Our Artistic Director and CEO John McGrath looks back to a great, and very busy, MIF17 in his blog.
Manchester Airport 5am. The 6.30am plane to Berlin has become a bit of a fixture in my life in the past eighteen months, as so many of the artists who made MIF17 happen turned out to be based there – theatre directors such as Thomas Ostermeier (Returning to Reims), composers such as Philip Venables and Olga Neuwirth (Music for a Busy City) and visual artists such as Yael Bartana (What if Women Ruled the World?), have all made their home in the city. But for two weeks this year, many of them decamped to Manchester for one of our most international festivals to date. It’s been fantastic to gather up the evaluations and responses from artists who were part of MIF17; most of them have spoken of how special Manchester felt – the welcome they were given, both by the MIF team and our partner venues, and also by the people of the city, talking to artists on the streets and in Festival Square about their work – engaging in one big creative conversation.
At a sad and difficult moment for Manchester, just a few weeks after the Manchester Arena attack, the city chose to open its arms to the world in a spectacular and hugely generous way – and people from around the world noticed.
The artists came from far further than Berlin of course. This was our most truly global festival, with representation from China, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Iceland, the United States, and many more corners of the world. And audiences travelled from as far afield, some planning trips years in advance, others jumping on a plane, ‘because we saw what was going on online, and just had to be there!’
With a record attendance of over 300,000 this year, plenty of people clearly felt that ‘need to be there.’ The festival spirit, as much as the individual shows, ensured that Manchester felt like the place to be creatively for those 18 days. But, of course, the shows, and the artists, are at the heart of everything.
After spending such a long time on the development of each and every one of them, it’s impossible for me to pick out favourites, but certain images do stick in my mind: the moment that Big Issue vendor Stefan stepped out onto our huge yellow runway in Piccadilly Gardens to spontaneous applause from thousands of people; the almost hallucinatory patterns appearing on Liam Gillick’s extraordinary design for ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif); the stillness of actress Nina Hoss as she narrated the urgent political narrative of Returning to Reims; the puppet of Mohammed’s mother appearing magically out of a suitcase in The Welcoming Party; babies crawling across the set of BambinO; Dr Strangelove’s War Room appearing in the depths of Mayfield Depot; a delicate dance by new arrivals from all over the world for ToGather in Whitworth Park, the extraordinary lighting installations created for our Dark Matter series; a choir of men appearing from the distance and taking over the Royal Exchange’s stage in Fatherland; Karl Hyde urgently painting every inch of the walls of the old United Footwear shop with the personal stories of homeless people while the thousands watched in real life and online. Extraordinary images and moments – with lasting impact.
Our online offer was particularly important this year. As part of a huge collaboration with the BBC that saw MIF feature on everything from Breakfast TV to late night BBC 6 Music, with daily broadcasts from Festival Square, we also created MIF Live for the first time – featuring a constant online stream of news, livecasts, and specially commissioned digital work. With millions of views for our online offering, MIF reached more people than ever before this year. Young artists were a big part of this online presence: through our Creative50 programme, fifty young Manchester creatives were embedded in the festival, learning about how our international artists worked, and creating their own online responses. There were unique online-only commissions and events, such as our first-ever game commission Lost Memories Dot Net (which you can still play), and an extraordinary range of films and interviews, but perhaps the most special online moments were those that tied in directly with key live events. Our livecast of ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif) New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes.. reached millions of viewers, while our opening event What Is the City but the People? brought the stories of ordinary Mancunians to an online audience across the globe.
With active participation in the festival more than tripling this year, those everyday stories and voices were a massive part of MIF17, ranging from the hard-hitting and emotional Manchester Street Poem to our Fatherland Chorus of Others. And with MIF now running year-round activities such as Festival in My House, the opportunity to profile this work in Festival Square was a great addition to the festival experience.
Interestingly, this engagement with place and local stories was often cited by our international visitors most as one of the things they most appreciated about MIF17. With so many festivals and big arts or entertainment events essentially presenting the same work in different places, MIF is a festival where, not only is most of the work a world premiere, but also much of the work could only have been born in our great city of invention.
Which isn’t to say we’re not happy to be exporting our productions across the world! With one of our biggest hits from MIF15, Tree of Codes still on the road – next stop Melbourne – we’re all looking forward to seeing a number of MIF17 productions appearing in cities ranging from Sydney to Lahore over the coming months. HOME1947, Returning to Reims, Last and First Men, New Order+Liam Gillick: So it goes.., What if Women Ruled the World?, Party Skills for the End of the World, One of Two Stories or Both and The Welcoming Party, all have future lives in some of the world’s most exciting locations.
But first up was, you guessed it, Berlin, with one of the festival’s biggest hits 10000 Gestures which opened last weekend in the extraordinary space of Tempelhof Airport – the first of three MIF17 Productions to come to the city. It looks like I am going to have to keep getting up early to head to Manchester Airport!