Features Q&A and Interviews Published 12 May 2015

Death in Mayfest

Rosemary Waugh speaks to Mayfest’s Artistic Directors, Matthew Austin and Kate Yedigaroff, about death, dancing, and the evolution of the annual festival of theatre and performance in Bristol.
Rosemary Waugh

It’s been two years since I last spoke to Matthew Austin about Mayfest and its then 10 year anniversary, what has changed since then?

Matthew: Behind the scenes, quite a lot has changed. We’ve recently been made an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, which is a real vote of confidence in the festival, and in the position theatre and festivals have in the cultural life of Bristol. We’ve got a bigger team, and some exciting new partnerships.

For audiences, the shape of the festival hasn’t changed drastically, but we’ve continued to explore new ways to engage audiences, and to be responsive to the kind of work that’s being made, and the kind of issues that are important to people. We’ve also launched a strand of work for children, and Mayfest Radio, a live audio accompaniment to the festival which we piloted last year, and which returns, expanded thanks to generous support from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

I personally felt that last year’s Mayfest was a particular success, especially in getting crowds that included those – such as children – not usually found at theatre events.  What, for you, went well last year?

Kate: Last year, first time bookers made up nearly 50% of our audience. This is very exciting for us to know that we are reaching out year on year to new audiences from beyond a niche theatre one. I think one of the ways we did this well last year was by balancing the larger scale projects that make major impact in public spaces (The Roof), with the smaller more delicate, intimate projects like Aerial and Mental. Making an offer that continues to feel fresh, varied and quality.

It was also very exciting to test our Mayfest radio, which we are launching fully this year, and to start to include exciting work for children in our programme.

Last year, with Ariel at Bristol Library and The Roof in Millennium Square amongst others, Mayfest incorporated performances which used spaces outside of the traditional auditorium, how are you continuing to do this this year and why do you think this is an important part of the festival?

Matthew: This kind of work is one of the central parts of our programme. This year, we’re premiering Of Riders and Running Horses, created by Still House and produced by our company MAYK. It’s taking place in a secret outdoor location, and will then tour nationally. We also have work in car-parks, up towers, in pubs, forests and in a house in Totterdown.

We love presenting work in this way, because it removes perceived barriers that people might have around entering ‘conventional’ theatre spaces. Sometimes buildings are imposing, and so what we hope to do by using outdoor and unusual indoor spaces is to break down some of those barriers. Audiences in Bristol also have an excellent track record of being up for more unusual arts events, from zombie walks to performances that combine fine dining and theatre, to our busy festival schedule. There’s an appetite for ‘different’ experiences here.

Christopher Brett Bailey will be performing This is How We Die as part of this year's Mayfest.

Christopher Brett Bailey will be performing This is How We Die as part of this year’s Mayfest.

I am very interested in your collaboration with the 4th International Conference on Public Health and Palliative Care and the death café.  Can you tell me more about this – why you decided to do this and what you hope to come out of it?

The partnership sprung from someone in Australia noticing that Mayfest was taking place at the same time as the conference and emailing the organiser, Dr. Julian Abel. This was back in 2013, and over the last couple of years we have worked towards this programme, with a number of Bristol organisations, including Watershed and Bristol Grammar School. The conference theme is ‘resilient communities’, and looks at how we can create the environment, as a society, in which we can talk more openly about death and support those who may be dying, or suffering from serious illness.

We then worked with artist Jo Bannon (who is showing Dead Line as part of the festival) to curate a series of artworks that approach death and dying. These include an audio work by French & Mottershead, Afterlife, that describes the decomposition of a body in a woodland environment, Birthday by Sam Winston, which is a participatory installation where all the deaths and births over a twelve hour period are recorded on a beautiful drawing, How to Disappear Completely by The Chop, about assisted suicide and lighting design, and Christopher Brett Bailey’s acclaimed show This is How We Die. We’re also collaborating on a death café event, and hosting some talks on death and culture.

There is an argument that nearly all art is about death in some way, and so we’ve tried to programme work that is illuminating, moving and celebratory, in the hope that it opens up conversation and helps people reflect.

It’s often said, in an off-hand manner, that our generation doesn’t ‘know how to do death’ anymore, and that since the Victorian age we have gradually become further and further removed from dealing with death up close and having established mourning rituals.  Is this something you agree with and how do you think we currently deal with death?

Kate: Hmmm. Yes, it’s a biggie. I think I partly agree but it’s very complex.  Did anyone ever ‘know how to do death’? A space like the internet gives us access to myriad conversations and possibilities around how we engage with, well, all of the major components of our lives. But there’s a thing around actual connection isn’t there, about real-world communities and overt care and compassion. In general I think that in this country we are a bit poor at dealing with death (and dying), birth, and sex close up. Yes. I find that the spaces and networks that are dealing with these things in an intelligent and brave way tend to get labeled as ‘alternative’ and therefore easy to marginalize. Which is nuts. Because it’s a part of all of our journey. But it’s so personal and unknown and potentially scary.  Mostly I care about everyone having the freedom to make choices & express those choices and to be as contradictory and emotional as any human needs to be.

When I was younger and working on the university newspaper I dedicated an issue to the theme of death, an idea which was met with mixed responses – some people submitting really fascinating pieces and others just thinking it was plain odd.  Did you worry that the idea might dissuade as many people as it encouraged attending?

Matthew: Not really, as we were confident that we had programmed extraordinary work that would attract a broad audience. Instead we’ve paid attention to the stuff that happens around the work, including how it’s scheduled, how we talk about it and what support there is for people who might be affected by the issues raised. It’s also Dying Matters week during Mayfest which is a great framework for having open and honest conversation about death.

This theme runs throughout the programme, can you highlight any shows that are particularly interesting on the topic?

Kate: I think Matthew has given a run-through of the projects that relate directly to this topic. For me I think there’s something very exciting in the very different ways these artists explore the theme. For example, How to Disappear Completely is this deeply personal, raw, difficult, heart-breaking and intense theatre piece & then Birthday takes an elegant and moving sweep across the epic of life and death. It uses statistics rather than lived experience to make a work of art, and ask its audiences to contribute directly to that.

And any other favourites that you would encourage people to go to?

Kate: Well, I would encourage everyone to go to everything of course, because it’s all very excellent. We recently met the new Chief Exec of ACE and in response to a question about which of the art forms he favours he said ‘ I have no favourites – I love all my children equally’. Now at the risk of aping such diplomacy, it is true that every piece is a gem for its own reasons. But if you were going to hold a gun to my head I would say make sure you don’t miss Of Riders and Running Horses, Blackouts and Confirmation. But ask me tomorrow and I might say something different.

Mayfest's Blind Tiger

Mayfest’s Blind Tiger

I notice that with the Blind Tiger Cub, you are encouraging littler people to take part in the festival.  Tell me more about this and also which shows in the programme would be suitable for younger audience members?

Kate: Yes, we started the Blind Tiger Cub last year because we are very interested in finding new pathways into the festival for younger audiences, beyond just going to see a show. We are interested in the raw creativity of children and how important it is to nurture that expression and to set up the notion that theatre isn’t a formal, rule-ridden place for ‘other people’ to do things in. An open-mic felt like the most friendly way of doing this. Part ‘event’ part playground. Some of these people will be the artists we’re booking tickets for in a few years time, so why not give them permission to experience what that might be like as soon as possible. Other shows suitable for younger audiences this year are Kid Carpet and the Noisy Neighbours, The Secret Slowness of Movement and Dance Marathon.

Finally, where do you see Mayfest going in the next few years?

Matthew: We aim to be as open as possible to new ideas, new forms, and new ways of doing things. The festival itself probably won’t change shape hugely, but we hope to continue working with the very best artists from around the world to stage inspiring theatre in spaces across the city.

Who knows, of course, what changes are a-foot now we have a new government. Festivals have a crucial role in demonstrating the unique, transformative power of the arts, and so far we’ve been able to weather the storm, partly due to the city council understanding how important culture is for the city. But undoubtedly the next five years are going to be tough for everyone – we just have to shout loudly about the good things we’re doing, advocate for others and make sure that those things are really bloody good.

This year’s Mayfest takes place in venues across Bristol from 14th -24th May 2015

Main image: Still House’s Of Riders and Running Horses


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.



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