Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Manchester, Panda and Michael Mayhew

At a British Council breakfast to mark the launch of the first Manchester International Festival last Saturday, the festival director Alex Poots impressed me with his vision of what a festival needs to be. It linked in with my own recent festival thinking, linked from below - a festival needs its dynamic, needs to reflect where it stems from (to be 'autochthanous', in a word I've come to admire of late), and needs to be of some real service to its community. I'm paraphrasing wildly - the reality in Manchester's terms is that it is an international festival of newly commissioned works.

I was in town specifically to enjoy the opening platform of Panda's productions - Panda being an innovative organization that nurtures performing arts organizations in the region (founded and run by my sister, Liz O'Neill). It was an energetic showcase of good new work, in the wondrous surrounds of Manchester Town Hall, one of the land's most splendid Victorian buildings.

The evening was rounded off by the opening installation of the performance artist Michael Mayhew's new project, Vanishing. I took part in the afternoon's preparatory session, when members of the public took turns to be interviewed by the team of five women performers. Sitting on facing wooden chairs either side of a standard lamp, one of five such sets strung across the great hall, I spoke about someone who had disappeared from my life - the theme of the day. It was moving to participate in this way - one of my own favoured workshop techniques allows for such talking opportunities as part of the process. It's rare to have someone's uncompetitive attention focused so purely on oneself and one's own story.

Sounds of those conversations were utilized by a 'laptop ensemble' (a new concept on me, five men intense over their Apples) to pour an aural landscape over the evening's performance. The women, now dressed in black and scrawled upon, muttered and walked around the hall where the audience sat among rows of floorlamps. It all looked very fine - a passive rather than theatrical experience to be part of an installation, one main role of the audience members being bodies that absorbedthe sound. In fact lying on my back seemed the best way to appreciate the evening - and as a suggestion that I might even have been on the right track, silver helium balloons in the shape of stars hovered by the ceiling.

Michael Mayhew will continue the work by making an overland journey to meet with the Aborigines of Australia - the pretext being a search for an unknown sister who he neither expects nor hopes to find. The walk will continue to the Arctic somehow, in search of a disappearing natural world. It's the sort of research I might dream up as a writer, an amalgm of travel and life writing, but never be able to fund. It's a writing project without a book or even the writing as a result - I have to bow down to the huge fundraising achievement of the whole operation.

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