John McGrath announced as artistic director of MIF – and he’s coming home.

Susie Stubbs
Photo of John McGrath in a black shirt

Alex Poots’ boots are going to be hard to fill, but the former Contact Theatre head is willing to give it a go.

After months of negotiation, MIF has finally announced who will replace Alex Poots as the head of the festival – and it’s someone who knows Manchester better than most. That new director is John McGrath, the chief exec and artistic director of National Theatre Wales, and a man who built his career here in Manchester. For almost a decade, McGrath was artistic director of Contact Theatre; it was he who turned the curiously castle-turreted venue into a performing arts space known for its pioneering work with, for and by young people.

Clearly, McGrath is going to bring with him an emphasis on theatre – but that’s not all. He currently leads an organization that operates without portfolio. Well, without a venue at any rate. National Theatre Wales has no building, and instead has taken its productions all over Wales, the UK, the world and, most interesting of all, online. It’s an organization used to collaborating with international partners in the creation and staging of new work, such as Tokyo’s New National Theatre. And it is also an organization adept at putting on what the MIF team call “large scale site-specific and digital work”.

He currently leads an organization that operates without portfolio

The National Theatre Wales’ 2012 performance, Coriolan/us, is a case in point. Coriolan/us saw its audience members, wearing headsets and let loose inside an RAF aircraft hangar, plunged into a kind of site-specific Shakespearean/Brechtian mash-up. This was a play where the audience mingled with the actors; immediate and visceral, it had “the merit of making us feel we are in the thick of events,” said Guardian critic, Michael Billington. Coriolan/us won rave reviews, and came hard on the heels of National Theatre Wales’ inaugural season – which had, you guessed it, also won rave reviews.

The collaborations, the internationalism, the innovation, the large-scale and the peripatetic tendency: it all sounds very MIF. Whether John McGrath can truly replace Alex Poots, the man who made Manchester International Festival what it is and has, by anyone’s standards, a fairly impressive contact book, remains to be seen. But if McGrath can prove his mettle in music and visual art as much as he has in theatre, then Manchester will be onto a good thing.

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