Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) is one of the jewels in the crown of London’s summer open-air theatre season. The festival has brought incredible performances to the streets on either side of the Thames for more than 20 years. And it’s entirely free!
This year, its programme includes more than 1,500 trained pigeons and a new dance theatre version of Beautiful Thing.
Michelle Walker, executive director of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, tells us more:
What is the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival?
Greenwich+Docklands International Festival is London’s leading festival of free outdoor theatre and performing arts. It takes place in public and outdoor spaces around Greenwich and east London. This year that includes a former golf course and the cable car cabins of the Emirates Air Line.
What inspired its creation?
GDIF is inspired by the people and places in our area of London. It’s also inspired by Greenwich’s long-held tradition of connecting with the wider world. The first transatlantic communications cable was manufactured in our home borough, and Greenwich has been a gateway to London for centuries, welcoming people to the capital by river or road.
We hope that GDIF continues this spirit of welcome to performers and audiences from around the world, as well as being a festival experience that’s rooted in its local community.
How has the festival changed since it was first launched?
The festival has been going for 23 years, and is constantly changing and refreshing. It responds to our growing audiences – around 100,000 people attend each year – and to opportunities that arise as the cityscape we work in continually evolves.
We’re particularly interested in curating and creating outdoor theatre experiences that immerse people in the environment and which resonate with the local geography and diverse demographic of the boroughs in which we work.
The partners we work with change over time, with new partnerships offering new opportunities. This year, those include working with Peabody on a new production of Beautiful Thing, which is staged in the neighbourhood where it is set. It also involves working with the Caribbean Social Forum in Woolwich on projects that commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush.
Are there any themes that draw this year’s shows together?
Although we don’t explicitly take a thematic approach to putting the programme together, we know that outdoor arts have a special role to play in marking moments of public significance. This year, we’re proud to be celebrating a number of major anniversaries that have contributed to shaping local communities and national identity.
The 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, is celebrated with a high-wire walk above the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and a giant puppet promenade spectacular in Woolwich. The 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush in London is marked by a night-time installation and an accompanying series of events in the Royal Docks.
If I had to sum it up, inspired by the Mama Cass soundtrack to our Beautiful Thing finale, this year’s festival programme invites audiences to Dream A Little Dream against the backdrop of a changing 21st-century urban landscape.
What do you look for when programming the festival?
We look for the very best in outdoor arts of all kinds and scales from the UK and around the world. This includes shows that offer something different to audiences and animate the sites and locations we work in, bringing fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking about ideas and places.
Which show would you recommend for someone who’s never been to the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival before?
Saturday 30 June is a very busy day in the festival calendar this year. There’s our annual programme of contemporary dance, Dancing City, in Canary Wharf, a new theatre production in Woolwich’s Artillery Square by Graeae Theatre Company and disabled veteran soldiers called This Is Not For You, and a beautiful illuminated night-time parade along Roman Road in Tower Hamlets.
Which show would you recommend to a Greenwich+Docklands International Festival regular?
It has to be our finale show, Beautiful Thing. Even if you’ve been to a lot of events at GDIF over the years, this is truly a unique opportunity. As part of Thamesmead’s 50th anniversary year, we have produced a new dance theatre version of Jonathan Harvey’s play. It tells the love story of two young men growing up in the 1990s on this south-east London estate.
Our production takes place on the very buildings that inspired the play. It’s a fond farewell to them as the area undergoes transformation and regeneration. The show features dramatic detailed imagery projected onto the buildings, a fantastic soundtrack and some stunning performances.
What is your own Greenwich+Docklands International Festival highlight?
It’s always hard to choose highlights… One of the things I love most about the festival is the enormous range of performances, from the epic to the intimate. I suppose two highlights so far are lying back on the grass gazing up at the night sky as a murmuration of 1,500 pigeons take flight carrying tiny LED lights in Fly By Night (a collaboration with LIFT). There is also a unique experience for one audience member at a time called The Trip. I’m not allowed to say anything about it, but trust me, it’s a gorgeous, moving few minutes and definitely one not to miss!