Gillian Mitchell, director of programmes, at the still-got-that-new-venue smell MAC, gets into arguments with taxi-drivers about the number of theatres in Belfast.
‘Just like any other city, I tell them,’ she says tartly, over a coffee in the MAC’s ground floor café. ‘If we didn’t have them, people would be saying “Belfast, there’s nothing in it”.’
Besides, as Mitchell, who is legacy staff from the OMAC days, points out, each of the theatres fill a particular niche. The MAC’s can probably best be described as alternative, staging performances that audiences might not expect to see, whether that is a string quartet performing challenging composer Phillip Glass or a verbatim account of a 100 year old trial (both received very well).
‘Audiences are always underestimated,’ Mitchell says. ‘They are more adventurous than people give them credit for, they don’t always want traditional, safe theatre.’
And what could be less traditional or safe than the MAC’s Pick n’ Mix Festival, with nearly 100 acts by 21 performers and companies packed into just three days? Originally started by local theatre companies including Tinderbox and Prime Cut, Pick n’ Mix quickly became synonymous with the MAC (then OMAC), who provided a venue and managed logistics.
Mitchell, however, insists that the festival always remained a community affair, with companies pitching in to help. In 2011, when the MAC was still under construction, that collaborative spirit was very much on show. It wasn’t unusual to find a director pulling drinks or an actor doing double-duty in a ticket booth for another production. And Tinderbox’s dramaturg Hanna Slattne revealed herself to be a ‘scheduling maestro’.
It is an ethos that Mitchell hopes will weather the transfer to the MAC.
‘It’s always been done on a shoe-string, just for absolute pennies,’ she says, pointing out that the MAC doesn’t even cover costs on ticket sales. Even though the MAC can offer more now, from hospitality to ticketing, they don’t want to ‘just step in and take over’.
What they do want is to offer the expansive square-footage of the MAC as a non-traditional space for artists to use. Performances won’t just be held on the various stages, but in the galleries, offices and meeting rooms.
Shannon Yee’s Recovery, an intimate exploration of her 2008 near-death experience, is in The Study. Meanwhile Prime Cut’s Louise Lowe, fresh from the Templemore Baths project, is in the Upper Gallery Support Space (behind Robert Therrien’s giant table and chairs) with As If For The First Time.
‘It offers that little bit extra to the audience,’ Mitchell says. ‘It captures their imagination.’
Many of the Pick n’ Mix Festival participants are stalwarts of the Northern Ireland theatrical scene, such as Tinderbox, Prime Cut and Bruiser (this is the first year that Bruiser won’t be taking part, since they will be mid-production of Sweet Charity). They use the festival to trial new productions, workshopping them with the audiences. However, unfunded theatre companies and up-and-coming artists, actors and writers also take part.
This year the MAC is introducing a new initiative Hatch aimed at those aspiring young artists that will launch after the festival. ‘It is something we have wanted to do for a long time,’ Mitchell says. ‘We are going to take three or four emerging artists and give them access to the MAC and our associate artists, help them market themselves and give them advice with social networking. Basically they are going to be taken under the MAC’s wing.’
In the future, the plan is to tie Hatch more closely with the Pick 'n’ Mix Festival, with the ‘Hatchlings’ perhaps selected from the most promising performances. So how do you impress at Pick 'n’ Mix?
‘It’s not an opportunity to do safe work,’ Mitchell says, adding with a grin, ‘Some of my favourite performances were ones that just didn’t work. I love that people are just ballsy enough to take an idea and run with it. To take that risk.’
Pick 'n' Mix runs at the MAC from June 8 - 10. Go to the MAC's website for more details.