Nowt as Queer as Folks up North

Feature in Issue 19-4 | Winter 2007

Ric Watts on the nation’s leading festival of lesbian, gay and queer performance.

The response to the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester prompted an extraordinary flowering of the city centre, one crucial side effect being the regeneration of the damaged Royal Exchange building, to include alongside its established, often establishment, large-scale space a purpose-built studio opening the theatre to a dynamic programme of smaller scale work. The space has supported work from emerging visual theatre companies such as Mishimou alongside experimental new writing from the likes of Jackie Kay and Duncan Macmillan. In 1998 the refurbishment won the organisation the title of Theatre of the Year in the Barclays Theatre Awards. A massive reinvestment in the city has transformed its economic as well as urban landscape and attracted cultural investment in the form of the new Manchester International Festival (with considerable commissioning clout attached to its remit to programme only new work) and the large-scale Lowry in Salford Quays.

In Liverpool, winning the European City of Culture award for 2008 has stimulated a comparable period of unprecedented growth. Regional networks such as the Live Art Network established by Tamsin Drury have done vital work joining up venues across the North West to support programming and development, whilst creative programming from midscale venues such as Unity in Liverpool has ensured a continuous stream of nationally acclaimed theatrical experiment into the region.

As we see evidenced throughout this special feature, The North West is currently a hotbed for unique artistfocused initiatives, and one of the country’s fastest-growing artistic regions. New opportunities to import larger scale work into the region will provide fruitful artistic stimulus, whilst many venues have realised the importance of forging key national, as well as regional, partnerships to foster the export of their work.

An essential date in the North West’s cultural calendar is the annual queerupnorth International Festival, which takes place throughout Manchester every May.

Queerupnorth is Europe’s most infamous festival of lesbian, gay and queer performance, and since 1992 has been commissioning, producing and presenting a wide range of theatre and performance work, alongside an eclectic programme of film, music, visual art and literature.

The festival was originally born with an identifiable queer aesthetic based on club culture, underground performance and identity politics, personified in artists such as Ursula Martinez, Duckie and Split Britches, all of whom contributed to the early festivals.

In more recent years, the artistic make up of the festival has diversified, reflecting a broadening of audible queer voices which has been facilitated by the shifting political and social climates of the past decade. This year’s festival presented a mixed theatrical bag, placing Ronnie Burkett’s masterful puppetry alongside Polish live artist Leon Dziemaskiewicz, Rikki Beadle-Blair and his hiphop inspired work, New York club sensation Taylor Mac (pictured), and Mojisola Adebayo’s one woman show.

Alongside importing world class artists into the region each year, queerupnorth also develops homegrown talent, recently providing a platform for work by Manchester based artists such as Company Fierce, Quarantine, Doo-Cot and David Hoyle (the artist formerly known as The Divine David), to name but a few.

The festival is embraced by the full range of Manchester’s theatres and performance spaces, with work programmed into venues from The Lowry to greenroom, via The Comedy Store and Contact Theatre and more inbetween. Beyond these traditional spaces, the programme has fully infiltrated Manchester and performances have sprung up in every corner of the city. In 2006 and 2007, work has been placed in spaces as diverse as Harvey Nichols brasserie and the Museum of Science and Industry, Canal St gay clubs and Northern Quarter jazz bars, libraries, cinemas, museums, and a Malmaison hotel room.

Under new artistic director Jonathan Best, queerupnorth is currently going from strength to strength. With an increasingly diverse programme, a growing strand of commissioned new work and strengthened relationships with the region’s artists and venues, the festival is definitely one to keep an eye on.

LIVERPOOL 08 – EUROPEAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE

In a far-reaching programme of events, public art and public participation have been flagged up as key elements in Liverpool 08. One of the biggest free events will be a new project by Artichoke, the company who brought The Sultan’s Elephant to London. Theatre, dance and performance highlights will include Ghost Sonata, an epic promenade produced by The People Show. Homotopia’s Liverpool Is Burning, and Three Sisters On Hope Street, which sites Chekhov’s story in the road that links Liverpool’s two cathedrals. British Dance Edition will be held in Liverpool for the first time in 2008. Walk the Plank’s theatre boat, The Fitzcarraldo will host a monthly platform event for new work in comedy, burlesque, magic, theatre, installation and impro, a programme specially commissioned for the Capital of Culture year. Walk the Plank’s creative producer John Wassell is also working with artistic directors Nigel Jamieson and Jayne Casey and the Liverpool Culture Company for the opening ceremony of the Capital of Culture which will take place early 2008. See www.liverpool08.com