Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire Mirth, and youth, and warm desire! – John Milton, Song on a May Morning 1660
The month of May, beginning as it does with a day’s celebration dedicated to both pagan customs and the rights of the worker, corresponds more than any other with the image of Bristol that many people hold. Overly romantic, perhaps, but whilst Easton sweeps up the remnants of its Thatcher’s Dead street party, there also remains another genuine reason why Bristol loves the fifth month: Mayfest.
Established in 2003 in the Old Vic Studio and very nearly killed off when the venue went temporarily bust, Mayfest has blossomed like a plant high on Miraclegrow. With its ten-year anniversary to celebrate and a truly exciting programme scheduled, it seems unfitting to speak to director Matthew Austin in somewhat hushed tones. The usually bursting Boston Tea Party on Park Street is curiously deserted on this wet Tuesday morning and those customers who are present maintain a stodgy silence throughout. We may as well be discussing revelry in a monastery.
“It’s, um, rather quiet in here…” says Austin, before providing a swift overview of the festival’s trajectory. Since 2008, Mayfest has become multi-venue and this year includes spaces outside of the traditional theatre. This includes a gymnastics club, Bristol Central Library and – in the case of staging flash close-harmony concerts – the open surrounds of Bristol’s Temple Quarter. Using different spaces, many of which are close enough to walk between during performances, is what creates the crucial ‘festival’ aspect of the endeavour, but it is also what entwines it with the city.
It does this in two ways, firstly it demonstrates the volume of available venues within a close proximity and the lack of overt competition between them. Secondly, especially in the case of those which take place in venues such as the club Motion, which usually draw a different crowd to those who go to theatre regularly, it attempts to attract a wider audience.
In previous years Mayfest has succeeded at getting new people interested by making use of interesting public spaces. For Austin, a turning point for the festival was in 2010 when Electric Hotel was staged down on Bristol Harbourside. The physically imposing structure, combined with the central location, made it hard to ignore. Although a few select comments on, for instance, Theatre Bristol’s website show some audience members being pretty perplexed at the dance and musical performance that took place inside, the fact that the experience was free and so ambitious in scale, surely gained Mayfest the kind of extra interest amongst Bristolians that no amount of fliers can give you.
This year, Hook, Skip, Repeat by Jeremiah Krage and Heidi Dorshler will attempt to echo this type of mass attention gaining by positioning “massive, multi-coloured doilies” around Bristol at yet-to-be-decided locations. The work is inspired by Bristol’s maritime history, but will assumingly be as beautiful as it is historically informing.
Austin feels that “the audience is the most important thing.” A comment that might sound like a typical thing for a festival organizer to say, however in this case, this is not an attempt at cosy publicity. The audience really does make Mayfest – or at least highly influences it – because performances are selected with the knowledge that “Mayfest audiences like to be provoked”. More than that, the size of audiences and the postcodes of the individuals who comprise it will determine how the festival continues to develop over the coming years. In 2013, Mayfest will take place over ten days and make use of over 20 different venues. Whilst there has been tentative interest from Bristol city council about backing a city-wide festival, similar to the Edinburgh Fringe, the majority of Mayfest audiences come from Bristol and unless this changes, a continuous plan of expansion into more venues and more dates will be unfeasible and even self- destructive.
“We are starting to see people coming into the city for Mayfest”, but nothing on the scale of Edinburgh, therefore the plan is to become more “ambitious with the scale of the work” and to vehemently avoid becoming “a massive faceless thing”.
Whilst there are many aspects of the festival that directly link it to Bristol, Mayfest is not solely about championing local artists. This means that alongside the Bristolians on the bill, there are also both national and international performers. In this respect, Mayfest is as much about bringing talent to Bristol as it is about nurturing the new and the local – a decision which allows for already-successful London poet Kate Tempest and Temple Songs – a work produced by Theatre Bristol and supported by Bristol City Council – to both appear at the festival this year. Austin and his co-artistic director Kate Yedigaroff, who both attempt to keep the programme of the festival “experimental”, make the decision regarding which performers to have at the festival throughout the preceding year when visiting, in particular, the Edinburgh Fringe.
Since it is the ten-year anniversary, I take the opportunity for a little reminiscing with Austin. His personal favourite performances, or important moments for Mayfest, include the 2010 show Trilogy by Nic Green – a performer who broke quite a few hearts with Fatherland at the In Between Time festival in Bristol this past February. Trilogy, a show about “feminism and womanhood” ended with “a hundred naked women dancing on stage”, a conclusion which gained Mayfest a lot of attention in the Bristol Post the next day.
Similarly, last year’s Garage Band performance in a garage out in the suburbs of Bristol, has stuck in Austin’s mind. The part-musical performance centered on ideas of memory and audience members had a BBQ on the driveway of the garage – probably a more enjoyable way of witnessing a performance than sitting in the stalls. Equally, with regards to this coming May, the performances which most excite Austin – although, given the chance, I imagine that, like me, he would probably pick everything on the programme to see – include Zero at the Old Vic by Clod Ensemble, which includes “large-scale dance; a live jazz and blues band and is loosely based on King Leah”. National Theatre Wales and Neon Neon’s performance of Praxis Makes Perfect at the club Motion also excites, as does Amusements by Sleepwalk Collective at the Cube, which Austin describes as “seductive”.
There is also mention of Paper Cinema, who staged an ethereal re-telling of The Odyssey at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory last November. They will create West from 20th – 25th May with a group of Bristol-based animators at Bristol Diving School. In 2009, the collective produced East, about London’s East End and this show will act as a companion piece. Given that Bristol, like the East-end of London, seems to have a pretty good idea of its own identity, it will be interesting to see how ‘outsiders’ fashion it. It would be lovely to see a contemporary portrait of the city that gets beyond vague associations with Glastonbury Festival and the 1990s.
Perhaps the show to elicit the most excitement from Austin is by one of the international performers this year, Banana Bag and Bodice from New York, who will be staging Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage at the Trinity Centre. The show, which combines cabaret, music and storytelling, aims to turn the room into a Scandinavian mead hall, only with electronica music.
As the conversation comes to a end and the girl three tables away still hasn’t actually turned a page of the book she professes to be reading, I rather hope everyone has been listening in. Not just because they might go to something at Mayfest after hearing Austin’s infectiously exciting descriptions of the 2013 programme, but because the year in Bristol would be significantly deflated without Mayfest to mark the beginning of summer.
Main image shows Lucy Ellinson in A Thousand Shards of Glass.
Mayfest takes place at various locations in Bristol from the 16th – 26th May. For full details of this year’s programme, visit the Mayfest website.