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Interview with producer of Watch This Space Festival Angus MacKechnie

9 August 2013 Charlie Kenber

“Sometimes with outdoor theatre people think of some dodgy Shakespeare in the park, but I think now people understand that actually you can do something much more urban, interesting and inclusive.”

With the opening of The Shed, it seemed that the annual Watch This Space Festival – the National Theatre’s summer celebration of free outdoor work - was going to be forced to take a hiatus. Nevertheless, a somewhat reduced festival, entitled August Outdoors, will be going ahead. We caught up with organiser Angus MacKechnie to find out how he’d managed it…

London Calling: So how did you originally get involved with Watch This Space? Have you always been interested in interactive outdoor work?

Angus MacKechnie: I worked very much indoors here at the National and when I took over the Festival I didn’t really know the sector very well at all. I took it over more in a producing capacity rather than creating and programming. After a few years though I got to know the work and grew to love it, and that’s when I took over. Now I programme the whole thing!

LC: The Shed has clearly had a big impact on the festival – what exactly happened there?

AM: We weren’t going to have it at all. We thought The Shed knocked it out completely because it was taking up two thirds/three quarters of the square. Then the Propstore bar was back so I couldn’t have the other space on the other side, so we said ok let it go for a year and then next year we’ll revisit where we are with the building works.

It was actually was quite a late decision – really late, barely a month ago – but once the thing was in place I sat down with colleagues and I said you know the space could just about take a bit of something. It was when it was starting to get lovely and hot and we thought “hang on a minute we’re missing a trick here. If we can do it let’s have a go.”

It turned into an opportunity to have some smaller work that I wouldn’t normally put out there. It reminded me – there’s a festival I go to in Tàrrega every year. It’s one of the best for street art, nationally and internationally. The size of this is just like one of the squares in that little Spanish town, and there’s loads of work they put in there. So I was able to shift my focus programming-wise, and that’s been nice. There’s stuff out there that I normally wouldn’t put on, so that’s been a little bonus for me. So I’ve really programmed for the space.

LC: Do you think the festival is more inclusive and accessible than the National’s regular programming? Does it attract a different audience?

AM: Yes for sure. You can’t usually take your buggy into theatre for obvious reasons: we often need to build a buggy park and we do. The material also attracts different audiences in terms of what we host: the Liberty Festival of Disability Arts has a very disabled-led audience. Some of the work is ethnically specific, so you do attract a wide range.

Most interestingly perhaps for me is the fact that it’s free, and I find it really important that we as the National Theatre have a free offering. Even with our wonderful deals ticket prices still exclude some people. I know because I talk to people in the square that that free offering is central sometimes to people’s summer: there are some lovely people out there who I just know haven’t got a bean.

LC: Do you try and get a lot of international companies in?

AM: Normally yes. Last year was crazy; we really tried to get as many international companies. They’re terribly good at it – Spain and France especially lead the way in many ways in the sector. There’s really good work from Belgium and the Netherlands…street theatre about the economy or about other political or social issues. But I do like it to be fun: hence I’ve got the people covered in pigeon shit at the weekend, which is really funny!

LC: What with the growing popularity of your festival and the GDIF amongst others, do you think outdoor theatre is becoming more popular in the UK?

AM: It seems to be sustaining. Last year was a real boost for it, there was so much going on. There were some big commissions made which had an effect across the sector. The chance that some of those companies got to work on a bigger scale all exposed a wider area to a much wider audience.

Sometimes with outdoor theatre people think of some dodgy Shakespeare in the park, but I think now people understand that actually you can do something much more urban, interesting and inclusive.

LC: Do you have any particular longer term aspirations for the festival?

AM: What I’m looking at for next year – and its only in idea form at this point - is that we might have something of a touring version of Watch This Space that moved beyond our square. So we’d get a chance to maybe visit other organisations – particularly I think theatres – that we wouldn’t normally take a touring show to. We could take an interesting outdoor programme, which would be either something created here or at least curated by the National. That’s a little something I’m looking at in the long term planning.

Watch This Space Presents…August Outdoors takes place every Friday and Saturday of the month. Further information available here.

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