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With the re-opening of outdoor festivals around the UK, John McGrath shares his thoughts on creating a responsible and safe festival that both responds to Covid limitations and offers a true artistic and community experience.

People sitting in tables outside in Manchester
Festival Square at Manchester International Festival 2019

© Louis Reynolds

March 2020: the conversations with artists started right away. Artists whose work was programmed for 2021’s festival and who were planning workshops, rehearsals, visits, within the coming weeks and months. Artists whose work, produced by Manchester International Festival (MIF), had premiered in the 2019 festival and who were due to perform with partners around the world. And local artists, who might or might not have a past relationship with MIF, but who needed space to talk. What has happened, what will happen, what can happen?

Even in those early days, it was clear that MIF2021 would be deeply impacted by the Covid pandemic. As a festival of new work, the process of developing each piece takes at least a year. For the larger work, co-commissioning collaborations with partners around the world are crucial to our capacity to produce at scale. But beyond all that, in a period of profound crisis and change, how could a festival of new creative work not be impacted?

If you’d asked me then whether I expected still to be dealing with social distancing and travel restrictions as MIF 2021 approached, I would probably have been hopeful that the worst would be over. Instead, worldwide, we remain in crisis, hopes buffeted by fears, vaccines countered by variants, and many countries at the very height of the pandemic.

Of course, along this journey, we asked ourselves whether we should postpone, taking a long hard look at all the options and talking to artists, technicians, festival goers, city leaders and more. But there were very clear answers: people need something to look forward to; artists and technicians need employment; our city needs to come back to life.

Confronting the challenges

The challenges remain enormous. We’ve planned for five different levels of Covid restrictions for every project, and the extremes of total relaxation and complete local lockdown are both still possible just a few weeks before we open. Safety has been at the heart of our planning – for everyone. As a festival which aims for seemingly impossibly ambitious results in often unexpected locations, our capacity around risk, health and safety, and rapid problem-solving, is well-developed.

Like the whole sector, we’ve been hit hard financially. Some corporate investors have paused their support due to the current economic uncertainty. Equally importantly, most of our larger shows are co-produced with international partners. But as they are in crisis too, there are very few co-producers this year. 

A festival that is urgent and right

In response to all of this, we’ve created a festival that focuses less on tickets and more on free events in the public realm, with a range of initiatives inviting citizens back into the city in a provocative and joyous way. We have less money to spend, but as much ambition as ever, and, from a 40-metre version of Big Ben in Piccadilly Gardens, to a book of Manchester love letters distributed from our grand Central Library, there will be plenty of excitement on the streets.

The ticketed events include the first ever show in The Factory – MIF’s new home which is continuing to rise on the Manchester skyline. A new work by Deborah Warner, Arcadia, will allow audiences a first visit into the partly built space. And The Factory is where we will be applying many of the lessons we have learned over the past year and building community ownership of this uniquely flexible building.

To be creating a festival now feels like a true privilege. From Boris Charmatz’s re-imagining of our long-planned mass-dance opening event as a thought-provoking walk down Manchester’s Deansgate, to Christine Sun Kim’s decision to ‘caption the city’ as we emerge from lockdown, and Cephas Williams celebratory activist artwork Portrait of Black Britain, the ways in which artists have used the opportunity of the festival to reflect on life now has been inspiring. The programme is very different from the one we had planned but I hope it feels urgent and right.

Both local and global

We are sensitive to the different ways that lockdown easing impacts different people. Increased access to performances and shows online has been a positive outcome of the past year and we want MIF21 to remain accessible, whether or not people can travel to Manchester or feel comfortable mixing in public. MIF Live, our digital offer since 2017, grew extensively over 2020 and we are planning a rich online festival experience throughout this year’s MIF too with some commissions - for example from Akram Kham and Angelique Kidjo - specifically created for digital audiences.

Even though travel remains restricted, we’ve kept international collaboration at the heart of this year’s MIF with commissions from over 20 countries - from Pakistan to South Africa, from Argentina to New Zealand – some of them remote. We’ve learned important lessons about working sustainably and flexibly. 

And, of course, we are as much Manchester as we are International. Local people are at the heart of many commissions as participants and co-curators. One of the unexpected benefits of lockdown has been a deepening of MIF’s relationships with local creatives. From artist drop-ins, to online residencies, to the re-imagining of our ‘Festival in My House’ programme as a series of events broadcast from artists’ kitchens, living rooms and back yards, we have been working in new ways with a wide range of Manchester’s talent.

In particular, we have been working on Manchester Independents – a new partnership in which cultural institutions identify resources - ranging from funds to expertise to space – that can be shared with independent artists and companies. With all key decisions made by artists themselves, we hope that this is a step towards a more equitable arts ecology. It will mean a wide range of independent work popping up across the city, alongside a very different, but hopefully resonant and joyful, Manchester International Festival.

John McGrath is Artistic Director of Manchester International Festival

Manchester International takes place 1-18 July in locations across Greater Manchester and online.

Link to Author(s): 
John McGrath