I grew up as a teenager living in Leicestershire near the coalfield communities during the miners’ strikes and the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s. At the time I felt an immediate, burning sense of injustice because people who were doing these extraordinarily difficult jobs to serve the national economy were having their communities devastated, were being thrown on the scrapheap and treated appallingly. That the state was actively undermining a whole class of people felt very unfair to me.
I also became politicised by the AIDS crisis. In 1983 I was a 16 year-old young gay man and I could see that a whole community of people were being stigmatized and ostracised by society and abandoned by the governments. We were a soft-target in the culture wars. The miners’ strikes and the AIDS crisis were for me pivotal moments. One was an awakening of my sexual politics and a recognition of the need to create platforms to articulate representation. The other was an awakening about class and injustice in Britain.
So inspired by these moments I went to university to read politics. I left with a real desire to try and carry forward into my professional life my interest in politics and society and as I was always interested in theatre and the arts, I was incredibly fortunate that my first job was with a theatre company working with offenders in prisons. It brought together my interests in the arts and in social justice with the arts. My next job was working for Gay Sweatshop, a pioneering LGBT company formed out of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. It was theatre, but it also had a social purpose. This is how it has been my whole life – I used my last job as the Artistic Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) to create a platform for international voices that wouldn’t ordinarily get seen and heard in London, trying to shine a light on issues that we as a society often don’t want to look at. We focused our resources supporting artists from the Middle East, often making work that was trying to imagine new ways of living in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. One way or another politics has always shaped my artistic career.
I got to know Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) through David Lan after seeing the company perform at the Young Vic. David gave me a strong nudge to start investigating the company more and it led to LIFT collaborating and co-producing with the Young Vic and BFT on their climate change show Red Forest in 2014. Through that I got to know Natalia and Nicolai very well and saw first hand how they draw their art and activism together.
Red Forest was the show I ended up feeling closest to, we were bringing in voices that were affected by climate change, but don’t normally get heard.
For me, it is really important theatre speaks to the place that it is made from. Natalia and Nicolai came to the UK as political refugees and they were making work in London that gave agency to those who were ignored. In fighting for representation their work has a lineage to the fantastic political theatre that came out of the 1970s from companies like Gay Sweatshop, Women’s Theatre Group and the Black Theatre Coop.
Theatre and politics are interlinked. Theatre is a way to talk about and re-imagine the world, and politics is how you make the world work.
Mark Ball is Creative Director of Manchester International Festival (MIF). From April 2009 to June 2017 he was Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT)