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Kris Nelson: If Society has Long-Covid, then LIFT has the antidote

Image: 'Sun & Sea', UK premiere at The Albany, 23 June - 10 July. Photo by Elon Schoenholz.

Interview with Kris Nelson by Maddy Costa.

A quick run down of the headlines since Kris Nelson took over as the artistic director of LIFT in April 2018 sounds like the start of a disaster movie. There’s Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, the fuel crisis, not to mention the climate emergency – absolutely none of which is conducive to curating an international festival of innovative performance. But is he daunted? Heck, no. ‘What I love about LIFT is that it’s a festival that's meant to wrestle with the headlines – it’s in LIFT’s DNA,’ he says cheerfully. With the 2022 programme days from opening, he talks to Maddy Costa about following artists’ imaginations and giving Londoners new reasons to love their city.

Maddy Costa: You spoke to Run Riot in March 2020, just before the pandemic shut down – well, everything – but in particular the first edition of LIFT under your leadership. How did you resist the temptation to just rebook everything for 2022?

Kris Nelson: LIFT is an alchemical, mercurial entity: Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal, the founding directors, shaped and reshaped LIFT all the time. We’re creating places where audiences can meet and talk to each other, around art and around ideas and around artists’ bold imaginations. It wouldn’t have made sense to rebook everything, the 2020 edition was for a particular time and 2022 is an even more particular year. This might sound odd as an organising principle, but I feel like society has a kind of long Covid. This year’s festival is designed to give people an antidote.

Our theme is Unexpected Perspectives and LIFT 2022 gives audiences lots of different ways to view performance and to view the world. We want to ignite people’s imaginations. Sun and Sea, for instance, is this massive, beautiful project that we view from above and watch life pass before our eyes. It’s an expansive statement – that big scale is possible – after we've all been in the Zoom room, or seeing the one-person show, the impact will be electric.

Image: Kris Nelson, Artistic Director, LIFT. Photo by Tyler Kelly.

Maddy: At the same time, there’s real intimacy offered in the programme – a depth of engagement – through works that invite dialogue and close encounter.

Kris: In theatrical terms, I can’t think of anything more intimate than Cade & MacAskill’s The Making of Pinocchio. They take Ivor MacAskill’s gender transition, their relationship as artists and a couple, and the story of Pinocchio and make this incredibly candid, clever, funny show about how love can endure as the people we love change. It’s so moving.

Then we’ve got a few places where where artists are proposing conversations and dialogue as a new kind of performance. We Should All Be Dreaming, by Sonya Lindfors and Maryan Abdulkarim, is part dinner, part salon, part lecture, part performance. It’s all about imagining the future. And the Kitchen Conversations, which are part of our project with the Nest Collective, comes from them wanting to connect from where they are in Nairobi with people who identify as being from the Black diaspora here, specifically people who are thinking about and working on societal change. In both instances, the event of conversation, of coming together is offered as a kind of theatrical form. Artistically, that's an exciting place to be in. And it feels important, especially this year, that meeting other people in your city, talking to one another, is a central action in a theatre festival.

Image: We Should All Be Dreaming, 23-24 June, at a secret location. Photo by Essi Orpana.

Maddy: Speaking as someone who has had to move away from social media to maintain basic sanity, public dialogue in the UK feels pretty toxic right now.

Kris: That's in my mind a lot. I still think that culture is providing all of the answers for how we can be in these times. And artists did that throughout the pandemic. Artists were saying, let's remake the whole system of how we’re going to do things. Artists are the ones proposing equitable ways of being together, of making space for people who are marginalised – it’s just that there’s resistance here for how that's taken up or not taken up by the status quo.

Some things are undeniable: it's undeniable that after George Floyd's murder, and the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, that the way we understand and counteract racism in this country has transformed. We're also in a cultural war. Culture is powerful. Artists make beautiful things, important aesthetic experiences that can transform how our society works, and who has power. For some that can be dangerous. The culture war we’re in now is trying to resist those transformations.

Colleagues say to me: you’re in the UK after Brexit, why? It’s because there's a lot to work on, and a lot to work for, and there are powerful, important, liberating things that are happening in the UK artistic scene, that are the answer to how disheartening Brexit is, and how disheartening the toxic conversation is, specifically around race and gender, within the culture war.

Maddy: At the end of your interview with Run Riot in 2020, you mentioned that a big question you were taking into the 2022 programme was: ‘What does an international festival look like in the age of climate change?’ How has the all-planes-grounded pandemic experience shifted your relationship to that question?

Kris: It's still very important for us that audiences here see performers from another country, another context, another vocabulary. It's really important that we support artists to be touring, especially artists from the Global South, who might rely on their European dates to pay for their whole ensemble all year round, and don't have the luxury of being on the train route between Utrecht, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, etc. It's also notoriously difficult for international artists to show their work here in the UK, because of barriers from the Home Office, because of aesthetic differences in the kind of theatre that's made, all kinds of things. Believe it or not, it can be tough sometimes to convince artists that going through the visa process of getting into the UK is going to be worth it: what the Home Office can do to people – it's published, it's the Hostile Environment – is not pretty.

So we want to be pandemic proof, border proof, as well as address the climate emergency. In some ways, the devil is in the detail: we won't have an outdoor generator this year, everything will be battery powered, and there are very specific show-by-show modulations that we're making across the festival.

We’ve also been trying new models. We ran a residency called Concept Touring in 2021, which was all about seeding international projects with little to no travel. For sure it was born out of the pandemic – but the idea of ‘concept touring’ was happening already, and gathers a lot of things that were really central to LIFT, and also to a lot of festival-making. Sun and Sea, a show that involves local choirs, uses an element of the concept touring approach; the work that Mammalian Diving Reflex were doing with LIFT Tottenham for six years and in all their tours is emblematic of it.

Two of the Concept Touring projects are part of LIFT this year: one is Radio Ghost by ZU-UK, which is a smartphone game that will be played in three shopping centres across the city, in Ilford, Brent Cross and Wood Green. The other is Giorgia Ohanesian Nardin’s Gisher, which begins inside a theatre, with their visual diary of being in Armenia during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict – a real bath in images. Then we leave the theatre to watch Giorgia tend a fire outside, as we hear responses from London artists to their film.

We’re taking on the climate crisis thematically too. Sun & Sea is a work whose beauty almost masks its message. We watch life unfold on a beach, it’s life-affirming, funny and touching. It’s also alarming and bittersweet; as we listen to the lyrics of the songs, we realise what’s at stake. We’re watching a pastime that, because of pollution or rising temperatures might not be around much longer.

Image: The Feminine and the Foreign, 2 July at Shipwright.

Maddy: You’re connected to an activist group yourself, the brilliant Migrants in Culture, who raise awareness around the Hostile Environment, and its impacts on individual lives but also all aspects of culture, arts and social, in the UK. Has that informed your programming of LIFT?

Kris: My involvement with Migrants in Culture was one of my entry points into the city, as a migrant from Canada via Dublin; I’ve participated in their meetings and been to some of their events. Since Brexit, they’ve been gathering migrant artists to raise awareness and take on the precarity of being a migrant in this country.

The process with the Nest Collective began with meeting the artists in Nairobi, falling in love with their work, asking them what they would do in a theatre festival, and them saying: we're film artists, we’re visual artists, we’re fashion artists, we make parties, we're not really theatre artists – so what do you want to do with us? Out of that conversation, which included talking about how migration is a theme in their work, came The Feminine and the Foreign, which is a film of theirs that we commissioned, based on their interest in starting a conversation from East Africa and connecting with Black diaspora, Black populations, Black activists around the world. They’re also hosting a big garden party – so Londoners will see how amazing they are as both filmmakers and DJs which is really exciting. We’re matching them with the South London DJ collective LOCAL for a daytime rave in the Shipwright, in Deptford, which is going to be quite special: a meeting place for LIFT habitués and people new to the festival.

You asked earlier about cancelling the 2020 festival: what I missed when the 2020 festival had to be cancelled wasn’t just the shows, but all the moments I had imagined happening, those moments where people meet around a performance, that magical glue that’s only possible in a festival. LIFT is a festival that’s always making memories in different places, a festival where international ideas become Londonised somehow, become caught and owned and wrestled with locally. Those things are true of LIFT no matter what, and we’re finding a way to make them true now.

For details of the full programme, and to book tickets, visit

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