In Conversation with John McGrath

Manchester International Festival’s Artistic Director, John McGrath has been a long-term collaborator with disabled artists and disability-led companies. John shares his thoughts on the artists who have most influenced both his own way of working and the wider arts ecology.

In Conversation with John McGrath, Manchester International Festival Full Audio Description Text

This is a short film, lasting just over four minutes, which presents a conversation with the director John McGrath about his work and the influence of disabled artists on his practice. The conversation with John takes place in the offices of Manchester International Festival, where he is Artistic Director, and the film includes brief clips of some of the artists John touches on in his interview, including Claire Cunningham and David Toole. This audio description of the film includes John’s spoken words and descriptions of the performance clips shown. It will take about 7 minutes to listen to if read aloud.

The film begins with a black screen and the title in white lettering: In Conversation with John McGrath, Manchester International Festival.

Next, the film presents a montage of interior shots from the offices of Manchester International Festival (MIF), including a large poster featuring a silhouette of a tree, the sign next to the entrance to the offices and a wall display of posters from previous years’ festivals.

We then see John McGrath, seated for interview in an open plan meeting room, with the further office space in soft focus behind him.  John says: “We’re sitting at the offices of Manchester International Festival where I’m Artistic Director.  And we’re a festival of entirely new work

that happens every two years in Manchester”. While John speaks the film cuts to a tracking shot of the posters in the office, including an image of a young boy running which advertises Victoria Woods’ “That Day We Sang”.

Next we return to John, this time in a closer shot of the same filmed interview.  John says: “I think the long term goal has to be to introduce disabled artists and commission work by them, by them maybe in collaboration with other artists that aren’t from that sector”.  While John speaks the films cuts away to a clip from the filmed performance of “In Water I’m Weightless”,  directed by John.  We see an artist perform a balletic sign language monologue, incorporating her whole body into the performance.  The film then returns to John as he says “I think that’s going to be a journey that we go on over a period of time but I think it will be a very healthy and exciting journey for us as an organisation”.

As John speaks the film cuts to material from a filmed performance of “Artificial Things” by Stopgap Dance Company.  We see a performer in a glass booth similar to an old fashioned fortune teller arcade machine, expressively moving through choreography.

We return to John in-vision as he continues speaking, saying “There’ s a lot of disabled artists out and about who are doing really interesting things.  I think one of the most interesting at the moment is Claire Cunningham, whose been working with a wide variety of collaborators to explore how her particular body and how her particular way of moving can reimagine space, reimagine how we move through space, buildings, the environment; what the histories that we carry in our bodies are, so I think she’s a particularly exciting artist at the moment”.

As John describes Claire’s approach to her practice the film cuts to clips from her work “Give Me a Reason to Live”.  We see Claire perform on a darkened stage, lit only by a spotlight, as she uses her crutches to enhance and shape her performance. In one shot she leans, arms outstretched, on the handles of her crutches, on tip-toes but with her weight borne by the crutches themselves.

John continues speaking over the clips of Claire’s performance, saying “One of the big questions always around disability is the way in which the world disables people as opposed to the issues of people’s own particular bodies.  So it’s the world that we create that means that certain adaptations need to be made by people who can’t move through it in the most common way and I think Claire’s work addresses those questions and her use of her crutches within the work is part of asking those questions not just of her own body but of the environment that we’ve all made”.  While John describes this aspect of Claire’s work we cut back to her performance, this time her crutches support her body as she moves into a graceful handstand, feet extended behind her while her hips rest on her crutches.

The film cuts to a clip from “In Water I’m Weightless”.  We see two performers stood on stage, side by side, performing a mirrored sign language monologue.  As the clip plays we hear John speak, saying “So In Water I’m Weightless was a piece that I directed for National Theatre Wales. it was part of our second season of work and it was written by one of the people whose most influenced me, Kaite O’Reilly, who is an extraordinary playwright and again disabled activist”.  The film returns to John in vision as he continues, “and Kaite really questions the boundaries of language and exactly how theatre is shaped”.

The film next returns to a sequence of clips from “In Water I’m Weightless”; we see a group of artists dancing on stage while a projected film screens behind them of a performer in a wheelchair performing ramp tricks in what looks like an outdoor skate park.  John continues while the clips play, saying “She talks a lot about dramaturgy, the shaping and imagining of the whole theatrical world not just the script on stage”.

Next the film returns to John as he continues speaking, saying “So we recruited six disabled actors and artists who would work with me and Kaite to choose from those monologues and to imagine how they might be put on stage”.  The film then cuts to examples of the set design from “In Water I’m Weightless”, including illuminated circles backdropping the stage that play video clips of water and swimmers as John describes the collaborative process.  He says “we also worked with an extraordinary designer Paul Clay and the late choreographer Nigel Charnock to make the work”.

The film then cuts to footage of David Toole performing in “In Water I’m Weightless”.  David dances  on his hands on the stage as his movements are projected large scale on a screen behind him.  John begins to speak before the film cuts back to him in vision, saying “David Toole was also in In Water I’m Weightless and it had been a long ambition of mine to work with him.  He’s really one of the great dancers of his generation but he’s a man who dances on his arms rather than his legs.  And when you first see that it’s a revelation really that the body can be used in this completely different way and used and employed with such grace and athleticism and imagination”.

As John describes David’s practice the film cuts to clips from “Artificial Things” by Stopgap Theatre Company and another of their works, “The Enormous Room”.  We see David Toole move gracefully across a stage as able-bodied dancers mirror his path.  We then see David slowly banging his fist on a piece of furniture on a stage set-dressed to resemble a furnished room.  The camera pulls back from him in a long tracking shot as he performs.

Next we return to John seated for interview in the MIF offices.  John says “I think that because MIF makes quite large scale and prominent work we have an opportunity sometimes to bring people to a new audience and bring people to a new scale”.  The film cuts to the film of “In Water I’m Weightless” and we see an ensemble cast performing, including David Toole and Matt Fraser.  John continues, saying “You know the world is full of extraordinary creative people and we all only get to see a small fraction of them and part of our jobs in theatre producing in festivals and in media is to think really rigorously about whose getting to be in the frame”.

The film fades into a list of credits for the works shown in order of appearance in the film.

The final credits board shows a link to [ENDS]

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