People sitting outside in the sunshine at tables in MIF's pop-up Festival Square in Manchester

Photography Louis Reynolds

John McGrath, MIF’s Artistic Director, looks back on a challenging year – and forward to Wednesday 28 April, when we’re thrilled to be announcing the programme for this summer’s Festival.

I’m writing this at the start of spring 2021. I’ve never noticed the lengthening of the days quite as much as I have this year, and hope feels a lot closer as the sun inches its way into the evenings. We’ve lost a lot and learned a lot over the past year, and sometimes getting from one day to the next has felt like the only way to deal with the enormity of the challenges. But to have hope on the horizon is so important for all of us – a belief that there is a shape to things, a way forward.

In the early days of the pandemic, it felt like MIF21 would be far enough in the future to act as a secure point of reference – a harbour to sail towards once lockdowns and hospital crises were over. Even then, we knew that this year’s Festival would be different: many of our shows take well over a year to develop and the first lockdown started interfering with plans pretty quickly. But we imagined that the Festival itself – the gathering of audiences, the sharing of space – would be relatively unaffected.

As news worsened in the autumn, however, it became clear that there were very likely to be real continuing challenges through this summer – potentially including rules around social distancing and restrictions on travel, not to mention the ongoing unpredictability of the situation. Should we postpone? Should we move everything online?

Headshot of John McGrath

John McGrath, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Manchester International Festival Image credit Tarnish Vision

We took a long hard look at all the options, and talked to lots of people – artists, technicians, Festivalgoers, city leaders and many others. There were very clear answers. People need something to look forward to. Artists and technicians need employment. Our city needs to come back to life. The Festival should go ahead.

Of course, it’s no use making statements like that without being ready to do the hard, detailed work to make it a reality. The MIF team are brilliant at improvisation, fast turnarounds and making impossible ideas happen. They are also deeply committed to safety and creating a truly welcoming environment. These skills have been called on in recent months like never before.

The artists we’ve been working with have also been amazing. A few have had to postpone their projects to another year – but some of those will be 'in residence' during this Festival, trying out ideas. Others have rethought their projects in incredibly exciting ways to respond to the situation we’re in. And we’ve also invited new artists into the mix to develop work that’s grown over the last year in response to everything that’s happened.

Overall, I believe there is a wonderful balance of joy and thoughtfulness in the MIF21 programme – which I’m delighted to confirm we’ll be announcing on Wednesday 28 April, with tickets going on sale via in the weeks after that. With or without a ticket, there’ll be loads to do and see, so book some days in Manchester now between Thursday 1 and Sunday 18 July.

We have plans for many different versions of the Festival – from lockdown through business-as-usual, though we expect something in between. Every time the government announces a different set of policies and scenarios, our teams are on it, adjusting and reshaping. Our priorities are safety first and the best possible experience for all.

Much of the work will be free – and you’ll be able to wander around Manchester for a day or longer, viewing the art that’s dotted across the city. For ticketed work, we’re aiming to be as fair and open as possible in ensuring tickets reach the widest range of people. So look out online, but also don’t be surprised if our new MIF Neighbourhood Organisers and street teams reach out to you!

Festival Square will be back in a COVID-safe form, and the rich digital offer we’ve had throughout lockdown will go into overdrive for the Festival period, creating a window into MIF21 from your laptop or phone that will give you a great Festival experience wherever you are.

We’ll also be keeping you informed of all the other great things going on in the city beyond the Festival itself. There’ll be loads happening in the city’s galleries, theatres and parks, and an exciting initiative to showcase the work of the city’s independent artists and companies.

Many people have said to me how stressful it must be to be planning a big festival at a time like this. And to be honest, sometimes it is. But, first and foremost, it’s a huge privilege. There have been so many acts of heroism and sacrifice over the past year by regular folk in their daily jobs. Our jobs aren’t on the frontline in the sense that nurses, transport workers or shop assistants are. But we do have a role, and I believe and hope that it’s an important one: to provide a space for connection and creativity, to help in the process of healing and reflection, and to give everyone something to look forward to.

See you on Thursday 1 July!

John McGrath is the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of MIF.

End of article.