You’ve been quoted saying that events in Birmingham could rival the entertainment seen at the London Olympics a decade ago. What made the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games different from ever before?
I think we’ve been through unparalleled challenges as a nation and as a global community. Our sense of ourselves and the institutions that should protect and promote us has been profoundly shaken. So, this provides the chance to find a way for us all to experience joy again, together; to maybe explore and find what there may be in the aspirations of the Commonwealth to celebrate. These have never felt more needed than now. I also wanted to show, maybe on a fraction of the budget of the 2012 games, how our ambitions might parallel that show, as well as having a more generous embrace of all in the stadium and those tuning in. An authentic celebration of the pioneering past of Birmingham and the Midlands, with a recognition of some of the hard truths about the past.
The creative vision was to construct the show as a kind of concept album, where each ‘track’ dealt with different big ideas associated with both this place, Birmingham and the Midlands, and the history and aspirations of the Commonwealth.
Can you tell us about your creative vision behind the opening ceremony?
The creative vision was to construct the show as a kind of concept album, where each ‘track’ dealt with different big ideas associated with both this place, Birmingham and the Midlands, and the history and aspirations of the Commonwealth. We began with a star dying – the shards of which fell into the 72 regions of the Commonwealth. We’re introduced to Stella a young athlete, who finds a shard and whispers her dreams into it. It lights up. 72 such young athletes are welcomed and taken on a journey, in which they are thrilled by Birmingham old and new, where they help this place in crises. They are introduced to the pioneering innovations that were born here: Birmingham a great marketplace of ideas and inventions... a cruel circus whose final guest star is a massive 10metre high armoured bull, pulled by 50 chained women. An image of past exploitation and oppression. The bull breaks free and stampedes, but the young dreamers don’t run. They move toward the bull and see not rage but pain. The bull’s rage is eased. Our dreamers have now made a friend. Next, a celebration of the many riches brought by the different cultural communities that make up this place. As they clash, the bull screams in agony and begins to fade. All are stilled and united in their compassion. The bull heals and is revealed as a symbol of love and unity. His armour remains framed by the young dreamers, a monument to a past, inscribed with the names of the oppressed. Finally, we end with a symbol of renewal – shards are returned to reform our original star, that blazes forth and dissolves all into stardust. Our Commonwealth is our common light. The Commonwealth dreamers are Birmingham. We welcome the world.
Why do you think the Commonwealth Games is such an important event on the calendars of Commonwealth countries with missions in London?
The Commonwealth Games is an opportunity to engage in a spirit of playful rivalry, to be curious about each other, learn about and celebrate the best of each other. It’s also a chance to renew and develop our international alliances.
How will you be showcasing the very best of Birmingham to the rest of the world?
We showcase the best of this place through great set pieces of dance, poetry and theatrical magic. We hope to move and enlighten the world. There are extraordinary hidden histories here alongside dark, challenging truths. We are a vibrant, young city, unafraid to be honest about the past, and this is an authentic celebration of where we are.
How did your role as Artistic Director come about and how were the rest of the team chosen?
Chief Creative Officer of the Organising Committee, Martin Green, appointed me over 18 months ago. I then began dreaming and constructing the team. They consisted of exceptional artists from Birmingham, who’ve never worked on this scale (Rtkal, music director and Maeve Clarke, writer) and world leading proven talent like Hamish Hamilton (broadcast director) and Misty Buckley (designer). All was ultimately my choice, although I allowed myself to be informed by those who’ve worked on these sorts of shows many times before.
Can you tell us about the challenges of putting on such a huge cultural event like this in the current global context?
The big challenges were time and supply chains. We dreamt big and persuaded stakeholders to support a massively ambitious show. A show that was built around nearly 2,000 volunteers who were there throughout. It was their spirit that animated everything. This requires enormous dedication from them and unparalleled planning by our stage management and choreographic team. The music was almost all newly composed or conceived and constantly adjusting. Budgets changed as world events changed, people got ill and were unable to continue. But we always found new ways and had people who were prepared to step-up. In half the time, with innumerable challenges, as a team we remained remarkably unbending, and imaginative. We always ensured the joyful experience of volunteers was protected.
These events should be opportunities for us to have conversations about ourselves, to find what is most valuable about us, what is most unique and attractive. They are an opportunity to change the usual register from critique to celebration. To welcome the world and sell the best of our values to our global partners.
What do you think are the great soft power advantages of a country or city choosing to host the Commonwealth Games?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about soft-power advantages. I’d never frame things in this way. For me, these events should be opportunities for us to have conversations about ourselves, to find what is most valuable about us, what is most unique and attractive. They are an opportunity to change the usual register from critique to celebration. To welcome the world and sell the best of our values to our global partners. This done well, shows a confidence and vibrancy that is an inspiration and guide to others in bleak times.