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25 years of GDIF: artistic director Bradley Hemming reflects on why the festival continues to astound

The festival kicks off again this weekend and has seen some awe-inspiring shows over the last quarter century

Renaissance by Motionjouse
© Alastair Muir

Greenwich plus Docklands International Festival's first opening night was on 24 May 1996. In those days when you looked across the river from Cutty Sark Gardens, there was just one single building at Canary Wharf – Cesar Pelli's iconic One Canada Square. The DLR extension to Greenwich had yet to arrive, the Government decision to build the Millennium Dome at Greenwich Peninsula was still being discussed and the Navy were fully in residence at the Royal Naval College.

As a Festival rooted in people and place, from the very outset GDIF endeavoured to immerse itself in the evolving story of East London. Back in 1996 this led to the launch of Gallery 37 London, a festival village at the Royal Arsenal offering arts apprenticeships to one hundred 16 to 21-year olds, modelled on a programme initiated in Chicago. In the same year we also worked with the Theatre Royal Stratford East to present Roy Williams' first play The "No Boys" Cricket Club and it therefore feels like a particularly resonant coming of age to be working with Roy and the Theatre Royal again in our 25th year on 846 Live.

2012's production of Prometheus Awakes
© Warren King Photography

Back in the 90s, outdoor theatre in the UK was a much less well developed sector than it is today, and a big part of our 25 year story has been the journey we've gone on with some incredible artists, companies and partners. These have included companies such as Upswing, who are now a highly regarded player in both building based and outdoor worlds, Motionhouse, who have gone onto huge success in international outdoor touring and Graeae, who under Jenny Sealey's leadership took outdoor theatre to her heart, bringing outstanding productions such as The Iron Man, The Garden, and This is not for you to the Festival and audiences across the country. Another full circle 1996 – 2020 story is with Walk the Plank, the ever inventive and extraordinary Manchester-based company who brought their theatre ship, the Fitzcarraldo to Greenwich in our first year and will be back again in September with their Fire Garden at Thames Barrier Park.

The Dancing Sky
© Alastair Muir

Partnership has also been the lettering on the rock of our 25-year journey. At the outset it was the Royal Borough of Greenwich alongside the London Docklands Development Corporation who were brave enough to get behind the idea of a cross-river festival (which given that you couldn't travel north to south via public transport was quite a leap of faith). But there have also been so many others that deserve recognition and thanks over the years, although particular appreciation should go to the Arts Council and Without Walls, the national consortium of outdoor arts festivals, who have done so much to transform the landscape of outdoor theatre in this country.

GDIF is often associated with large scale spectacle and productions which transform public space. Over the years audiences have seen crimson giraffes parading through Woolwich, a now-demolished block of flats transformed into a dazzling rainbow coloured-world in a dance theatre adaptation of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, and a soul searching historical epic The House marking the 400th anniversary of the Queen's House.

The House
© Warren King

This year's Festival takes place in the midst of Covid-19 and I'm incredibly proud of the phenomenal team here, who with the support of our partners, have somehow achieved the impossible by navigating us through lockdown towards our 25th anniversary, whilst placing the safety of artists, staff and audiences firmly at the heart. It will of course be different, but essentially we'll still be bringing people together through outdoor arts and sharing stories of Greenwich and east London. with many productions and events which have been created in response to our recent experiences such as Luke Jerram's In Memoriam, Jeanefer Jean-Charles Black Victorians and Bernardine Evaristo's The Weavers of Woolwich, which, in its final words, expresses some of the feelings here as we count down to our 25th anniversary on Friday.

We are the weavers of Woolwich building on the past
as we work towards a fairer future for everyone
we have come so far already, we will keep our dreams alive
as we move into the future

See what's being performed at this year's festival