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Matthew Austin: 'I am always surprised when artists move to London'

As experimental Bristol theatre festival Mayfest kicks off, co-director Matthew Austin explains why artists no longer need to head to the capital to make their name

Mayfest artistic directors Matthew Austin and Kate Yedigaroff

How did Mayfest start?
It was founded by David Farr and Simon Reade who were artistic directors at Bristol Old Vic back in 2003. It was a way of the theatre putting together all the wacky programming in one month. Kate [Yedigaroff] and I were working at Bristol Old Vic and when the theatre closed for a year in 2007, we said we'd like to carry on doing this festival. For a while it was just the studio at the Old Vic and it was one show a night. As the audiences grew we realised it could handle having simultaneous programming and that we could use several different venues.

How would you describe Mayfest?
It started as a physical and visual theatre festival and still has roots in devising and experimentalism. We would be unlikely to programme a straight play, but we do a lot of cross artform music-theatre and dance-theatre. Really we start with the audiences. We don't have a particular remit. We deliberately keep it quite open.

Has the artistic scene of Bristol changed a lot since it started?
In 2003 the landscape of Bristol for theatre makers was really different. There were nowhere near the number of artists living and making work here that there are now. The Arnolfini was really instrumental when Mayfest started, it had an artist development programme that was churning out a lot of live art experimental work, like Action Hero and Uninvited Guests. At the beginning Mayfest was about more national work, then there was a point where it was more strongly Bristol based work and now the scene is so rich it is a showcase for local artists and it can also bring stuff in to the city.

Is there ever a contest between the Old Vic and Mayfest?
Yes, sometimes. Occasionally they will programme something for a week that really needed the comfort of a festival around it. But it is often hard to describe what that work is. On the whole though, Bristol is really good, we often sit down with Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic and work out what we want.

Chekhov's First Play

What are you excited about in this year's programme?
Chekhov's First Play (12-14 May) is an example of a show that is the kind of work that Bristol Old Vic would never programme. Dead Centre are an Irish company and they did Lippy here last year and it really divided audiences. I think this is probably less divisive, but they have really struggled to get anywhere to take it in London, so it's a real coup to get the premiere in Bristol. It is European in style and has a very polished aesthetic and it will be on the main stage at the Old Vic. In the first half you think you're watching a straight Chekhov play, but you're wearing headphones. Then that breaks down and by the end there's an audience member onstage and they've ordered a Chinese takeaway. It's bonkers.

Who are the Mayfest audiences?
When it was much smaller and more of a niche programme the audiences were either artists or working in the industry, or super regular attenders. Now because the festival has grown, I often go to shows and I don't know anyone, which is amazing. The challenge is to tempt people who come to see, for example, Kate Tempest - who we had last year - into other bits of the programme. Our audience is 18-30 and then empty nesters. What's missing is those with kids. But we've started thinking about programming for them too.

How would you sum up the Bristol vibe?
I don't think it has one vibe. When I first moved here, I heard the phrase that Bristol was ‘the graveyard of ambition'. At the time I think it was probably true. Historically it has been a very rich city, though it is massively divided with very wealthy bits and very poor bits. But Bristol has never had to fight for anything like Newcastle or Manchester have done. I think people move here and feel comfortable. Although I think that is less true now. It is a very friendly city, and I think there's some extraordinary work coming out of it – like Sally Cookson taking work to the National. I don't think Bristol will ever lose its independent edge.

Are we past London being the place where artists have to go to create work?
Yes. Totally. I am always surprised when I hear of artists graduating and then moving to London. It ultimately does depend a little on what you do, but if you're an artist who wants to make devised work or start a career in the kind of theatre that we programme, why would you go to a city where the cost of living is so high?

Mayfest runs at various venues across Bristol from 12 - 22 May. For more information head to mayfestbristol.co.uk

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