The Joy of Finding Myself Guest Director of Brighton Festival

The Joy of Finding Myself Guest Director of Brighton Festival

For some reason I’ve always felt at home in Brighton, though I grew up more than 600 miles away at the opposite end of the map, towards the very north of Scotland, in the Highlands. But from the first time I visited, which is when I was a student years ago in the 80s, I knew I recognised something about it, maybe the mix of old and new architecture (actually very like Inverness), or the seagulls as big as small dogs, more prize exhibit and platonic ideal than your common or garden seagull (also like Inverness), or maybe the sense, both liberating and challenging, of being right on the edge of things when you’re there. If there’s anything I’ve come to know over the years, it’s that the edge of things is where the arts tend to flourish most creatively and anarchically, most on their own terms. It’s no surprise that we call things edgy, that we use a term like cutting edge to mean much more than just sharp – to mean crucially original, far ahead enough of what’s coming to be both visionary and seminal.

So imagine someone sends you an email one day mentioning a favourite city of yours and asking you if you’d like to guest direct a festival there – not just any old festival, but the biggest cross-arts extravaganza in England, lasting three weeks of a sunny month, and covering everything from books to dance to theatre to music to debate to outdoor spectaculars to art exhibits to children’s events to events which can’t even be categorised, they’re so cutting edge. I read the email three times to make sure I wasn’t making it up. Then I wrote back and said, still disbelievingly, eh, okay. Then I came to Brighton and sat down with the festival’s amazing programming team, and the first thing they asked me was what I was most passionate about in the arts.

Well, I said, I like how the arts have no real borders between them, how all the different arts cross fertilise each other, even create each other, and I like how Brighton, on the edge of the country, is so wide open to sky, and to the rest of Europe, and especially how it’s one of the first places those birds see, the birds coming up for summer from the rest of the world every year, crossing landscapes which to them have no borders at all, and I’m interested in how nature and the arts are in a constant relationship with one another, and right now maybe even more so than usual.

The team sat, listened, wrote stuff down, smiled, then asked me who I’d like to invite.

What, anyone? I said, thinking in my head, there’s no way, it’s ridiculous even to mention this person, that theatre company, that show.

No, really. Anyone, they said.

Well, Agnes Varda, I said, still thinking, ha, no way. And can we invite a brace of great female British film directors too? Do I dare suggest Laurie Anderson? Margaret Atwood? Elif Shafak? Masha Gessen? The existentialist ventriloquist Nina Conti? And there’s this brilliant New York avant-garde theatre company I love called Mabou Mines, can they come? And and and …

I said a lot of wish fulfilment out loud. They wrote everything down. No way, I thought again, and got on the train home.

Not long after this meeting I began to get the astonishing emails. Agnes Varda’s a yes. Nina Conti says yes. Laurie Anderson is going to write us a new show about how animals and stories have featured in her work over the years. Mabou Mines is bringing its genre busting show about James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia’s Chapters of Going Forth by Day. And and and … The finished programme was so full of border-crossing artists and cutting edge work, and my own suggestions had been so sympathetically met and rounded out that it still felt not quite real, not quite possible. But I’m beginning to think that in Brighton anywhere is possible. This festival means France is possible, New York, Russia, loads of places right across the board – including Inverness.

Can we invite Julie Fowlis? I asked Laura, the brilliant music programmer, last autumn. Fowlis is a gorgeous singer of Scots Gaelic, brought up in the Hebrides, you don’t get much more northern Scottish than that. Back came the message, Julie Fowlis says yes, so, yes, the northern edge will meet the southern on May 21 when Fowlis will bring her brand of rich and lush folk-northernness to the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange – a night, as it happens, when the singer Benjamin Clementine, who now lives in Paris, a man with an unbelievably beautiful, soulful, deep, gravelly voice, will be over at the Theatre Royal, and the English band with the French name, St Etienne, will bring their acclaimed film How We Used To Live to the Dome Concert Hall accompanied by an eight-piece band playing the live soundtrack.

England, Scotland and France in a perfect simultaneity – and that’s just one border-crossing evening in a three-week-long festival of them. How to be in three places at once? Let’s say I’ve learned not to underestimate what’s truly possible in Brighton, on its bright edge, at festival time, the borders vanished, the arts everywhere you look, everything on the wing.

Brighton Festival is England’s most established annual mixed arts Festival. The annual celebration of music, theatre, dance, circus, art, film, literature, debate, outdoor and family events will take place in venues across the city and beyond from 2 to 24 May 2015. For more information visit

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