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“Presenting the work of international artists is crucial.” – Kris Nelson on bringing ground-shaking global theatre to London for LIFT 2020

[Kris Nelson]

Every two years, LIFT brings an explosion of international performance to spaces across London. With a well-deserved reputation for the experimental and boundary-pushing – plus a penchant for utilising non-traditional performance spaces and site-specific theatre – the festival acts as a chord between London’s performance scene and its global counterparts. Artistic Director Kris Nelson discusses curating his first full programme since taking the helm, why fact and fantasy is the theme of 2020 and why it’s vital we keep bringing international work to the UK.
The theme of LIFT 2020 is Fact and Fantasy. Firstly, why did you choose this?
It evolved out of a couple of things. Firstly, it came from an urgency to speak to the political climate and where politics are at in this moment, and to do that from the perspective of someone who is new to the country. It also came from a sense I have that contemporary theatre is about to go through a new wave and wanting to be a part of that transition. That is to say, performance that is rooted in personal experience, document, memory, testimonials has been very prominent in contemporary theatre. LIFT has been at the forefront of that kind of theatre for the last decade. Audiences have loved it, and we’ve worked with some of the world’s leading artists, such as Lola Arias in Argentina and Anna Deveare Smith from the States. This festival is about that kind of work (but only sort of) and also about imagining what’s next.
Tell me a little more about the ‘fact’ side of the programme.
‘Is this a Room’ by Tina Satter firmly roots ya on the fact side. She’s an American director and she’s made a piece that re-stages the transcript of a young ex-US Air Force translator being interrogated on her driveway by the FBI. The piece is so tight and such an incredibly compelling thriller that its excellence as a piece of theatre was undeniable. It also has a resonance with what’s happening in the UK in the sense that the story aligns chronologically with the stories of the whistleblowers connected to Cambridge Analytica and the Brexit vote. ‘Is This A Room’ is a real ballast in the programme, it’s definitely the thing for people who like proper plays and who like theatre in a maybe more traditional sense. But even with this, her most factual-based piece of work, there’s something about Tina’s style. Her other pieces are very ritualistic, really unusual, her work can be quite choreographic. But with this piece she’s pulled all that energy into something that simmers beneath the surface.

[The Argonauts]
And the ‘fantasy’ part?
That’s about a desire to see work that’s imagining a new reality and looking at other ways of experiencing the live moment. It’s artists who are building beautiful fictions - other ways of seeing the world in order for us to imagine the future and so we can look at the contemporary moment through another lens.
When you said you feel performance is on the cusp of a new wave, what do you think that’s going to look like?
Maybe it will involve a return to story. But the new contemporary theatre won't feel like the kind of plays you’d currently see at a play-making house. I think people will build on the experience of devised theatre and postdramatic theatre. So the post-postdramatic theatre could be something that has a really maximal aesthetic, is interdisciplinary and kind of uses fiction and story a bit more than the truth. Or no story at all and all about images and sensation. Those are some guesses. It will be fun to find out.
Returning to the programme, do you have a personal favourite piece you’re begging everyone to go see?
You can’t make me choose! [laughs] The benefit of having a programme of ten works is that I want to be at everything and I want people to come to everything. That was actually one of the tests of programming the festival: is this something I want to tell people to come to on their Wednesday night? And everything in the programme is something I want people to come to on a Wednesday or Friday night and bring their friends to. So it’s the All Killer No Filler motto, but it is true. You only get LIFT once every two years, we want audiences to make the most of it.

[The Feminine and the Foreign]
Why is the international aspect of the festival so important?
There are so many reasons. It’s aesthetic – we’re introducing London to ways of making performance that are very different to what you’d see here. And I think that’s especially true in London where a certain type of theatre dominates and there isn’t a lot of international presentation. The connections are also important. For example, this project we’re doing with The Nest involves them collaborating with activists in Tottenham and across London to make films which will portray London activists, Cape Town activists in films that are sumptuous and evocative, not documentary at all. Right now in the UK, xenophobia is boiling over. The very fact that there’s something called the ‘hostile environment’ which is an actual government policy that refers to visiting artists and migrant workers, for me, as a migrant and outsider its totally surreal. So at a time where the UK has real questions around what’s next for its role in the world and how it deals with its international population, presenting the work of international artists is crucial.
Does the political situation in the UK (specifically, Brexit) make it harder to programme international work for London?
Some things have been trickier this year. There are questions around freight and everyone wants to be paid in their own currency because they don’t trust that the pound won’t plummet. That’s some of the technical side. The morale stuff is actually the trickier part - as in do you want to face the gauntlet of the Home Office? - and that’s about the Hostile Environment not precisely Brexit. I’ve heard artists who are saying, ‘Hmmm I don’t know about going to the UK.’ Especially if, say, you’re an artist from Uganda and you’ve got a six date tour in the EU with one date in the UK, you’re likely to drop that UK date because of the double visa requirement. African applicants are twice as likely to be rejected for UK visas than their counterparts across academia, sports and arts. That’s a stat released by the Royal African Society this summer. It makes them think twice and consider other options which is a shame. They still want to connect with British audiences. London is a major capital and it’s so rare for international artists to be invited here, if you compare us to other cities of our size, so it means a lot for people to come.

[The Second Woman]
This is the first LIFT programme that you’ve been fully in charge of since becoming the festival’s Artistic Director and joint CEO. What has the process of curating it been like?
Really exciting. It was a different rhythm to get used to because before this I was running the Dublin Fringe, and that’s an annual festival with a focus and a drive that’s all about young Irish artists. It was daunting at first because London is vast and the city is your oyster with LIFT – there are so many options. So the first bit of my process was to set my own compass. And part of that involved finding projects that really spoke to where I want to take LIFT. We talk a lot with our partners (the Barbican, the Young Vic, Shoreditch Town Hall etc) about the things we can do together that we wouldn’t do on our own. That’s the magic of it and that became a big part of the curatorial process.
And finally, what does the future of LIFT look like?

Bold, bright and big! One of the questions we will be more explicitly taking into the 2022 programme is ‘What does an international festival look like in the age of climate change?’ We also want to continue to have an audacious spirit, continue to be on the edge and continue to introduce new practices and styles to London. Since its inception, LIFT has been a ground breaker, a pioneer, a trailblazer. The next step is for us to do that while the notion of an international festival is changing all over the world.

Kris Nelson: @krisanthenum

LIFT 2020
2 June – 11 July
Info and tickets:

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