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LIFT's new artistic director Kris Nelson: 'I asked myself – how do you do the first LIFT after Brexit?'

The 2020 festival line-up has been announced, with shows occurring at the Young Vic, Barbican, Shoreditch Town Hall and beyond

Kris Nelson
© Sharron Wallace

New LIFT artistic director Kris Nelson has taken the reins of one of the most forward-thinking and exciting theatre festivals in the world – and just unveiled his first season. With Ruth Wilson performing for 24 hours straight, house parties in Tudor mansions, verbatim shows about FBI interrogations and community work being created across the capital, the season is multi-faceted, novel and fresh. We chat to Nelson about this year's theme – "Fact and Fantasy" and what he hopes to achieve this summer.

Why did you settle on "Fact and Fantasy"?

We loved the theme because it lets the audience decide how they interact with the truth: how they respond to the fiction on the stage. The idea of truthiness, which 12 years ago felt zeitgeisty, has now been calcified. It's a response to the times we're living in now, definitely in the UK – there's a transformation of what a fact is and what a fact can do. But there's also a need for beautiful lies, other ways of imagining that can be playful but also surreal.

What were your desires for the season?

LIFT has been at the vanguard of where the experts are on stage. Testimonials, verbatim theatre, docudrama – that's the theatre that brought me out of a lifetime of Ibsen. It's where I came up and found relevance in the theatre scene. But it's a form I can be impatient with, and sometimes I want artifice and maximalist aesthetic. So it was key for established artists to try new things. Makers – like Inua Ellams – are heading into uncharted territory, and they're going out on a limb, breaking new ground.

The Argonauts
© Giorgi Demetrashvili

Where did you start with your programming plan?

I initially said to myself, no American work, no verbatim theatre this year. Then I came across Is This A Room. I had my headphones on watching a video clip and a producer in my office tapped me on the shoulder and said "What's wrong with you?" and I asked "Why?" and she said: "You're grunting". And the reason was because the piece was an unbelievable thriller. The action in the piece, the recreation of the interrogation of an ex-US airforce translator. FBI agents close in on her and you feel the metal wires trapping her. It's chilling – it feels so real. There's something verbal and exciting at play, but also so unsettling. We changed our plans to fit LIFT around the show. It's the ballast of the programme. 

Can you talk about bringing Ruth Wilson to the Young Vic for 24 hours?

That's the other cornerstone of the season, The Second Woman, where an amazing artist – Ruth Wilson – will play the role in the UK (Nat Randall did it first when it first premiered in Adelaide). Wilson will perform the same scene 100 times with different local guys. It tunes into the overall theme for the season – you've got the fact of there being 100 guys that are from the area being brought into this fantasy-esque environment. You then have a famous actor, and people coming and going and getting breakfast or watching at 3 in the morning. 

What, in 2020, were the questions you wanted to tackle?

I asked myself – how do you do the first LIFT after Brexit? How do I as a Canadian come in and poke the hornet's nest of UK politics and power, inequality, everything that's on everyone's Twitter feed? The banalities of bureaucracy are always changing but what's key for me is to stand for multinationalism, allowing people who live in London to see international artists whose work is different and who need a context to be vibrant. That's what we want to achieve. 

And coronavirus?

We're having to speak with all of our artists and stressing our responsibility not to expose them to anything if they come here. Logistically it's really tough and everyone in the business is aware that cancellation insurance doesn't really cover it. So it means that we have to be nimble, just in case anything drastic happens in June (which I really don't think it will). I think the panic will have subsided by then. We're still committed to every project and every audience.