Interview: 'Shining a light on the stories of the world' - Artistic Director, Mark Ball talks to Run Riot about LIFT 2012
The global spotlight's on London, and London is delivering some impressive cultural treats - among these is the bi-annual London International Festival of Theatre - LIFT 2012. With the launch imminent, we caught up with Mark Ball, the Artistic Director and Chief Executive. Following a hugely successful 2010 festival, LIFT's independence continues to shine brightly with a host of new commissions and partnerships presenting work from some of the worlds most edgy, provocative and political theatre makers. Here we ask Mark about some the festival highlights, feeling the ripples of the Arab Spring, shaking up UK arts sponsorship, and taking a theatrical 8-hour production of The Great Gatsby from New York to the West End. LIFT 2012, 12 June - 15 July, at various locations across London, liftfestival.com
RR: 'Shining a light on the stories of the world' - with this being the festivals' strap-line, is there a unifying strand running through the program?
Mark Ball: I have never programmed whole festivals thematically but there are clearly some unifying strands in the festival; some that are new and some that continue the interests LIFT has developed over the last 30 years. In short I think it's important that we satisfy the curiosity of our inquisitive audiences by bringing work from across the world - that would otherwise be unlikely to be seen in London - and work that doesn't just tell us about the stories of the world but that inspire us to see our own city afresh. There are clearly some important characteristics about the festival and its programme: we are the London International Festival of Theatre and so we are interested in using London as our stage; crafting site-specific work by UK and international artists that allow us to re-imagine our familiar environment through the eyes of artists. In our DNA is a curiosity about the world and an interest in political and social change which is evident in the really significant body of work being made and presented by a new, younger generation of artists from the Middle East, work that tells us about the immense changes going on in that region and its impact globally. We love finding new ways for the audience to be at the centre of things which is why much of the work provides participatory opportunities for non-professionals to create extraordinary work with international artists.
And in 2012 when the eyes of the world are upon us we have been inspired by the ambition if the Olympics to produce some really extraordinary works like GATZ and One Extraordinary Day.
RR: Tell us about the staging of GATZ, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - LIFT's West End premiere!
MB: Many years ago LIFT tried to present an Elevator Repair Service show but for various reasons it didn't happen. But we had stayed in touch with the company and of course many of their members are also in The Wooster Group, who were first presented in London by LIFT. In December 2010 I went to see GATZ after hearing all the hype about it. I must say I was a little trepidatious, unconvinced I would survive an 8-hour word-for-word reading of the book on stage. But it was brilliant and totally absorbing. It's incredibly and inventively staged with the action moving in and out of a run down office and the world of Gatsby - the performers are mesmerising. And because you hear every word you realise what an incredible piece of writing it is - that it really is a literary masterpiece. But most importantly for me - and why The Great Gatsby has suddenly caught the zeitgeist - is that the theme of the book is utterly relevant to our time today. It's about power without responsibility and the carelessness of wealth; it's about a generation of people partying on the edge of a precipice without any moral compass to guide them. This novel was written in 1925 just a few years before the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression - it really is a story for our times.
I instantly decided to move heaven and earth to make it happen in London and instinctively felt it deserved a big audience so the West End felt like the right place. It's a really incredible theatrical event and although it's eight hours long there are three breaks, one of which is for a hearty 'GATZ dinner'.
RR: Isn't it a bit risky having Rimini Protokoll (a German company) present a show to a London audience - about Londoners?
MB: No. Though of course one of the core beliefs at LIFT is that artists from overseas can help us re-imagine what we think we know. But this production isn't performed by Rimini Protokoll - but conceived and directed by them. It's performed by 100 Londoners who have to perfectly represent the demographics of London as defined by census data. The recruitment is a fundamental part of the story. In February we recruited the first performer, they had 24 hours to recruit the second and so on, with each person recruited depending on their age, gender, ethnicity, household type and geographical location. We currently have 90 performers signed up but of course it gets harder as you go along but if anyone wants to take part do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm really looking forward to seeing the 'real London' on stage but this isn't a dry representation of statistics - it will take you behind the stats to reveal true and often unusual stories about London.
RR: We're excited to see directors Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg (Shunt, Electric Hotel) team up again for a new production - what can we expect?
MB: A surreal and dreamlike journey into peoples private world. And people dancing with, in and on cars! There is wonderful sense of desolation and otherness about this production reinforced by it's physical location on the edge of the city. #motorshow
RR: On 18 December 2010 the Arab Spring began - since then rulers have been forced from power, yet elsewhere, civil uprisings endure where dictators 'rule by murder and fear'. This years LIFT has several companies from the middle east telling their stories - can you tell us more about them?
MB: In the middle of 2009 when I arrived at LIFT we made a 6-year commitment to work with Middle East artists. We decided to put our money where our mouth was and say that 30% of our programming budget should be spent supporting work from the region. Even back in 2009 it was obvious that change was afoot in many countries. Through travelling around the region I came across a young generation of independent theatre artists who were weren't prepared to play by the old rules. They were starting to make work that challenged the status quo and they found inventive ways to slip under the radar of the government censor. The region is so important geopolitically: what happens in the Middle East ripples out to affect our daily lives in London. Given that, I felt it was important to give voice to the new generation of artists who were making work that told us something new about their own societies.
I'm very excited about this body of work. It includes: Romeo and Juliet In Baghdad by the Iraqi Theatre Company that was made under the protection of the Green Zone - it looks at sectarian conflict in Iraq through the prism of Shakespeare's greatest love story; Macbeth: Leïla and Ben – A Bloody History by the Tunisian company APA, who we presented in 2010, which looks at the brutality of the Arab Dictator through Macbeth; and 66 minutes in Damascus created by an amazingly talented theatre and film maker Lucien Bourjeilly that takes audiences into the dark heart of a Syrian detention centre for a powerful and unforgettable experience (the authenticity of this show is amazing - it's really been thoroughly researched and involves some performers who are former detainees).
RR: You're LIFT's fourth Artistic Director, following on from co-founders Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal, succeeded by Angharad Wynne-Jones - how has LIFT changed since it established in 1981, and what is your vision for its future?
MB: At our 30th Birthday party last year I made a jokey comparison to the regeneration of the lead character in Dr Who! And you do genuinely feel the obligation to keep the torch burning brightly so that it can be passed on to others.
We are all very different. Rose and Lucy are legends whose vision and determination created something incredible that has had, and continues to have, real influence on British Theatre. Angharad brought a renewed commitment to engaging disenfranchised communities on the edges of London with a programme of participatory work which is reflected in 2012 by our project with the Iranian Director Hamid Poorazari who is creating a work with 70 refugees and residents in Croydon.
I hope that I can build on all of their work and also bring a sense of spectacle, fun and ambition - GATZ and One Extraordinary Day by Elizabeth Streb is probably a good examples of that. I am also determined that our work appeals to a new generation of audiences who expect something different from their theatre attendance.
RR: What's your take on arts organisations enjoying support by less-ethical brands from industries such as oil (BP, sponsors of Tate; Shell sponsors of the Science Museum) and tobacco (Japan Tobcacco International, recently awarded by A&B for their sponsorship of the Ulster Orchestra - endorsed by the DCMS), among many others?
MB: Wow that's a difficult question. I know many organisations are cash starved and that sponsorship wherever it comes from is appealing. But I do think it's interesting that those organisations taking oil and tobacco money are probably the ones that need it least as they have the in-house resources to attract other forms of sponsorship. I like the idea of awards for 'clean sponsorship' though defining that would be very difficult - even the 'cleanest' cash can have the grubbiest background! But yes, ultimately I do think that the arts, as opinion formers, should be taking a lead on this and the efficacy of some existing large sponsorships are in my view questionable.
RR: What opportunities are available for our readers to get involved behind the scenes at LIFT 2012?
MB: We love volunteers at LIFT. They are the backbone to the festival and we really try to give our volunteers a great and interesting time. We already have lots recruited but we still need more so if you are interested please contact email@example.com
RR: What is your personal highlight for this years festival?
MB: That is liking asking me to name my favourite child and I just can't pick one highlight. We're really proud of the programme and as I've said before - if you love theatre, and are curious about London and the world - then LIFT 2012 is the event for you.
12 June - 15 July
At various locations across London
Prior to his appointment at LIFT, Mark established Fierce Earth Ltd in 1997, which specialises in the production and presentation of cultural events, festivals and programmes. From 1998 - 2007 he directed Fierce!, an annual international festival of theatre, live art and contemporary dance taking place across the West Midlands which is now widely recognised as one of the UK's most vibrant contemporary arts festivals. In January 2008 he was appointed Head of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, leading a new department responsible for developing the profile of the RSC amongst new audiences by producing and delivering a range of high profile artist-led projects and commissions.
In November 2005, Mark was named the Institute of Director's (IoD) Young Director of the Year and was made a Clore Fellow in 2006/2007. He also holds posts at a number of arts organisations including the Fellowship Council of the Royal Society of the Arts and Trustee of Creative Republic and the Live Art Development Agency.