What can art do for a city? The Manchester International Festival has changed the way the city sees itself. Yet the man behind it is still little-known. Isabel Lloyd watches Alex Poots in action
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
A MAN is walking fast through the streets of central Manchester, and he is lost. "Where is Peter Street?" he demands. One of his team, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, is talking with some agitation into her mobile, trying to keep up as her boss scoots along the pavement, head turning this way and that. "I think…" she begins. "Is it here?" the man says. "No it’s here. This way."
It is May 2012; in nine months’ time, Alex Poots—a small, snap-crackle-pop Scot with salt-and-pepper hair, a mind like a Rolodex, and something of Gordon Brown in the dark bags under his eyes—will have to announce the full programme for the 2013 Manchester International Festival (MIF), an £11m event, taking place every other July, which he has directed since its inception in 2005. Everything in the 18-day festival—operas, plays, gigs, art installations, public events—will be new work, commissioned by Poots. Often, he pulls together stars from different firmaments. At MIF07 "Monkey: Journey to the West", a modern opera with a cartoon aesthetic, teamed two Britpoppers (Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett) with a Chinese-American arthouse film director (Chen Shi-Zheng). For MIF09 "It Felt Like a Kiss" matched an immersive theatre director of grand guignol bent (Felix Barrett) with a fiercely cerebral documentary-maker (Adam Curtis) to make a series of choreographed "experiences" exploring late-20th-century American power and guilt.
After the festival, several of these commissions will tour the cultural centres of the world: New York, Amsterdam, Madrid. With them goes the reputation of Manchester, and their maker. But for the moment, most of MIF13 exists only in Alex Poots’s head.
What’s in his head right now is Albert Hall, a derelict Wesleyan temperance mission hidden above what used to be Brannigan’s nightclub. We’re heading there to meet a local property developer who has promised Poots he can get the space up and running in time to act as a venue for next year’s festival. We’re also meeting Guy Garvey, whose band Elbow were a hit at MIF09 when they played two nights live with the Hallé orchestra—whom Garvey described as "the best Manchester band of all". Poots has been working with Garvey on an idea for another piece. He hopes it will be a centrepiece of MIF13, and he wants to hold it in this hall.
At the venue—a magnificent, golden-bricked building with two-storey stained-glass windows up top and a series of black-painted hoardings below—the door is opened by a slight man with blackened fingers and filthy trousers. He has a sweet, gentle smile and looks mildly bewildered. That’s decent of them, I think, they’ve employed a homeless man to look after the place. "This is Joel," says Poots. "He’s the developer.” Next to him is a bearish figure in an overcoat clutching a brown leather folio case. "And this is Guy."
We inspect the building. Downstairs, where Brannigan’s used to be, there is a faint odour of ancient beer. Flyers for gigs are stuck on peeling walls beneath a ceiling of glorious coloured Edwardian tiling, and a tipsy, hand-painted sign points the way to "Ladies". But it’s the floor above, up three flights of echoing stone stairs, which Poots is interested in: an abandoned wreck of a liturgical space, dominated by leaded skylights and an organ as big as a house. The floor is full of broken parquet, junk is piled against the walls. We clamber along seatless tiers in the balcony, picking our way over ropes of exposed electric cabling, thick with dust. "We’ll get 1,500 people up here," says Joel, beatifically. "We can have cushions."
Poots looks around, bright-eyed. "Great, great. The one thing that worries me, though. Will it be ready?" Everybody laughs. I’m not sure why.
"Oh yeh, yeh," Joel nods, a buddha of optimism. "I’ve got a meeting tomorrow about dates and consultants, and… everything."
Poots turns to Garvey. "See? D’you get it?"
"It’s amazin’," Garvey says, "Amazin’."
Portrait Steve Forrest