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The theatre of empathy. Artistic Director, Mark Ball on LIFT 2016.

Since 1981 the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) has been bringing work by acclaimed international artists to the capital. It’s always been a spectacular event that's responded to a shifting local and international landscape. But since current Artistic Director Mark Ball started in 2009 it's also felt personal - a love letter to London as well as the artists and audiences who shape it and are changed by it.

From 1st June to 2nd July performances designed to speak directly to London’s communities and celebrate the capital’s unique spaces and environments will be springing up. From the Barbican and Royal Court to music halls and cemeteries the festival is lifting a lid on the intercultural landscape of our capital.

Highlights this year include Lola Arias’s MINEFIELD (read the Run Riot Interview with Lola and Maddy Costa here), which brings together British and Argentinian veterans of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas war to share their first-hand experience of the conflict and life since; On The Move, which is taking over the Royal Court and is inspired by the migrant crisis; the Empathy Museum, where installations and events explore how empathy can have the power to transform our personal relationships and tackle global challenges.

“That the focus is on empathy for this year’s festival is really important and it’s clearly an issue that artists are feeling much more engaged with,” Ball says. “It came about due to two reasons, one is what is happening globally with the mass movement of people across the continent and the treatment of migrants and refugees. There is a clear lack of empathy that is affecting the lives of these people. But for the accident of birth anyone of us could be Syrian so it's really vital that we need to find a way to put ourselves in those people’s shoes. I think empathy is really important in building cities of understanding,” he continues. “There is a growing body of evidence that with our stream based, individualistic culture we are living increasingly atomized, slightly disconnected lives. We are spending time staring at our phones rather than looking at people's faces - that in itself is actually leading to a lack of empathy and neuroscientists are telling us that it's limiting our ability to be empathetic. I think the convergence of these factors has made artists really interested in this issue.”

Honour Bayes sat down with Ball to talk communities, the EU referendum, what makes London special and his picks of the festival.

HB: You once said LIFT could be called the “London Intercultural Festival of Theatre” because “it’s much more about how the works we bring into LIFT talk about the relationship between culture and communities, rather than a generic impression of the city’s internationalism”. How hard is it when programming an international festival not to fall into the trap of a blanket cosmopolitan mentality?

I think one of the things that I was always conscious of when I got to LIFT was that, having travelled a lot and seen a lot of festivals around Europe, that a lot of European festivals despite having brilliant content, felt a bit generic. I felt that you could travel from Berlin to Antwerp to Paris to Brussels and see the same body of work but it didn’t seem to really matter which city you were in because there was a lack of connection with the city. But for me, the most prominent and important word in the title of “LIFT” is the “London” International Festival of Theatre. That has driven the programming in some specific and obvious ways.

Firstly, it really makes us use London as the site for artists to explore. To really think about work that uses London as a canvas. Using the city - its architecture, its social history - as a stimulus for artists to make work that responds to the city and its physicality as opposed to just presenting work that is just to be seen on stages.

Secondly, we wanted to make sure that the work connected to the fact that London is the most culturally diverse city on the planet. 307 languages are spoken here. The world is in London, and LIFT is an opportunity to bring some of the world to London so we are very interested in engaging with particular communities that are really growing here.

In the past few years we’ve done a lot of work with artists from the Middle East, that's been about connecting to those communities. We are increasingly responding to the fact that one of the biggest growing communities in London is the Spanish speaking South American community. We know from our audience research that Spanish is the second language that our audience speaks. And so finding a way to bring work from Latin American that speaks to those communities is important. We also know that London has the biggest concentrated Japanese community in Western Europe. So it’s not just about London as a physical site that people should respond to but as a living, breathing organism that is constantly infused and enlivened by its diverse community and making sure our work responds to that. That has been a very guiding principle for the programme.

HB: So you’re responding to a very specific audience. 2014 was the first time you were able to do your own ticketing which must have really benefited you in learning more about who they are.

It was an enormous benefit because it means that not only can we capture information about our audiences directly, but we can have an ongoing conversation with them throughout the year. We’re not just popping up once every two years in their mind, we can keep on communicating with them. Increasingly we’re doing more continuous work, like the dreamthinkspeak show (Absent) we did at the end of last year.

HB: LIFT has always had a very contemporary political focus to it. This year the EU referendum is taking place, and even more pertinently for you, it’s happening at the end of the festival – how is LIFT responding to this?

LIFT is predicated on the spirit of openness, exchange and free movement. The ability to move artists freely in and out of London is massively important to the health of, not just the Festival but to London’s artistic scene. One of the things over the past 30 years that people have constantly said about LIFT is “It was seeing Robert Le Page in 1983 that changed my artistic practice", “It was seeing Castellucci in 1993 that changed by artistic practice”. LIFT is a way of bringing in really influential artists from across the world's who are at the top of their game and who can encourage British artists to have a different perspective.

I think we might be going to a moment in time where the country is more inward looking, more insular, less connected globally which would be a disaster. I stay hopeful that there will be a vote to stay in the EU, because I think the implications of the No vote on the free movement of people and of artists, not just with the amount of additional work we would have to do to bring artists to the UK, would be that the perception of the UK as open, tolerant and connected to the world would be really badly damaged by a vote to leave.

More importantly, if you look at what is happening in the rest of Europe with the rise of nationalism and the far right in places like Hungary and Poland, I think a vote to leave would give some fairly dangerous nationalist movements the impetus to encourage the breakup of the EU? I actually think that a No vote is likely to lead in the not-to-distant future to the break up of Europe, with all the implications that brings.

HB: I think one thing art can do is provide some depth and add personal insight into these simplistic narratives of hope and fear that politicians seem to be peddling towards people at the moment.

I couldn’t agree more. Art is at its most powerful when it is about complexity and ambiguity, it’s not about painting things in black and white. It’s about provoking thought and challenging ourselves and it’s one of the most useful and powerful things that art can do.

HB: The festival prides itself on introducing new artists, not only for other artists to take inspiration from but for audiences. If you could pick items from the programme for a first timer, which ones would you pick?

I think I would pick Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker which is the show from Japan. We have this view of Japanese culture as being so incredibly different. When I’ve been to Japan that’s what it feels like. This is just a wonderfully brilliant characterisation of everything that is different, unusual, odd and eccentric about Japanese culture. There is a really visceral, messy quality to the show and you leave with a high at the end after you've been bombarded with a cacophony of ear-splitting Japanese youth culture - it's completely incomprehensible and wonderful. It’s one of those shows, that you will not have seen anything like before. It’s also great fun.

I think that idea of using London as a site is really important to us. Working with Circa (on Depart) to create a specific circus piece in Mile End Cemetery feels really exciting. It is such a beautiful, gothic, slightly derelict, highly atmospheric space. It’s like coming out of a Tim Burton movie - it’s so steeped in its own atmosphere. Getting Circa to work with Lapalux (the sonic musician) and a community choir of 200 singers to fill the space with sound and incredible circus feels really exciting and will forestall peoples experiences of that space.

And then, one of the most important pieces of the festival has to be MINEFIELD. Growing up in the 1980’s, the Falklands War was such an important moment politically in the UK. It was a time when the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher really flew the nationalist flag and tried to rally the country around Englishness and English identity by enacting this war over  islands that are 8,000 miles away and that no one had heard of or actually knew  why they were British sovereign property. Although the Falklands may seem a distant part of the UK’s memory – for many people, especially in Argentina, it’s still so live. It’s such an unhealed wound. To be able to bring together Argentinian and British veterans who were serving and fighting each other 30-years ago on stage to talk about the impact of that war and their life after, feels really important. And that process encourages empathy, which is what I was talking about earlier.

One last choice is Taylor Mac, who lives in NYC and is opening the Festival at the Hackney Empire. He has an extraordinary presence, like a wonderful, alternative queer preacher. Through his shows he performs classics from the Great American Songbook, building a narrative between music and the really important social movements in the US. That will be a really extraordinary start to the festival.

HB: To finish on a personal note, what is it that you love about London as opposed to New York or another multicultural city?

For me it’s the fact that it’s the city that never stays still. It’s not complacent, it has a real sense of dynamism because London is a destination for people to come to, to build their lives. One of the changes that I have noticed is that where I live, in Elephant and Castle the predominant language that you hear now has changed from English to Spanish and Portuguese. I love the fact that I can live in a city where that happens, where it is constantly infused and informed by world cultures. It’s also such an exciting playground because unlike many of the worlds cities it is contemporary and it has modernity, but also has such an incredible history and a sense of the weight of its history and place in the world. I think that combination makes it a really exciting place.


LIFT 2016
1 June - 2 July
Various locations, London


Related interviews:
- Falklands War veterans in Minefield at the Royal Court. Director Lola Arias talks to Maddy Costa
- Queer theatre icon Neil Bartlett talks to Ben Walters about the fabulous and brave Stella, the infamous 19th Century gender-pioneer


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