Interview: Mark Ball on LIFT 2016

MINEFIELD Credit Manuel Abramovich.jpg

The 2016 London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) line-up features an eclectic mix of artists from 14 countries, including three world and ten UK premieres. Over four weeks in June, London’s nooks, crannies and disused spaces will be animated by some of the most exciting, ground-breaking and inventive theatre being made internationally.

This year’s Festival sees Artistic Director, Mark Ball continue a long tradition of seeking out artists who critically engage with and respond to urgent social and political concerns of our contemporary epoch. “In 2016, it would be impossible to avoid artists making work about the migration and refugee crisis, or the increasing body of evidence that suggests we are living in a world that is less empathetic, characterised by increasingly individualised, atomised lives,” he says.

He stresses that ‘London’ is the most important word in LIFT’s title, and differentiates LIFT from the type of festival that could be presented in any other global city. “We’re presenting a festival that speaks directly to Londoners – to their passions, their communities, and we’re working with artists that engage with London as a unique site.”

To assemble the programme, Ball spends considerable time travelling internationally to see new work. “One of the things we try to do is take the path least trodden; go to places throughout the world that other people won’t necessarily go, to excavate, find work and bring it here.”

“The process of unearthing work involves meeting a lot of artists overseas on the ground, talking to peers, fielding recommendations and getting excited by seeing new work. It’s very seldom that I’ll see an artist and say that I want to programme their work in 12 months’ time. It’s far more likely that I’ll find an artist I admire, and over the course of three or four years, see more of their work and get to know them, because I want be sure that they’re going to work for London.”

Planning the Festival is a long term process. “Although we’re about to go into the 2016 Festival now, I’m already having conversations with artists that will be presented in 2018 or 2020.”

Over the past few years, the Festival has sourced work not only from English language speaking countries such as the USA, UK and Australia, but also from the Middle East and South America. This, Ball says, “is the type of work that directly speaks to communities living in London”.

“Where I live in Elephant and Castle, you now here Spanish spoken on the street more than English. Programming work from South America is a no-brainer. We also know there’s a really voracious appetitive from the Middle Eastern community to see work from that part of the world.”

Mark BallBall (pictured) suggests that one of the most exciting parts of the world at the moment, artistically speaking, is the Middle East, particularly in the wake of civil protests and the Arab Spring. “In many countries civil society has broken down, including the institutions that historically supported culture. Many of those institutions in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and other parts of the Middle East were deeply conservative before 2011, and the work that came out of them wasn’t particularly interesting. Since the Arab Spring, there’s been an explosion of independent artists making work in all sorts of spaces, because theatres have closed down or been wrecked. Artists are now making work on the street, from the rooftops, with a very independent voice.”

Closer to home, the Festival has commissioned a piece by a British artist, Claire Patey titled Empathy Museum, which draws on an increasing body of scientific data that shows our ability to empathise and understand the needs of others is being diminished by an aggressive, highly individualised culture.

“Work by neuroscientists suggests that we spent a lot more of our time, proportionately, looking at screens than we do at people’s faces, which in itself is limiting our ability to empathise. Claire’s work, made in response to this, is an installation called A Mile in Your Shoes. Over the last six months, Claire has been gathering stories from all sorts of people, many of whom are newly arrived in London.”

Audience members will enter an ‘interactive shoe shop’ – a huge container, “crammed like an oversized shoe box”. Putting on headphones and stepping into real people’s shoes, they will go on a mile-long physical, emotional and imaginative journey to see the world through the eyes of various real life migrants, such as a street cleaner.

While many of the shows presented at LIFT engage with the political zeitgeist, Ball is keen to note that a huge component of the Festival is unusual, entertaining or inventive work that simply offers a great night out. He becomes particularly animated when talking about Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, presented at the Barbican, which he describes as “the most brilliantly bonkers 50 minutes that you’ll spend in a theatre”.

Twenty-five performers, orchestrated by Tokyo-based artist and pop-idol Toco Nikaido, perform a frenzied homage to otagei – ritualised dancing and chanting by groups of obsessive fans who attend concerts.

“It’s a kind of craze in Japan. They pre-rehearse their dance routine and coordinate their costumes on social media. It’s a cacophony of noise and sound, where the audience wears ponchos, as they’re sprayed with sushi and food. It’s a loud, gregarious, fascinating insight into Japanese youth culture that will give you give you an experience that you’ve never had before in the theatre.”

Another show that Ball is personally excited about, having grown up in the UK in 1980s, is Minefield (pictured, top), a co-commission with The Royal Court, currently being rehearsed in Buenos Aires. The starting point of the show is the Falklands War, which Ball describes as a “pivotal moment in recent British political history.”

“That war was a point in which Britain became very nationalistic – a real ‘flag-flying’ moment. It secured Margaret Thatcher’s premiership for the remainder of the decade.”

The production brings together on stage a cast of six: three Argentinean and three British soldiers, who in 1982 were literally firing weapons against each other across the battle fields of Port Stanley.

“Bringing those former enemy combatants together to make a theatre show, talking about their experience of war, and their life after, helps to debunk a lot of the myths that the government at the time created, as a way of understanding this jingoistic sense of nationalism. That feels like a really important thing to do, particularly as we send out soldiers, in our name, to Afghanistan and other parts of the world to go into combat. We need to feel a sense of responsibility for the impact of that, and this show perfectly captures the soldier’s experience.”

Depart LIFT 2016 Credit John Angerson portrait.jpgBall is also proud of specially commissioned work that engages artists who are interested in London as a site to create bespoke work for London’s interesting spaces. One such example is Depart, a site-specific work by Australian circus company, Circa in a deconsecrated church yard. Ball describes the Mile End Cemetery as, “a hidden jewel of London, full of graves of people buried there over the past 200 years. It’s like walking into a Tim Burton film, as the fog rolls over the gravestones.”

Ball says that one of the defining features of this year’s Festival is multi-disciplinary work, driven by audiences and artists are like, who are less interested in seeing discrete, single artforms. “One of the big shifts that you’ll notice at this year’s Festival is a move away from theatre which ‘happens’ to people. Audiences are interested in work that puts them at the heart of the experience and engages with a variety of artforms. We are programming work that lies somewhere between music, dance and theatre, as we know that’s what our audiences want. They’re much more promiscuous in their cultural appetite.”

LIFT Festival 2016 runs from 1 June – 2 July

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Words by Georgia Mckay.