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Interview: 'Acts of Hope' stun audiences at London's free outdoor festival this week

Wander round Greenwich in the windswept days towards the end of summer, and you’re sure to be met with something unusual. In previous years, you might have stumbled into a river of foam running down the streets, or a giant puppet of an antenna dancing down the road. This year, look upwards and you might just get a glimpse of dancers performing on the side of a high-rise building, or take a seat on a bus and you could find yourself in the middle of a raw, moving story.


Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF) is one of the most accessible and open events in the city: every event is free. This year’s extravaganza sees an exciting programme of national and international work come together in a mixture of outdoor arts, theatre and dazzling spectacle. 


One of the people responsible for making the festival a success is Executive Producer Ellie Harris. Taking place from 25th August to 10th September, the overarching theme is ‘Acts of Hope’. Amidst her fifth edition of GDIF, Harris tells Run Riot about the multi-tasking role of an Executive Producer, the struggles of funding against the cost of living crisis, and the importance of making the festival accessible to all.


Run Riot: Introduce me to this year's GDIF. How have artists interpreted the theme 'Acts of Hope'?


Ellie Harris: Every year we try and find new and exciting ways to engage our audiences, and this year is no different. We've got slightly less installation based work for 2023 - something we did more of over the past few years - and the spectacle is back with a bang!


Acts of Hope is a through-line, inviting audiences and artists alike to collectively think about what it means to be hopeful, how we can come together when we need to, now more than ever. Even when we're platforming serious and hard hitting subjects, we are (largely) doing so through a hopeful and forward-looking lens. There is action to it!


Run Riot: As Executive Producer, what's been your key role in bringing this year's festival together?


Ellie Harris: I like to describe our Artistic Director’s role (Bradley Hemmings) as painting the metaphorical walls bright and exciting colours, and then I go and fill in the edges and make sure it all comes together. I'm backed by a wonderful team who each play their part, from ensuring artists have the right paperwork to get into the country (a mean-feat since Brexit), to making sure our festival is more accessible for our audiences every year.


A normal day for me could be working out how to navigate a sunken house past wakeboarders and open water swimmers, figuring out how to make magic with our budgets, improving and learning about how to improve our carbon footprint, or I might be knee deep in risk and safety paperwork.


Run Riot: What's been the biggest challenge so far?


Ellie Harris: The biggest challenge has been the cost of living crisis and inflation. We've seen everything increase this year from personnel to kit hires, but the funding doesn't reflect the increase, unfortunately. We're having to try and think creatively to achieve the artistic vision of the programme.


Run Riot: And what are you most proud of?


Ellie Harris: The incredible, resilient and supportive team that works so hard to pull this thing off year-on-year.


I like to think that there's been a lot of change in the four-and-a-bit years I've worked with GDIF (this is my fifth) and I feel this is reflected in the tenacity of the people behind the scenes. Everyone is working towards the same end goal and they give so much heart and soul to everything they do. And I guess in any job, it's the people that make it, right?


Run Riot: Why is it important that the festival remains free and open to all?


Ellie Harris: GDIF occupies civic, public spaces. It brings work into neighbourhoods and communities of people across South East, East and the City of London and it’s important that these people are able to access the work taking place in their space. With the cost of living crisis ever present, it's important that, now more than ever, culture and the ability that it has to garner collective hope, mutual support and togetherness is fore-fronted and accessed by everyone.


Run Riot: This year seems to be all about looking up, with Tatiana-Mosio Bongonga's high-wire walking and BANDALOOP’s vertical dancing. How much of a headache have the risk assessments been?


Ellie Harris: I spent the weekend with a migraine... need I say more!


I kid. We work with really brilliant professionals who are aces in their fields, so it's been pretty smooth sailing this year in terms of the risk assessments. But there are a lot of them, and some do not make for light bedtime reading (unless that's your thing!).


Run Riot: Protest is another key theme at this year's festival. How far do you find the outdoor setting encourages the sense of collective action within art?


Ellie Harris: GDIF is a platform to speak about current issues and we'd be sitting on our laurels if we didn't forefront things that were happening in the real world around us. We're privileged to create space for artists and creatives who have something important to say, such as the Ukrainian artwork 'Bits Destroyed' in 2022 commenting on the destruction of culturally significant artworks by the Russians in the ongoing Ukrainian war, or '846 Live' with ATC and Theatre Royal Stratford East with their piece about Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.


This year, we turn to the 30th anniversary of the senseless murder of Stephen Lawrence with 'The Architect', an optimistic and forward looking immersive performance taking place on a bus, telling stories written by prolific Black writers, and supported by the Stephen Lawrence Foundation, as well as 'Woman, Life, Freedom!' which addresses themes of protest simply by singing and dancing in public - something that is forbidden in Iran, currently. Both pieces, and others across the 2023 festival foreground hope, not the darkness and address themes of solidarity and collective support to guide our audiences to think about what a hopeful and better future might look like. How we might stand together and act to achieve this more hopeful future.


Being outdoors allows for bodies in communal space beyond the confines of four walls, creating new worlds in spaces that are 'everyday' and reimagining the possibilities within those spaces.


Run Riot: What spectacle are you most looking forward to?


Ellie Harris: Such a hard question! There's a lot of love that's gone into every single show and each year I'm always surprised with which my favourites are.


Each year Greenwich Fair and Dancing City bring so much joy to thousands, and of course we have some *really* special spectacles for 2023. Ask me again after the festival?


Run Riot: Anything else readers should know?


Ellie Harris: We were awarded Platinum status for our access provision for Deaf, disabled & neurodiverse audiences by Attitude is Everything, and are the first UK festival to receive this accolade! Access is at the heart of everything we do. We're still on a journey and always trying to improve, but we're so proud to be where we are.


Greenwich + Docklands International Festival

Running until Sunday 10 September

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