“It feels like, each year, we’ve been able to push our audiences that little bit further, or introduce them to something new.” Matthew Austin, co-founder and co-artistic director of Mayfest, Bristol’s world-famous annual festival of playful, adventurous theatre, is telling Bristol24/7 how the festival has managed to spread its reach and up its game every year since its inception back in 2003.
The thirteenth Mayfest is one of the most impressive and ambitious yet, with a tempting array of dance, theatre, immersive performance and much more – from celebrations of food, ritual and family to eye-opening performances atop a city-centre car park – all taking place across 11 days in the middle this month.
Any themes or strands running through Mayfest ’15? Well, although Matthew and co-artistic director Kate Yedigaroff (pictured above) deliberately avoid theming each year’s festival (“It feels important to us that we keep the metaphorical doors as wide open as possible”), this year they are partnering with a major conference taking place in Bristol over the festival’s first weekend.
The fourth International Conference on Public Health and Palliative Care is bringing specialists from all over the world to Bristol to discuss how to build compassionate communities and talk more openly about death and dying. Organiser Dr Julian Abel invited Mayfest to think about an accompanying cultural programme. “We’ve brought together some incredible artists who are tackling that very subject matter in their work,” Matthew explains, “including Jo Bannon, The Chop, Sam Winston, Christopher Brett Bailey and French & Mottershead.”
Elsewhere, a number of shows will engage directly and indirectly with politics in this general election month – including Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, Chris Goode’s STAND and, perhaps most excitingly, Hofesh Shechter’s explosive dance piece Political Mother (pictured above).
“We’ve been trying to get Hofesh Shechter to Bristol for at least four years, ever since we saw his first works in London,” Matthew explains. “Hofesh creates dance work that turns any preconceptions you might have of contemporary dance on its head. It’s visceral, thrilling, heart-in-your mouth stuff, so to have finally secured two dates for them feels very exciting indeed.”
Dance, in fact, features strongly in the programme, with a premiere for Of Riders and Running Horses (pictured above), an outdoor dance show by Bristol choreographer Dan Canham, produced by Matthew and Kate’s production company MAYK, plus the exhilarating (and exhausting) Dance Marathon by Canadians bluemouth inc. Matthew: “So, in a nutshell, politics, death and dancing. And a lot of other wonders in between.”
And do the duo’s aims with Mayfest remain, broadly, what they were when they began the festival back in 2003? Or have they shifted or widened with time, and with their increasing confidence and standing?
“In many ways, our feeling about theatre has remained broadly the same. We both still love theatre that has a direct relationship with its audience, that doesn’t pretend that they’re not in the room. We’re still drawn to work that we think might change people’s perceptions of the world around them, or that might remove them momentarily from everyday life.
“Although, of course, the theatre ‘landscape’ in Bristol has changed hugely since 2003. Back then there was no Theatre Bristol, no Bristol Ferment, no real artist development and not much engagement from the major institutions with local artists (apart from Arnolfini). Now there’s a much richer scene – one that’s the envy of the rest of the UK – and our programme reflects that change.”
Mayfest recently joined Arts Council England’s National Portfolio and become a Bristol City Council Key Arts Provider, meaning that both organisations will support the festival for the next three years.
“This brings us a degree of stability, which we’ve never had before,” Matthew explains. “That said, each year we still have to raise a huge amount of money to keep delivering the festival, and in this time of ‘austerity’ it’s getting harder and harder to raise the funds we need. But if our audiences continue to buy tickets there’s still a need for the festival – so we’ll keep going a good while yet.”
See also Matthew’s top ten Mayfest shows here.