"There’s no puppet master pulling the strings": Alex Poots on Manchester International Festival

Kate Feld

MIF’s artistic director talks us through the festival’s evolution – and why he wants Kayne West for the 2015 programme.  

Alex Poots is a master of the only-just possible. He’s got a phonebook full of talented people –established players, household names, and celebrities-in-the-making – and he’s not afraid to use it. His job, as artistic director of Manchester International Festival, is giving artists the freedom to dream big and then make those dreams a reality on a scale that would give most of us the galloping heebie jeebies. So being curious and nosy, we rang him up to pick his brains. How does he pull it off every two years?

Typically, part of our conversation happened while he was in a car on his way back from a rehearsal, all that anyone outside MIF can hope to get of Poots during this last crucial sprint. But he’s always dashing back and forth: from North London, where he lives with his wife, Kathryn, and their two young kids, to Manchester. From Manchester to New York, where he’s artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory, a part-time gig he took on the condition that there would be two Amory/MIF co-commissions for every festival. From New York to premieres and meetings in Russia, Germany, Iceland or pretty much anywhere. He insists it’s not actually that hectic. We’re not sure we believe him. “My thing’s about choosing a few key artists I’m interested in and working extensively with them,” he said. “We try and do a few things really well, or as well as we can.”

Residing as he does across some kind of international art world stratosphere, you could almost forgive Poots for spouting art-speak or coming over the luvvie. Instead, the Scottish son of a dentist and an academic is low-key and direct in a way that suits Manchester. In 2004, when he was artistic director of the English National Opera, Manchester City Council asked him what kind of a setup they would need for a truly world-class arts festival. They listened carefully to his response; essentially, come up with a lot of money for a festival of new work, get someone good to run it and let them get on with it. Then they hired him. The seven years that followed were hugely important for the city, solidifying its reputation across the world for being the place where important art is created (and netting the city millions of tourist pounds in the process). The festival is Manchester’s big noise: love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it.

Sure, there was a fair bit of grousing here about Poots being from (and staying in) London. But there’s something to be said for an outsider’s eyes. Poots serendipitously stumbled on MIF venue Mayfield Depot when he was walking around Manchester. “I’d been asking people in the know for years about a city centre warehouse space. When I asked them why they never mentioned Mayfield Depot. They said, ‘well, we didn’t think you’d want that.’ Hello?” Art in found spaces is a theme this festival, which will take audiences to an abandoned Wesleyan hall, a deconsecrated church and an as-yet unnamed venue for The xx. “I like the proscenium arch, don’t get me wrong,” Poots said. “But in a place like Mayfield Depot, you’re in the set, you’re much more a part of the show.”

Manchester is getting known for being a place where you can get things done, big things

If unusual spaces are one zeitgeisty theme of MIF 2013, another emerges in The Machine, a MIF-commissioned play about Garry Karparov’s 1997 chess match with supercomputer Deep Blue, a capitalist plot to up IBM’s shares. It’s there, too, explained Poots, in the Masque of Anarchy, a work about the abuse of power, “which feels as relevant today as it did 200 years ago, partly to do with what happened with the financial crash. The Adam Curtis and Massive Attack performance also has overtones of that. It’s in Macbeth, how you become corrupted through greed,” said Poots, ticking them off. “These aren’t things that I went out looking for, they just happened, kind of brilliantly – I think people are just more in tune with these subjects now, at the time we’re living through.”

And what a time it is. The festival lost £650,000 in 2010 when the North West Regional Development Agency blazed up in the Bonfire of the Quangos, and austerity cutbacks since have made sponsorship and co-commissions (where another organisation puts up money to help develop a production) even more essential to the £11m festival. But it has survived, even thrived. This year’s programme is arguably its most ambitious yet, something Poots partly attributed to the power of co-commissioning. “Going to artists like Massive Attack and saying ‘we can open in Manchester go on to Germany and then end up in New York,’ that’s a very attractive offer,” he said.

One thing hasn’t changed. Through all the uncertainty, Manchester City Council was “rock solid,” said Poots. “When you’ve got that foundation, (the sponsors) trust us because we’re trusted by the city. And then we can start building relationships with our co-commissioners, and that makes the festival so much wider in scope because the shows can be much more ambitious. For every show you see in the festival, there’s probably been three or four that were discussed, developed and then didn’t end up happening.” One that got further than most was The Rite of Spring, which was to be performed this summer with a frighteningly ambitious staging of choreographed bone dust. This week, Poots decided to cancel the performance rather than put on something that didn’t live up to the director’s original vision. And as much as he regretted having to make that call, it’s one that inspires respect. “Manchester is now getting well known in the artistic community for being a place where they can really push the boat out and get things done, big things. People feel safe in our hands,” he said.

Another often-heard gripe about MIF stems from Poots’ tendency to return to a coterie of collaborators that includes Damon Albarn, Marina Abramović and Robert Wilson. “A lot of my colleagues don’t agree with me on this, but I think it’s really beneficial to revisit relationships; you have a shorthand and a trust to build on, you know their strengths and weaknesses,” he said. Still, Poots acknowledged the limits: “I think if we had half the artists coming back every festival we’d have a problem. It’s important to refresh the list.” Who is on his future festival wish list? “Kanye West. He’s so talented, and musically he’s very broad. Simon McBurney. Alicia Keys. I’m curious to know what Stephen Soderbergh’s going to do next, I wonder if he’s up for doing theatre work. Primarily it’s people who are really good at what they do and who are open enough to change and experimentation. Even meeting Kenneth Branagh – he’s probably the great Shakespearean actor of his generation and yet he was yearning to find a new way of presenting that part. It’s that curiosity and that confidence; because he knows the form so well he can push it, stretch it.”

Yet it’s unclear whether Poots will be there to work with them. There are always rumours that he’s about to leave the post, but a recent uptick in activity suggests there may be something to them this time. Asked point blank if he’s going, Poots said no. “I’ve already got eight projects that I’m in discussion with for 2015, so not in my mind, but we’ll see how the summer goes. Nothing’s on the horizon at the moment.” He stopped and qualified this slightly. “I guess, by the fourth festival in, it feels like it wasn’t a fluke, it feels more established. I think I could leave without damaging anything.” He paused again. “I tell you what, I love the job so much. It’s such a uniquely empowering job because I’m kind of left to get on with it. There’s no puppet master above us pulling the strings, they haven’t tried to chain us up to some agenda. That’s quite unique, to have that level of trust. You don’t see that in a whole bunch of other places.”

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