Manchester International Festival: 18 extraordinary days

John McGrath, artistic director of Manchester International Festival, explains the dynamic appeal of this multidisciplinary event

There are a couple of things I've been especially passionate about in my career. One is international work – I originally studied as a theatre director in New York and I have travelled the world directing and producing work. I also have a strong relationship with Manchester – I worked here for nine years, running the Contact Theatre. It was among the happiest times I've spent and gave me a strong connection to the city's creative scene. So the opportunity to combine these two passions as artistic director of Manchester International Festival (MIF) was particularly enticing.

The unique thing about MIF is that the majority of the programme is brand-new work. And the extraordinary thing about doing a festival that is almost entirely new work, is how completely unpredictable it is; what we do is a real adventure. At MIF we have more than 20 world premieres taking place and it's hugely risky because we don't know what the end result will look like. We've not gone around the world, seen the finished work and said 'bring it to Manchester'; the works are all created by artists we're excited by, who are doing something they've not tried before, so that risk, and the excitement associated with it, is totally unique to this festival.

I think the concept of MIF really fits the profile of Manchester. It's been described as the original modern city, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the place where the computer was conceived… So that sense of Manchester being a city of invention makes it the ideal environment to put on this kind of a festival. There's a real pride among the residents of Manchester. You can feel people getting ready for the festival – preparing to welcome visitors, but also to make the most of it themselves. Actress Maxine Peake described MIF as like 'going on holiday in your own city' and I think that's a great phrase to sum up the atmosphere. The way MIF celebrates talent and community simultaneously on both a local and international scale is a very special factor of this festival.

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We've gone extremely wide this year, with artists from Hong Kong, Pakistan, Egypt, New York, Portland, Berlin, France, Iceland and Vienna. I'm particularly excited about Returning to Reims, the collaboration between Didier Eribon, actress Nina Hoss and Thomas Ostermeier – director of the Schaubuhne theatre in Berlin – because it's rare for Ostermeier to premiere a work outside Berlin and this piece is risky, even for him. The installation, HOME1947, by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy from Pakistan, who has won two Oscars for best director, was a complicated piece to organize but should be immensely moving. I'm also delighted that we've finally got the band New Order to create a show for the festival; it feels long overdue and should be a real moment in Manchester history.


(Image credit: Jeremie Cuvillier)

With all the artists, whether they are names from across the globe or big names that are well known in the UK, we ask them 'what would you like to do?' We never give people a theme or a thing that they have to make a work about. We never even say 'you have to do it in this kind of a space'. It's really an incredibly open offer. Interestingly though, themes do start to emerge because certain questions, concerns and ideas are very present. The work starts to take the temperature of the world. I think giving artists a completely open brief is the best way for us to end up with a really relevant festival.

One of the new things we've introduced is open projects in public spaces, where people can just turn up and see the work, often for free. We're opening with a piece called What is the City but the People? led by Jeremy Deller, in which a whole series of unexpected people will walk a runway in Manchester's main square. On the mid-weekend we've got a fantastic project called ToGather by Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna, in collaboration with the Wayne McGregor dance company, taking place in the Whitworth gallery and Whitworth Park. And, on the final weekend, an extraordinary live film work, Ceremony, will be created by Berlin-based artist Phil Collins.

As MIF continues to develop, I think we'll see an ever-widening inclusion of international artists and an ever-deepening connection to Manchester. We are also in the process of developing a large new venue called The Factory, which will open in 2020. In addition to programming work across the city during the festival, it will give us the facilities to develop work in Manchester all year round. We've managed to secure arguably the world's greatest architecture firms – OMA led by Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam – to design the building. It should be something very special.

Manchester International Festival runs from 29 June-16 July. For the programme of events and to book tickets, visit

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