The Flare International Festival of New Theatre returns to Manchester from 4 to 8 July 2017 with performances at Home, The Lowry, The Royal Exchange, Contact, The Martin Harris Centre and 70 Oxford St (the old Cornerhouse building).

The last, FLARE15, was one of my highlights of 2015.  Performance reviews are here and here.

I talk to Artistic Director Neil Mackenzie about what makes this festival unique.

What are you particularly looking for in FLARE17?

There’s a very clear sense of something quite unusual and really quite ‘out there’ that resonates in lots of beautiful ways and gets you thinking. That just asks questions and opens up new thoughts about what a theatre experience is in a really positive way. There’s an experience of being in front of something that you may not understand and which you haven’t seen the like of before, which is really exciting.

So in terms of FLARE17, the Manchester theatre scene has moved on significantly since 2015, what are you doing this time to make it distinctive?

We are fundamentally about emerging artists. As artists emerge they move on from us. So, some of our previous artists have now been picked up by other festivals and won’t be appearing at FLARE any more. That’s kind of the way it’s intended to be, so we have to keep finding the new work. Because we look at work that is very fresh, that is very new to us, we can simply say this piece, regardless of how the piece sits within the broader context of the artist’s work or whether they will continue to make work of this quality, this piece is a really strong piece. It is the work itself more than the reputation of the artists, because they fundamentally don’t have reputations.

What makes a great performance?

That sense of what it means to be in a theatre, I guess. Quite often a really strong piece of work will feel like a really simple thing, but within it is the world, all human experience, and you find it strange, you find it funny, a bit sad, you find it beautiful, find it desperately poignant and you find it ultimately resolving in some way. There is a level at which you can sense that an artist knows what it means for an audience to be in front of what they have decided to put there. And have carefully worked that experience, in whatever way. They know the questions it’s asking, how to play out the duration, how long to make it, and the balance between stimulation against thinking time.

A lot of the best theatre plays with the idea of the tiny and the huge.

If there’s a characteristic of FLARE work, maybe that’s one of them. A lot of it is clarity, a lot of it is simplicity, but within that a huge amount of complexity.

In terms of really good emerging artists what are the key themes they’re working with?

I am conscious of the amount of work that bears a relationship to dance. And it’s partly because there’s quite a big scene in Holland and Belgium. There are important courses (mime schools, art schools with performance courses, dance courses) producing really fascinating work, and it’s easy for us to access that. A lot of this comes in without very much text and some relationship to body based or dance choreographic ideas.   I don’t know if it’s a 2017 phenomenon but it’s worked well for us as emerging artists.

Why did you start FLARE?

We proposed the Manchester International Student Theatre Festival (MIST) to run alongside MIF07, because that suddenly seemed like an exciting offer for the city. I think what was really rewarding about MIST was that we opened it up internationally, and some of the work that came was just extraordinary. To look at it as student work with an English conception of what student work would be was just mind blowing because it was on such a scale and level of sophistication; we all got excited by that. Then 2011 was the first Flare International Festival of New Theatre, which we reconceived to focus on emerging artists; one particular strand is FUTURE FLARES which continues the student thread but which we’ve also opened up to work in progress from established artists. FLARE runs every two years.

There is a strong international element to FLARE.

We keep wondering about the international nature of what we do and in 2017 more than ever I’m wondering about the implications of us being international and working with artists from a wide geographical spread, and the political implications of that. For example, I think it felt very out of the blue and quite shocking the situation we had last time with the Georgians being refused visas to perform. So we are going to have to take on some of these, we’ll have to play the political game.

How well does international work transfer?

Fundamentally FLARE17 is all about finding innovative theatre experiences for people who are going to come and see the work, who are probably from the Manchester region. So the work has to feel innovative theatre for here; but some work doesn’t have those qualities. That’s a difficult position we have to take sometimes, and a position I’m interrogating more and more now. For example there is a temptation to take work from places like Syria, but it must be interesting enough, and maintain its relevance here. Countries like Iran have a rich, well supported, well organised state structure that supports culture that some other countries wouldn’t have. And of course social politics are different in every country and the further we go from here the stranger they can seem to us. A lot of gender politics, where people see themselves as radical artists, is desperately conservative to us. We have to look at it through our perspective not theirs because this is the perspective from which our audience are looking at it.

And from a personal perspective?

In a sense I think I’ve always just been incredibly excited by finding new work and getting people excited about it. I love sharing my enthusiasm for it.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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