Mayfest: Your Country Needs You!

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It is, without doubt, going to be a difficult time for the arts in the UK over the next few years. It’s increasingly hard for artists to justify public funding in the face of unemployment and shops closing all over the place. On top of that, the halcyon days of lottery funding are drawing to a close and there’s the looming shadow of 2012 creeping up on us.

So, as we put the finishing touches to the programme for Mayfest 2009, you could forgive us for feeling a little tense about how things might turn out. The festival has grown once again this year – for the first time we’re programming events simultaneously, which means we’re asking more people to see theatre at the same time than in previous years. We’re returning to Bristol Old Vic, using both the Studio and for the first time the Theatre Royal. It’s a bigger beast and therefore just a tiny bit frightening.

There are a lot of questions in our heads. Do people go to the theatre in a recession? And if they do, do they just go and see work they really trust rather than a two-week programme of physical, visual and experiemental theatre? Should our ticket prices be lower? How do we justify holding a festival when there are people being made redundant left, right and centre?

Well, we can’t really do anything about the banks or the failing businesses, but what we can do as artists and practitioners is put the case that the arts matter, now more than ever. Hard times mean artists have to fight for a place at the table, and that often means working even harder to produce brilliant art. Think of the politically engaged theatre of the 1980s, of the brutal, glittering classical music which emerged from Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century.

But where does this leave Mayfest? It leaves us quietly hopeful actually. We have a really exciting programme of work, including a whole slew of local work over the first weekend, visiting companies from the Czech Republic, Belgium and New York, commissioned work from Bristol-based artists and some brilliant work from across the UK. It’s a strong year, with some high-quality work that will definitely get people talking. And you can see an awful lot of it for not much money. We’ve upped the number of free events (including our opening party and a three-day performance installation), kept our ticket prices low (most shows are under a tenner), and there’ll be some ticket deals and offers to make it a bit easier on the wallet.

Most importantly, festivals are exactly what we need right now. In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme last week, outgoing Chairman of Arts Council England Sir Christopher Frayling offered some words of advice to his successor, saying that in the current economic climate public subsidy of the arts is even more important. He cited Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration which, as part of the New Deal in 1930s America subsidized a whole range of new theatre, music, visual art and writing, and which gave rise to a whole new generation of American artists. He knew that art lifts morale, improves your country’s international reputation, and increases employment whilst offering a little bit of escapism from the economic doom and gloom.

So, come on, YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU! Because without an audience, there is no theatre.

Matthew Austin is one of the producers of Mayfest