Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF), is something of a miracle. It's an event where audiences can expect to see spectacular, high quality theatre and dance productions from UK and international companies - all presented for free. Over 10 days each year, streets, parks, public spaces and a variety of locations across Greenwich and East London are disrupted and transformed with performances and events which leave audiences with a feeling of wonder, surprise and conviviality.
Over the years (and this year GDIF celebrates its 21 st birthday) audiences have been treated to a parade of life-sized crimson giraffes, a circus performance on a ship spurting a tidal wave of foam, breathtaking aerial choreography integrated with the paintings of Frida Kahlo and even a super-real sculpture of a Sperm Whale washed up onto the banks of the Thames. Audiences tend to get swept up in the sense of surprise and the unexpected.
Whilst GDIF has been delighting audiences with free outdoor arts over the last 20 years, a wider revolution in the use of public space has been taking place. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was often quite difficult to find an outdoor table at which to eat, but, it's hard to imagine that now, with al fresco dining everywhere and an expanding street food industry an everyday part of our working and social lives.
Public space has also been increasingly reinvented: 20 years ago Trafalgar Square was a traffic island. Cars and buses used to run outside the National Gallery: it's now a destination venue where you can regularly catch major events including concerts from the LSO. Cities around the country have seen similar transformations with public spaces integrated with cultural venues to create iconic new civic landmarks such as Birmingham's Centenary Square, Liverpool's Pierhead and the bridges and banks of the Tyne in Newcastle/Gateshead.
But there are also many local transformations of public space in towns and cities across the country which also deserve to be better known: Hounslow's Bell Square has become a destination for outdoor performances; productions at Doncaster's new theatre CAST, spill out into Nigel Gresley Square, whilst next year, Hull will be enjoying an overhaul of its public spaces as it prepares to celebrate its year as UK City of Culture.
The inspiration for much of this has come from Europe. The Spanish concept of "El Paseo", (the word used to describe the social and cultural experience of a leisurely evening stroll), has found a new home in the UK, as we increasingly take to the streets and squares of our cities for leisure and cultural experiences. At GDIF, our whole approach and the very festival model that we work with, has its roots in the fetes and fiestas of France, Spain and Italy, where outdoor theatre festivals are much more prevalent. Not surprisingly when it comes to creating the programme for the Festival, the inspiration of companies from Europe is always a constant.
This year GDIF (24 June - 2 July) will feature artists and companies from France, Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and of course the UK. All of the companies share a passion for the outdoors and the opportunity public space offers to engage with audiences in an informal and unthreatening environment, whilst surprising, delighting and disrupting the everyday rhythm of the city.
During the Festival, audiences will be treated to a dance performance in a huge sculptural head, a parade of 9 masked characters creating an Everyman story for the 21st century, a poetic and highly moving exploration of the impact of war on civilians using puppetry, stilt performance and fire, as well as performance, (taking us back to food once again), taking place inside a theatrical stomach.
There will also be a landmark opening production on 24 June called "The House" marking the 400 th anniversary of the Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum, which was built in 1616 by architect and theatre designer Inigo Jones, (taking his inspiration from the Italian architect Palladio). Combining video projection, new music, narration, aerial performance and pyrotechnics, it sets out to get this year's 21 st Festival off to a spectacular and barnstorming start with an impressive creative team including BAFTA award winning film maker Tal Rosner, a German street theatre company Pan Optikum, who create spectacular theatre with mechanical objects and pyrotechnics, Olivier award winning Sharon D. Clarke as well as the voice of legendary actor Sir Ian McKellen.
Whilst Inigo Jones was one of London's greatest ever architects, he also knew a thing or two about designing spectacular theatre - we hope he would approve.