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New York spirit takes flight at London International Festival of Theatre

Nightwalks With Teenagers, an offbeat walking tour of east London. Photo: Martin Steffen Nightwalks With Teenagers, an offbeat walking tour of east London. Photo: Martin Steffen
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From Taylor Mac to LED pigeons, LIFT’s guest director David Binder speaks to Nick Awde about how his cross-Atlantic experiences have helped him bring the 2018 event together and his plans for Brooklyn Academy of Music

London International Festival of Theatre offers an unrivalled opportunity to see the UK’s capital city in a different light, says guest artistic director David Binder.

“London is a great place for an international festival because while it is huge, it also offers an incredible diversity in its population, its sites and neighbourhoods and all of the new corners of the city, to engage with, find and discover. Artists are explorers. Who better to take us on a journey to discover the city we’re in?”

Later this year, Binder will take up the first ever artistic directorship of the mighty Brooklyn Academy of Music. But before that, the New York resident will be busy finishing up projects as a commercial theatre producer on Broadway, including next spring’s Burn This with Adam Driver. Binder launched the Tony-award winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his other work includes A Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs and Off-Broadway’s De La Guarda. He has also produced around the world, such as Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is Our Youth, with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin, at the Sydney Opera House and Ivo van Hove’s Obsession with Jude Law at the Barbican in 2017.

Binder says there is always something to learn from moving between the commercial world of Broadway, the non-profit world that Brooklyn Academy of Music sits in and the UK’s non-profit arts world. “It is extraordinary to see how these are different structurally and in the way they function.

LIFT guest director David Binder
LIFT guest director David Binder

“I’ve been trying to see how I can harness something from one area to help another. If in the commercial world I’ve learned ‘we do this like this’, maybe we could apply that at LIFT. If I can take different kinds of thinking about marketing, production or communications and bring it from one sphere to another, that seems like a win.”

In this respect, LIFT is the perfect cross-over laboratory, curated this year by Binder, based on the fruits of a long association with the organisation.

“I first saw De La Guarda at LIFT 1997 at Three Mills and I produced it the following year. It began its commercial producing life in New York and then subsequently around the world.” For previous editions, he memorably brought over Taylor Mac – who makes a return to the festival this year – and Andrew Schneider’s Youarenowhere, as well as shows at London’s Royal Court and in Greenwich and Deptford.

In 2014, he became Mark Ball’s artistic associate at LIFT. When Ball left to head the Factory as part of Manchester International Festival with John McGrath, Binder stepped in as guest artistic director for the 2018 programme – Kris Nelson was subsequently named the new artistic director, and joined in April – curating a raft of commissions, five world premieres and eight UK premieres. “It’s a rare opportunity to see work that would not otherwise come to London, to see a lot of different kinds of work in a short period of time,” says Binder.

He laughs when asked for his personal pick of the festival. “Well, I associate of course with the American work, given that I am American. But we have three really world-class shows from the US.”

The first is Fly by Night, created by Duke Riley who works with 1,500 pigeons, each with an LED light, that will fly over the Thamesmead skies at dusk.

Fly by Night, a work involving 1,500 LED-attached pigeons. Photo: Tod Seelie
Fly by Night, a work involving 1,500 LED-attached pigeons. Photo: Tod Seelie

“The show was first done in 2016 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. It caused an absolute sensation. There was a waiting list of 10,000 people trying to see it. This is an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime show.”

Then there’s Taylor Mac. LIFT is presenting the European premiere of his show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The First Act. At the Barbican Mac is doing the first three hours of this 24-hour epic, which looks at American history through the queer lens of pub songs, sea shanties and subversive anthems “to take on a chapter of the defining early years”.

Over at the Royal Court, you can catch Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show Notes from the Field, which has very much touched an international nerve with its theme of a lost generation of American youth.

“She’s an artist who is talking about America now,” says Binder of The West Wing star who earned an Obie for this monologue, which is assembled from the voices of “students, parents, teachers and staff caught up in America’s school-to-prison pipeline”.


Five things you need to know about London International Festival of Theatre

1. Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal founded LIFT after leaving Warwick University. It was the first international festival of theatre in England.

2. LIFT takes place every two years but supports year-round activity in London. In 2001, it launched the LIFT Enquiry to discuss the purpose and possibilities of theatre and festivals.

3. The remit continues to be the presentation of works that have never been seen in the UK and are experimental and political in nature. Between 2014-16, LIFT represented 56 countries, with 611 international artists taking part in 2016.

4. The 2018 edition includes 17 productions, 10 of which are commissions or co-commissions. LIFT’s commitment to diversity is exemplified by shows such as 2010’s Not by Bread Alone from Israel’s Nalaga’at Theatre, the world’s only professional company of deaf-blind performers.

5. LIFT is unashamedly about London and presents shows in partnership not only with its major arts venues, theatres and galleries, but also in countless hidden spaces across the city.

Highlights from elsewhere include Phobiarama by Dutch visual artist/theatremaker Dries Verhoeven, who makes a return after his 2010 internet chat piece Life Streaming. Installed at West Handyside Canopy in King’s Cross, it’s an immersive piece in the shape of a ghost train that takes you on an “excursion into our contemporary culture of fear, bringing you face to face with the ever-increasing threats and paranoia engulfing a society obsessed with safety and perfection”.

Binder points to the work LIFT does locally, exemplified by Session in Tottenham. In the courtyard of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Still House joins with local Steppaz Performing Arts Academy and Afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds to create a fusion of movement that is accessible to the whole community.

We take it for granted that events such as this can happen naturally in London, but Binder points to the very different cultures on either side of the Atlantic. “There’s a lot more work to see in London than there is in New York because of arts funding in the UK and the Arts Council. There’s a long tradition of presenting work in a festival setting in the UK.

Taylor Mac. Photo: Kevin Yatarola
Taylor Mac. Photo: Kevin Yatarola

“Our equivalent, the National Endowment for the Arts, is obviously nowhere near the neighbourhood of support and funding, but we don’t have those traditions in such a vibrant and broad way. Generally UK audiences are voracious in their appetites for exciting, adventurous work. We have audiences at BAM that have a hunger for that kind of work, but in the UK you find that across a much wider spectrum of arts organisations.”

Regarding his future tenure at BAM, Binder says it’s too early to talk about his plans. “My season doesn’t commence until the fall of 2019, but it’s a really exciting time at BAM. Its audience is extraordinarily diverse and it’s in Brooklyn, one of the coolest cities on the planet, so there are a lot of opportunities.

Theatre in New York is going through a massive change. Broadway is shifting

“Theatre in New York is going through a massive change. Broadway is shifting. It’s in a really interesting moment. The Tony nominations are being brand-driven with Harry Potter, Frozen and SpongeBob, while the number of productions happening on Broadway this season is way lower. It’s significant. The real estate has been tied up for much longer, so there’s a lot less product.”

In valediction to his latest stint in London, Binder hails LIFT as an “exciting and wonderful” challenge. “I’m proud of what the LIFT team has been able to deliver. We also have extraordinary partners, whether it’s venue partners such as the Lyric Hammersmith, Southbank Centre, Shoreditch Town Hall, Royal Court, Barbican, but also other arts organisations – too many to mention.

“And there are the local municipalities that we’re working with, for example, on Fly by Night. LIFT happens as a result of partnerships and collaborations and we have an extraordinary number of those here. Of course LIFT is London, and London is one of the great stages of the world.”

Profile: London International Festival of Theatre

Artistic director: David Binder
Founded: 1981
Dates: May 25-July 22, 2018
Employees: 12 full-time, 18 seasonal, 40 volunteers
Spaces/venues (2018): 13
Shows (2018): 17
Audience/delegates (2016): 26,000
Countries represented (2018): 14
Total budget (2016): £900,000
Key contact: info@liftfestival.com

LIFT runs from May 25 to July 22

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