it need to be given contexts, not just to show the work, but to benefit from being around their artistic peers. They need to share and exchange their stories, their practices and their experiences, they need to work together, talk together and yes party together too. And thanks to the generosity of the Manchester International Festival we will be taking all the Flare artists to the Live and Death of Marina Abramovic, directed by the world’s leading experimental theatre director Robert Wilson.

We are also bringing together some acclaimed speakers including Andy Field, writer for the Guardian and Co-director of Forest Fringe, and Terry O’Connor of Forced Entertainment for a panel discussion on the Future of Theatre, and some acclaimed practitioners including Karen Christopher of Goat Island, to run workshops.

This is an international community of artists, sharing a belief in the creative potential of theatre, and the theatre experience. And this community needs to reach out too, to new members and new contexts. In line with this, the festival is running workshops targeted at the young performers of Manchester. We have included two pieces performed by groups of current UK undergraduate students, directed by acclaimed theatre makers Oliver Bray of Until Thursday and Mole Wetherell of Reckless Sleepers, and we are bringing over a group of Croatian students who have been blown away by the limited amount of experimental work they have seen, and who desperately want to re-invigorate the theatre scene in Croatia.

So, many of the artists showing at Flare have graduated recently from universities, here and abroad, and are trying to make their way as professional theatre companies. You’re going to hear from Darren White shortly, a theatre maker who graduated from Salford in 2010 and has just performed at the prestigious Spill Festival in London.

But the schedule includes Paula Varjack and Martin Bengtsson from Berlin. Paula’s a trained filmmaker and a performance poet who will have just performed at Glastonbury. Martin Bengtsson is a musician, novelist and artist who used to play football for Inter Milan. Together they’ve started to make highly distinctive cabaret style theatre events.

The programme also includes a new work by a smith. Andy Smith has been working as an associate of the acclaimed Tim Crouch, co-directing his recent hit theatre piece ‘The Author’, which played at the Royal Exchange last year, whilst being based in Norway and holding a position as Artistic Fellow at Lancaster University. His is the most stripped down theatre I have ever seen.

And Irina Kondrashova, from the Moscow Art Theatre, has been directing plays in Moscow since she graduated in Cinematography in 2006, and will be bringing a piece for 2 silent performers, a torch, a cardboard miniature village and a live feed video camera.

This is work that doesn’t get seen enough, and always runs the risk of disappearing forever if it is not given a proper platform. It’s work that any open-minded audiences will relish, and with Manchester’s reputation for supporting all things new and original, this is work that deserves to be given the highest possible profile here in July alongside the big names in the Manchester International Festival.

So Flare has some big ambitions. It will be back again in 2013 and 2015, spread across more of the studio theatres in Manchester, again alongside the Manchester International Festival and again bringing the best of the newest theatre and newest theatre makers that we can find.

But for now we have a month to finalise everything, and with tickets going on sale tomorrow, the people of Manchester have a month to chose how they will make the most of what we hope they will see as a fantastic opportunity.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Ethics and the End of Theatre

Apologies for the rather grandiose title for this post, actually a conflation of two things – a heated recent exchange with the co-ordinator of an artist network in Berlin, and a first tentative observation, based on a series of enquiries and applications received whilst still 3 weeks to go to the application deadline.

The ethical debate, that to be honest took me rather by surprise, was the issue of whether a festival for new artists should pay those artists, and if not, whether it should exist at all.  My surprise, I should hasten to add, was not at the idea of paying artists, but that a festival that is putting pretty much all of its hard-earned funding into creating the best experience it can for its participants, should find itself arguing for the right to exist, and not with some governmental or funding authority, but with an unpaid artist network co-ordinator in Berlin. Writing this I still feel like I’m struggling for the moral high-ground, and yet the other option, the option to not exist at all would be an option to not support new artists and the health of a poorly acknowledged sector of radical arts practice, to not fight a difficult corner, and to opt for a much easier life.

If the experimental theatre sector in this country was properly respected and funded, able to easily pull a substantial public audience based on a high national profile, then I could see how a new festival with limited funding could be accused of trying to cash in, and at the expense of the artists involved. But we know we are fighting not just for new artists but for a whole area of the arts that will always struggle in this country - against TV, against the Great Literary Tradition, against that idea that proper theatre involves proper actors and proper plays and a proper posh night out. A festival aimed at raising the profile and status of experimental theatre in this country has got its work cut out - one of the reasons why we have tied our flag to the ongoing creative health and self-belief of the participating artists, and not to the number of column inches that even the local press will give us.

But moral indignation aside, it does expose the more intriguing question of when should we pay for the output of a ‘new artist’? When they are famous? When they’re dead (see most of history)? And can anyone tell the difference between a new artist on the way up, and a young person who has already exhausted their creative potential and will soon be doing something else? And if there’s no real ‘market forces’ to determine cultural value, who is to tell when a putative performance event is going to be ‘worth it’?  Is there supposed to be some omniscient being in touch with the absolute, able to predict and determine absolute value in a way that those lower down the order will happily accept? Oh dear, is that supposed to be me? Is that what a festival curator is?

And so to the end of theatre… I know it’s early days, but the applications, recommendations and enquiries are already falling, for the most part, into two piles. Bearing in mind our bold claim to represent the future of theatre, (and not wanting to identify any of the applicants at this stage), one of these piles is made up of work tied closely to long established theatrical practice, and the other is made up of work difficult to categorise as ‘theatre’. The pile of others, good and bad, is much smaller. I know I’ve yet to share a definitive definition of what theatre is, but it still looks like the future of theatre is either its past, or the future of theatre is no theatre.

Whichever it is, and still smarting from recent apparently ethical debates, this job is feeling a little harder going than it looked like it was going to be a couple of weeks ago...

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


So, tentative emails are being fired off to any institutions or venues likely to be supporting emergent theatre makers, applications are starting to come in, various conversations are underway, questions being answered. Important and deceptively simple questions too - about the kind of work we are interested in ‘is it experimental theatre or live art?’ (asks a producer in Germany), or about space and scheduling ‘can you accommodate a piece for 10 people at a time that needs to take over 8 different spaces?’

Formal and informal networks are becoming activated. Rumours that there was a lovely two hander in Huddersfield last weekend are dripping in, that there are some great students coming out of Fine Art in Nottingham, that there are loads of great emergent companies in Brighton. Dublin’s looking very promising, Portugal are getting back to us, Belgium’s got a lot of options.

Quite a few solo shows are being mentioned, worryingly as we’re guessing at 22 performance slots and 150 participating artists (that’s an average of 6.8 participants per show), even though some of them look really exciting. We’ve also got four venues centred around largish end-on studio theatre spaces, whilst a lot of the work being mentioned seems to have left that frame behind long ago.

I was going to call this post What’s it for/Who’s it for? or Who needs Who? as questions about the target participants are starting to raise their heads. There seems to be a significant divide between the confident and articulate middle class theatre graduates (you can tell from the group photos on the websites), who will no doubt weigh up the pros and cons before deciding to come, and those who came through access courses into ex-polys, with shakier grammar but an earnest desire to be there, and with work that sounds much more challenging (perhaps no surprise). I haven’t divined such distinctions outside of this country, but I have been reminded of my moral responsibility, particularly given the imminent demise of ‘higher education affordable to all’ in this country, to maintain a breadth of social diversity.

And definitions of emergent are clearly varying – both a German and an Australian have recommended work by (different) artists well established on the small-scale touring network in the UK, work that I have programmed previously at the Axis Arts Centre. It needs to be newer than that, their generation is already up and running – we need folk that will really welcome what such a festival offers, folk that will really contribute to, and really be affected by, the intensity of the communality of experience, the contextualising, the networking, the shared and diverse aesthetics and influences.

Because in many ways we are co-ordinating a meeting, planning a wedding feast, bringing together those who have so much in common and so many differences, those who might share in the sense of occasion, in the optimism, in the opportunity for creative fraternisation (whatever that might be). But still, at the centre of it all, there needs to be really good work – vital theatre that reminds, or surprises us, about what’s possible, of what it can do, of what it can be, and why the moments when such events can happen are worth making, why a lot of people should bust a gut for a long time to pull together all the necessary components. That’s why I’m doing it anyway. Last time, a huge wall of beer crates crashed to the floor as five people in antique costume, gold helmets and squid masks slowly, so slowly, raised their arms. And two boys in high heels kicked holes in the walls. And someone behaved a little too much like a mad dog. I want to know what’s going to happen this time…

Sunday, 6 February 2011


So, we’re going with ‘Flare – International Festival of New Theatre’. Well it can’t be too long, and people need to know that it’s a festival (whatever assumptions that word triggers), and that it has some sort of scale, of geographical significance combined with an assumption of greater selectivity, or just that it will include work by foreigners, people with the determination to cross water, to show their work to you, the potential audience. Of course I could try to unpack the word ‘international’ a great deal further, but it’s the 'new' that feels like the biggest gambit.

As mentioned before, we stand alongside a bigger player with a commitment to ‘original, new work and special events’ – and as such we hope that our ‘new’ invokes their ‘new’, becoming defined as it is by what they have shown before, their acclaimed previous programming, and coloured, as it is, by their daring claim to originality.  But we have to stand on our own feet as well. We are saying that one of the key factors of what we will be presenting is its novelty - that you won’t have seen this work before.

But it has to be more meaningful than that – it’s arguably the key word in the phrase – you wouldn’t expect us to include another ‘new’ production of the Mikado, or even a brand ‘new’ musical written by some budding Tim Rice. And it would be nice if we could take that logic a stage further – of course any live performance is new, so there has to be something ‘about’ the work that will highlight its novelty. If the Mikado example is acceptable, are we inferring that this isn’t about new versions of performances that have happened before? Is our strapline therefore suggesting that the festival will exclude any performance based on an existing theatrical text, where the text is treated as an outlined performance, and not just words (and notes) on a page served up to a wholly separate artistic process?

And if budding Tim Rices are not welcome (in the nicest possible way) is our header suggesting that it’s not about new works build around firm and long established structures or conventions? Does ‘new’ really convey that we want to exclude not just existing plays, but any new plays by any playwrights?

In some ways the question of text actually simplifies things. Take it away and ‘new’ falls short again of comfortably communicating the body of practice we are likely to end up presenting. After all, much of it will have antecedents of some kind or other, and its tropes and structures, whilst not rooted in long established theatrical tradition, will not be entirely unknown or unpredictable either. Most of the participants presenting will also be relatively early in their artistic development (reference to ‘new theatre makers’ will follow in the expanded festival blurb) right in the middle of that phase often dominated by the influence of other bigger players in the field. If the eagle-eyed critic can claim a relationship to Forced Entertainment, or Punchdrunk, or the Wooster Group, or Pina Bausch, has our main criterion been exposed as a sham?

Perhaps the two words are better taken together. ‘New Theatre’ smacks of an established category of performance practice (yet to be properly defined…) whilst at the same time seemingly playing high status to whatever ‘Old Theatre’ might be. It’s not going to win us friends amongst those whose theatre practice is not represented in the festival, but perhaps it does suggest that Theatre should be leaving the most dominant previous forms behind, looking to the future for its definition rather than its past.

And if nothing else, this inflection feels most secure. This will be a gathering of ‘new theatre makers’, people just starting to layout their artistic agenda, with their future as theatre artists ahead of them. To offer an industrial analogy these won’t be apprentices refining their skills on the factory floor, but new entrepreneurs setting out their own stall and seeing if their ideas sell. And of course there’s not an industry involved here, literally. Even if their ideas do resonate with their audiences and peers, they won’t make it big, they won’t be able to retire on the profits. These people, attempting to answer the question that ‘new theatre’ asks, are committing to a process without an ending, to a practice that won’t pay back, beyond the artistic satisfaction of knowing their ideas, manifest however they are, have a positive impact on the people who experience them.

What the festival means by ‘theatre’ I’ll leave for another time…

Sunday, 23 January 2011

First thoughts on curating the Flare Festival

So this is the start of it - the blog and the process of putting this festival together. Of course it is not really the start, it would be hard to be really specific about that, but if we're talking about the decision to take it on, that was taken at some point in the first half of last year (2010), with some thoughts about it going back a year from even then. But conversations with the venue heads that took place around October/November 2010 marked a significant point when it looked like it could actually happen, securing the involvement of my two fellow directors, Kevin Egan and Lisa Mattocks was another, but the key one happened last week, when the Arts Council confirmed their willingness to give us £10,000 towards it, supported by the Dean of MMU Cheshire's agreement a few days later to give us £4,000.

So what is 'it' going to be? Well the idea is to build on the MIST (Manchester International Student Theatre) festival of 2007 - a performance festival that borrowed Manchester International Festivals' dedication to 'New and Original' work - but to move it way from being a student festival, partly to give it the chance to become a bigger deal as a festival not limited to one, albeit very large, sector of the population, and partly because it is really pretty difficult to establish yourself as someone seriously willing and able to contribute to the future direction of theatre in this country, when you have only really been part of the theatre making community for a year or two at university. The idea with Flare is that it should target graduating theatre makers, or those at a similar stage of development, as these seem most likely to possess the potential to make a significant mark, but have yet to do it.

(I should probably say as well, that Flare 2011 is intended as a pilot for Flare 2013, which will, we are hoping, happen across all the major studio theatres of Manchester, and thus begin to feature on the wider radar that is of course already well tuned in to the Manchester International Festival.)

The questions I really want to take on here, and mostly because I am hoping to work out the answers through the process of writing this, are (for now) the following:

What kind of work will be represented by this festival?
What characteristics will the pieces selected share?
What characteristics will the makers of the selected work share?
What is the job of selecting work for this festival really about?
What criteria will operate?
How sensitive should the curator of such a festival be to accusations that it is all about (their/my) personal taste?
What are the implications of making this an 'international' festival?
What is the political function of selecting for a festival like this? What is the point?

As someone with almost 20 years experience of teaching contemporary theatre at university, and almost that (alongside) of programming professional theatre and performance for a university and public audience, I know I have a good claim to position myself as an 'expert'. But what does that mean? And does it equip me effectively to recognise 'the future direction of theatre in this country' if it came up and slapped me in the face?

And then the worst question of all - is there some great delusion going on here? Does 'contemporary' or 'experimental' theatre really represent the 'leading edge' of the artform anyway? Is theatre (in this country at least) moving in this direction at all, or is this just about throwing un-necessary attention on a poorly supported back water of practice, of little relevance - now or in the future - to what theatre might widely be perceived to be?

I'm sure more questions will arise as well, but the intention broadly, is to offer an 'insider perspective' here, less an expert critique of performance festival curation, and more some (flawed and sporadic) access to the process of doing it, plagued as it will be by a wide range of concerns (as above) around what I am doing, and why. I hope it's worth reading...