IF: Milton Keynes International Festival returns for ten days from 20 to 29 July with a treasure trove of outdoor and large-scale performance, live music, new works and special commissions, stand-up comedy, family activities and free events.
Produced by The Stables every two years, the International Festival transforms Milton Keynes’ city centre and green spaces creating unforgettable experiences for residents and visitors alike.
This year the Festival will have two main locations in the city centre: Festival Central in Campbell Park – with The Spiegeltent, Acoustic Stage, installations, bars and food, pop-ups, and free and family events – and a Circus Hub in Middleton Hall, centre:mk to mark 250 years of circus. The Stables in Wavendon and Milton Keynes Theatre will both be hosting events for the very first time – though people will see the venues used in unusual ways.
Richard Bateman, owner of design agency westfourstreet, interviewed the festival’s Artistic Director, Monica Ferguson, to find out more…
Hi Monica, the International Festival has grown with such popularity in Milton Keynes. When did it all begin and what were the reasons behind it?
In 2010, it was The Stables 40th anniversary, and in 2009 we had been building up to that anniversary by doing a number of different projects. One of which was at Stadium MK, a project called Rendezvous, where we put world music artists into the stadium.
Arts Council England decided that Milton Keynes was one of the fastest growing places in the UK yet it was lagging behind in terms of cultural investment and ambition so they put the challenge out to ourselves & MK Gallery to see if there were any ideas that could help stimulate that investment. They were aware of the project at the stadium, so I proposed we developed an international festival that was not just about music but across various platforms. Everyone liked the idea. So, we did it as a pilot and if successful we could get the future funding.
How did the idea develop from that initial beginning?
I went to a lot of festivals and events. It was like going into a candy store. I like a bit of that, this would work here. We wanted to take MK on a journey and expose the area to more avant garde performances and eventually met a gentleman named Bill Gee, who had a lot of experience in this field. We discussed the project, he visited Milton Keynes and he immediately understood the concept and how we wanted to deliver the festival and use Milton Keynes as a stage. The two of us fairly quickly identified a shape for the programme and worked together there onwards.
How did you decide on what should be delivered to the city in terms of a festival?
Our roles as directors and producers is to bring the elements of the city together. Milton Keynes has a hugely diverse population but within pockets, a strong business community and very wide city centres and getting a feeling of intimacy is difficult, it’s got great parklands and it’s known for it’s concrete cows and roundabouts and we want to change that. If we can bring projects nationally and internationally that change perceive Milton Keynes that can only be good for the economy and confidence of the city.
Explain the process of deciding which artists and performers to bring to Milton Keynes.
It’s a complex process of finding the balance of artistic adventure. It’s not a case of, pick of the shelf artists. It’s far more in depth and that’s why it takes two years to plan. Finding the diversity, be it 100 dancers performing at the tree cathedral or a cast of local residents recreating scenes from Superman IV for the redux project. Lifelong friends have come out of these various projects. The festival has this ability to connect people during that period of time you give people over the ten days.
Is there a pressure to better the festival each time it comes around because the expectation each time rises?
This year will be the fifth festival and expectations naturally grow. People do say each time ‘what are you going to do next year, you’re never going to top that’? But take for example the Spiegeltent, one of the most popular events which covers comedy, music and dance and is essentially the hub of the festival which brings with it a familiarity each time. But one the benefits of being able to freely move around the city is that you can change the landscape of where you’re working so you can allow people to see something through a fresh set of eyes and this year sees us move from Willen Lake to Campbell Park.
We will also try to bring events closer to community which perhaps isn’t so central, a different space that perhaps the public isn’t necessarily aware of. It changes the narrative of the expectations of Milton Keynes and bring the performances closer to communities who might not have as much access to the city centre. We’re mindful that we’ve been asked to do two big city events – I’m a great believer in giving things a rest to keep them fresh. So mixing things up will constantly keep the public interested.
I ask this of most of the individuals I’ve interviewed, because I feel there is a very conscious effort push the cultural aspect in Milton Keynes. How do you feel the International Festival contributes to this cultural drive in Milton Keynes?
It’s no coincidence. The investment from the Arts Council and the support of Milton Keynes Council actually sparked something happening in that sense. I think the International Festival surprised people and it made people see/think what was possible culturally.
The funding also showed how beneficial it can be to a city in regards to the economy and to the audience. We purposely peruse feedback in order to evaluate economic impact and how it made people feel. People have actively moved to Milton Keynes on the back of the festival based on their experience.
The more buzz there is in the city and the more people buy into the idea of it every year, the greater chance of that success going forward because people will feel it has become part of their right effectively to have this really special event take place.