LIFT: reformulating a festival

Aleks Sierz: interview with Lucy Neal & Rose Fenton

Lucy Neal, Rose Fenton

Lucy Neal, Rose Fenton

In September 1995, I was in Cairo for the Seventh Festival for Experimental Theatre, a rather tawdry and incoherent affair with official entries capable of boring the pants off all but the most committed cultural tourist. But, on the fringe of the festival, in a tent under the open sky, I managed to catch Hassan El-Geretly’s Tides of Night, in which the El-Warsha theatre group used a mix of actors, shadow puppets, Sufi poetry and a traditional stick duel to tell an enthralling tale of love and violence. When I got back to London, I contacted the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) and told the organisers, Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton, breathlessly about my discovery.

A couple of years later, El-Warsha was invited to be part of the festival, which biennially breathes fresh life into the narrowly provincial London theatre scene. Set up in 1981, LIFT has always been at the cutting edge, championing the work of Robert Lepage, Cristoph Mathaler and De La Guarda when these artists were not even well known in their own countries. But not only has LIFT promoted experimentalists who have stretched the definition of theatre, it has also redefined theatrical space, putting on shows in parks, a deserted railway hotel, on board a bus, at the zoo and in shop windows.

This year, Reich and Szyber from Sweden converted a sightseeing launch and lit up the Thames, while Bobby Baker performed Box Story in St Luke’s church in Holloway. From Italy came Raffaello Sanzio and his evocative, moody Genesi, as well as his children-only show, Buchettino. Meanwhile, the Hittite Empire performed Skeletons of Fish, their startling “urban micro-opera”, just as the aural cascade of Heiner Goebbels’ Sound City woke up music theatre with his group-created sound. Hungary’s Mozgó Ház brought his Romantic state-of-the-nation show, Tragedy of Man, and the Dutch company Hollandia staged their collage of Pasolini’s writings, Voices. Politics featured heavily in Georges Ibrahim’s Al-Kasaba theatre, from Palestine, as well as in a selection of works in progress from new Ugandan writers. More traditionally, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov electrified audiences with its portrayal of sex and power. Discussions, talks and exhibitions turned the ship HMS President, moored on the Thames Embankment, into a daily club for all fest junkies.

Regulars have noticed that, for its 20th anniversary, the festival was a bit pared down. The reason is that LIFT is about to morph into a yearlong event, with Fenton and Neal bringing over new work on a regular basis. Why the big change? “Over the past few festivals,” says Neal, “we’ve felt ourselves pushing at the walls.” Because “much of the commissioning involves collaborations between British and overseas artists, and has a yearlong life, we coined the phrase: ‘LIFTing the skirts’ 4 years ago.” It means “the festival frame was beginning to feel a bit pinched”, says Neal, and that it was time to change. “We were asking audiences to stuff themselves every 2 years—and that brings an extraordinary excitement and energy—but when we looked at it hard, we found that we wanted LIFT to be a crossroads, where exceptional things come together, in other ways.”

For example, when RealTime came to the festival in 1997, “it helped come up with the evidence that a festival sets out to be more than the sum of its parts.” RealTime came up with a metaphor, describing the festival as “interconnecting chambers—which you could explore one after another.” In other words, says Neal, “we are looking for the contradictions, the paradoxes and the fact that theatre doesn’t settle easily in a box.” So “the box of a festival, where everything happens in 3 weeks, now feels very artificial—and it’s not something we need to hold onto.”

“When we started,” says Fenton, “foreign productions just didn’t happen here. Theatre promoters told us we were mad to put on anything in a foreign language. Now, of course, there’s masses of choice: BITE at the Barbican and Meltdown at the South Bank—summer is just bursting with foreign shows.”

Earlier this year, LIFT brought over the heartbreaking [email protected] show, in which greyhairs play Elvis, from the United States, and Peter Brook’s Le Costume from Paris. But despite their success, there is evidence that London audiences are playing safe, and avoiding new or experimental work by companies they’ve never heard of. “There are various, different audiences,” says Neal. “We have programmed shows which act as a counterpoint to each other, but if the public doesn’t come, that is a very strong signal.” “It’s not a highbrow, elitist festival,” adds Fenton, “but you must always expect the unexpected.” After one performance of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, directed by Declan Donnellan, more than half the audience stayed for the after-show discussion, but then Donnellan is a big name already.

“We are trying to raise the possibilities,” says Neal, “to get people more involved in discourse, using theatre as a prism” for seeing the world. “When we say to people: ‘Come and see this show, it’s really amazing,’ they usually come.” This year, the pyrotechnic production, Christophe Berthonneau’s Garden of Light, was performed twice, creating “a temporary community which we held together for slightly longer, which enables new conversations to emerge.”

But LIFT is still always seeking “a better engagement with the public,” says Neal, who then moves on to bigger questions: “What resonates about theatre? What begins when a play is finished? We have set ourselves a 5-year project to ask such questions.” The artists that work with LIFT may increasingly be part of a season, with evocative names such as “Childhood Dreams.” “Romeo Castellucci is a good example,” says Neal. “Genesi, his show about the Bible, is quite different to Buchettino, his show for children. But, however different, to the company they are the same work. There’s a visceral quality to Buchettino—and for us it’s like planting a seed.” She wants to use such events as “gathering points for ideas.” In the case of Buchettino, LIFT is asking “in what ways can theatre be used to support children’s exploration of very profound issues, like death and abandonment, which the usual bland kid’s theatre doesn’t address.” Neal also wants to give credit to children’s intellect and “not infantalise them with kids’ theatre.” Various workshops and projects will build on the Buchettino show.

With international artists, who may come from Uganda or Palestine, says Neal, “we have fleetingly the opportunity to discuss the world and our sense of place within it in a different way.” With the Hittite Empire’s Skeletons of Fish came a series of events, curated by cultural activist Colin Prescod which, says Neal, “were a chance to oxygenate a much deeper, more personal—possibly not heard before in public—discourse that taps into the more private worlds of black artists in this country.” They addressed questions about “blackness”, and about the “aesthetics of black performing arts.”

Such events are organised with an ethos that Neal calls “conflictual collaboration.” Now that LIFT has shed the festival frame, “we can be lighter on our feet, more spontaneous and surprising,” says Fenton. Neal also points out that “the identity of London is changing; the idea of what is international is changing and the idea of a festival should reflect that.” “People have told us that LIFT has helped them rediscover their own city,” adds Fenton.

LIFT’s ambition to push the boundaries still remains. “We are still asking questions about whether theatre is a real public space,” says Neal. “How does it work? Which members of the public which have contact with it? Does it form public discourse?” She quotes Flaubert: “If you set out on a journey and you know your destination, then it’s not a journey.”

LIFT, various locations around London, June 11- July 8

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 27

© Aleks Sierz; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001
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