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Kris Nelson - LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) Interview

LIFT, London’s international festival of theatre, brings joyful, daring and unforgettable theatre from around the world to London, using the whole of the city as our stage. 

Every two years, LIFT present a festival full of bold and relevant culture, international perspectives, and thought-provoking performances. Whether it’s a much-loved venue, iconic landmark or unsung corner of London, LIFT gathers Londoners around incredible art.

LIFT's mission is to create powerful, invigorating experiences that:
  • challenge artistic, political and social conventions
  •  champion artist advancement at home and abroad
  • lead sustainable internationalism
  •  celebrate and connect London to the world.
They engage and create communities around ideas and projects, connecting international artists and local artists to London, and together make incredible art happen.

Kris Nelson. Photo by Tyler Kelly.

Ahead of the 2024 Festival which runs from 5th to 27th June we caught up with LIFT Artistic DIrector Kris Nelson to learn more.

Where did your arts career begin?
My arts career began in Vancouver, Canada. I was graduating from theatre school and had an internship with Rumble Productions, a theatre company that was just about to launch the PuSh International Arts Festival. I worked on the first three editions of PuSh as an associate producer and curatorial consultant. At the same time I was working with devisers and writers as a dramaturg, directing, and creating and producing my own work. 

Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on your early years?
So many. I’m lucky to have come into the field when Canada’s festival scene was being created, and those festival directors had a big influence on me. PuSh's co-founder Norman Armour was a huge influence and mentor to me - he created a major cultural organisation from the ground up with so much vision and heart. His impact was not just Vancouver, but global. When he passed away last year, artists around the world shared stories about how he’s helped them untap possibilities, solved a problem, challenged them to go further. I learnt my producing chops from Toronto’s Naomi Campbell on collaborations on many projects. Festival TransAmeriques founder Marie-Hélène Falcon. A whole host of people with big vision working with incredible ethics and care.

In terms of performances, so many too - a bunch of us from Vancouver drove down to Seattle to see Forced Entertainment’s A Bloody Mess - minds were blown, such beautiful chaos. Maiko Yamamoto and James Long’s Theatre Replacement - they were making the cleverest work in our city; we started to work together and we took a show called WeeTube to PAZZ Festival in Germany - all of our first time touring internationally. The first time I saw major verbatim work like The Laramie Project or Rimini Protokoll’s MnemoPark - shows that revealed the real world and all its ugliness or its nerdiness could make the very best theatre. 

Bat Night Market

You’ve been with LIFT since 2018, what first drew you to the role?
A much loved festival known for making a big impact on how theatre can be presented and defining what internationalism means to London. The chance to work with artists at the top of their game from all over the world whose ambitions and vision would stretch me and challenge me. The adventure of living in London. Being able to become a Londoner and find and invite artists and projects that would inspire and challenge our city.
What can you tell me about this year’s programme of events?
This year’s festival has some big themes - like The Personal is Epic. These are shows where personal accounts of justice, migration and protest take on mythic proportions through barrier-breaking storytelling. Take taboo-busting Brazilian directors Janaina Leite and Lara Duarte’s collaboration The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women with London’s Clean Break and their ensemble of women who’ve experienced the criminal justice system. It’s a world premiere where we see what happens when mythic, historic and modern women transgress the powers that be. Or Cliff Cardinal from Toronto’s The Land Acknowledgement or As You Like It - a provocative take on Shakespeare and Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people.

You’ll find things that aren’t just theatre too. In the Dutch Church for one night only,  you’ll encounter everyone from comedian Rosie Holt (you might know her hilarious social media parodies of Tory politicians) to radical historian Dr Michelle Johansen to Nigerian poet Lola Shoneyin at Democracy From Where I Stand - an event with a line up of incredible leading women talking about what democracy means in our modern day.

We’ve got incredible dance - big ensemble pieces like Nadia Beugré’s L’Homme Rare at Southbank Centre or The Bacchae by the sensational Marlene Monteiro Freitas. Topping it all off is a rare chance to get inside the Old Bailey Criminal Courts and see a show - L’Animale by Italy’s Chiara Bersani.

LIFT artists will also Play The Future, Play The Past. You’ll find shows that reframe our history and bring a wild imagination to what tomorrow might be by offering feasts for the mind and by plunging you into sensation. If you’re science minded, care about the ecology or just want something really different, come get a taste of Bat Night Market - part exhibition, part performance, you’ll step into a futuristic Taiwanese night market and learn all about bats as a symbol of what our food futures could be!

How do you approach balancing the programme of artists and shows that attend the festival?
It’s like building a menu. This year we wanted a feast of ideas that would challenge people and give time for pause and reflection. We also wanted there to be a sense of adrenaline and shows where audiences could respond viscerally. It’s a journey from event to event, and I hope that the eclecticism and diversity in the programme gives people interesting ideas and sensations that bump up against each other.

What is the biggest challenge you face when programming the festival?
Matching resource to ambition. Our team goes all out for our programme, we’re ambitious and we want to give our very best to LIFT artists and audiences. Festival making is intense and exciting - we need to make sure we’re balancing the big ambition with wellbeing and realism about what’s feasible. Like any cultural leader will tell you right now, financial resources are difficult to come by, especially after Brexit for a festival like LIFT. It’s what makes working in partnership so vital  - we’re sill able to make bold projects happen by pulling together.


How important is it that audiences take a chance on artists they may not be aware of?
That’s the fun of a festival isn’t it? It’s a place to discover new voices and new experiences! 

What keeps you inspired?
Artists! Especially the artists from LIFT 2024. I love working with them, I love the puzzle of how to make their bold ideas possible. And I can’t wait to see how Londoners respond to these 8 very different and very exciting productions in this year’s festivals. Lots of treats in store.

What do you hope someone takes away from seeing a show at LIFT?
I’d love for audiences to feel wowed. Inspired. Challenged. Like their world view is shifted and more expansive. Like they’ve been part of something really special that can only happen in our city. Proud of being a Londoner who’s connected to the wider world.

You can find out the full list of events and more details about the festival from the LIFT website

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