LIFT’s Shifts: Concept Touring and Times of Precarity

Originally printed in Contemporary Theatre Review, this article by LIFT Artistic Director and CEO Kris Nelson examines the genesis of LIFT's commissioning programme Concept Touring.

LIFT’s Concept Touring initiative was borne out of two very specific relationships between art and time, one acute and one long term. The acute is entirely related to the coronavirus pandemic, and the second and longer term prompt for this initiative is more about trends and practices that have grown and evolved over the last 10-15 years in contemporary performance and festivals.[1]

Plunging back to the acute, the intensity of how the global cultural sector existed week to week at the beginning of the pandemic comes rushing back; how susceptible any of us in any given place were to local mood and the government’s leadership and communication or lack thereof. LIFT’s immediate responses to the pandemic in the spring of 2020 were a good example.

In March 2020, we launched a full festival for later that year in June. We printed a brochure and had it live online on 10 March 2020. We mailed copies to artists, journalists, industry people, and cultural influencers; we sold out within 24 hours of more than a thousand tickets to our headlining performance, The Second Woman by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, starring Ruth Wilson at the Young Vic. On that date in the UK, there was still the sentiment that Covid was not going to come here, that it would be temporary. People tweeted ‘there’s good news from LIFT, things are going ahead’. Meanwhile, Italy was locking down. We were working under that premise and, like a lot people, with that fuzzy confidence. We operated with the idea that we would be going ahead but we needed to hold back spending any money and not pay for any flights or hotel rooms. That lasted a couple of days. Each felt like a week. We ‘trialled’ working from home by the end of that first week.

By 20 March 2020, we cancelled the festival. The UK went into lockdown We were among the first wave of cancellations, here in the UK and across the world. As a team, we decided that it was better to simply cancel than to try to convert any of the projects digitally, especially as many of these were being made for the live festival, solely in London. It was about the particular projects and our capacity to convert these very live, very London, and very specific projects and interventions into something else.

We started to innovate once we had time to absorb what had happened – and Concept Touring was our big innovation. There was the initial adrenaline of cancelling the festival, undoing all the agreements, paying everyone involved. We really did pay everyone – for example, if a technician had talked to our production manager through text messages about work for the festival in June then that person was paid. We also furloughed.

Then it was summer and things had shifted. The conversation was not about festivals. The conversation we were having in the UK sector was about freelancers, it was about Black Lives Matter, and it was about the buildings. In the UK, the focus is often on the buildings.

In the second half of 2020, LIFT stuck by the artists and spent most of the summer trying to figure out how we would carry forward these commissions. There were many conversations with artists about how they were dealing with all of this precarity. Their tours, their whole lives had been turned upside down. In the autumn, we decided we would do a season of work in 2021 to celebrate LIFT’s 40th anniversary and then programme the festival in 2022, which is where we were headed at the time of writing. Longer term, the question has been about how to programme a festival that does not go digital, though there will be some events online. In response to the pandemic, I like to use the metaphor of the hospital. First, we were in the emergency room, and then we were in long-term care.

During that period, we had been working with the Nest Collective, who are a visual art, film, fashion, music, multidisciplinary squad from Nairobi. They were meant to come to London the week of the first lockdown. They told us that it would be crazy to get on the plane. The virus was not in Kenya, and they were not going to put people at risk. One of the key parts of the concept they were working on with us, which was called The Feminine and the Foreign, had been inspired from conversations about their experiences trying to cross into the UK and their experiences with the Home Office, which were and are terrible every time. This has been proven to be systemic. In 2019, The Royal African Society found that African academics, athletes, and artists are 40% more likely to be refused a visa than their counterparts from any other continent.[2] Members of the Nest Collective were meant to come to London for a residency where they would be filming local Black activists working on migration, on race, on environment, on sexuality, on gender issues, but this was cancelled. The whole world paid attention to Black Lives Matter when George Floyd was murdered, and that intensified how the collective would engage with London. The piece is a conversation led by East African artists talking to different people across the Black diaspora about experiences of Blackness. How to do that without Nest’s presence in London?

We worked through the summer of 2020 and by November we had devised a way of filming remotely. They filmed in London and in Cape Town. We engaged a local cinematographer, Timi Akindele-Ajani and he assembled a team, and we filmed the interviews with the Nest Collective being patched in via Zoom. While this would probably not feel novel for those working in broadcasting or filmmaking, for us as performance festival makers it was a leap. The Nest’s camera work is handheld and they are very present in the work they do. Even if one member of the Collective is leading the project, the other members are also there, so you can always see their signature. It was thrilling to see how they and Timi found a way to collaborate that could enable him to carry that signature.

This project with the Nest, LIFT’s overall response to the pandemic, and reflection on broader artistic practices and innovations that had been happening pre-pandemic merged to be a catalyst for the birth of Concept Touring.  The experience with Nest connected to my attempts to pull together trends for what has been emerging through the end of the twentieth century in contemporary performance. I have noticed a few things. First, the need to make work more local, as well as efforts to embed international ideas into local practices with local populations. Sometimes this is to save money, and other times to make that beautiful coup de théâtre. Think of an example where the show comes to town and, at a certain point in the performance, you see the curtain rise and there is a local choir or a big cast of extras that appear.

In LIFT’s history, our founders, Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal, were working on this question of embedding international work in local contexts in the 1980s. There was a seminal presentation where they worked with Hanoi Water Puppets in Greenwich Park. This brought together different Vietnamese populations from across London to make some of the props and costumes and then create the show together. Later, Mark Ball programmed Rimini Protokoll’s 100% London during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad – a project where 100 citizens who represent their city in five criteria are assembled into ever changing new group pictures on a big revolving stage. LIFT’s London version came after 100% Vancouver, 100% Vienna, and 100% Berlin.

There was something about this that LIFT could talk about as a theme, or a practice, or a mechanism. This was clearest in our connection with Darren O’Donnell and the company Mammalian Diving Reflex. In the early 2000s, Darren started a piece of work called Haircuts by Children. The project entailed working with a group of young people who do not normally have access to arts education or access to formal cultural institutions in diverse parts of Toronto. The children were taught how to cut hair and about contemporary aesthetics. They took over a salon and adults came and had their hair cut.

Haircuts by Children, LIFT 2010. Photo by Tim Mitchell.

The concept is: let 8 year olds make aesthetic choices about your hair. They started receiving international invitations to tour this work. It would have been so tempting to put these children on a plane and to take them to Belgium, to Australia, to Pakistan. Instead, they commissioned local writers to work on a version of the show with the local population. A group called the Young Mammals developed from this initiative and followed along with other projects that engage young people, such as Eat the Street, where kids review and rate restaurants in a performative way, or The Children’s Choice Awards, where kids attend every show in a festival and then give chocolate-dipped awards to their chosen winners (categories include best costume, best fight, best swear). Essentially, they were touring the concepts rather than the performances themselves. They call this process ‘Distributed Touring’. Within LIFT, Darren set up The UpLIFTers, which was a group of young people in Tottenham who made Mammalian shows for five years over the course of the festival.

So, pulling together these experiences of LIFT, and other trends developed by artists for festivals around the world and LIFT’s particular challenges for international presentation, Concept Touring was born. This initiative addresses a couple of things for us. Firstly, it addresses the precarities of the pandemic and how you can collaborate even though there might be restrictions around travel. Secondly, it addresses the precarities tied to the structural racism embedded in the UK Home Office, especially as we work with artists from the Global South.[3] And thirdly, it becomes LIFT’s mode of considering different models around climate change. As a 40-year-old international festival, we have booked many boarding passes over the past four decades.

We are committed to international artists having a presence on our stages and we are committed to our team travelling to meet people and forging long-term relationships. Part of this comes up in the dialogue between Jérôme Bel and Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez.[4] We have a focus on work from the Global South, but even presenting work such as Sun & Sea by a major Lithuanian artistic team – composer Lina Lapelytė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė, and director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė – is important because artists from the Baltic states are very rarely seen on our stages here.

Performers on the beach in Sun & Sea performed at the Albany in Deptford

Sun & Sea, LIFT 2022. Photo by Ellie Kurtz.

In fact, Lithuanian artists are very rarely seen on Western European stages. A bit of a digression, but an important one: within our British context, UK audiences are underfed in terms of international work and it is extremely difficult to get an invitation to London if you are an international artist. We do not compare to other European capitals in terms of a kind of porousness, in terms of reciprocity, in terms of audiences seeing work from across the continent. That’s very not European. We are more like New York. This does not exist in visual art but it does in the performing arts.

Back to my initiative, Concept Touring. It grew out of conversations with Darren, reflecting on Rodríguez’s letter to Bel, noticing my impulses for finding ways to present works and making them more local when they’d come to London. I wanted to find a way of grouping this together, under one action, one area of research. Around the same time, Ant Hampton (another artist who has absolutely pioneered remote working) in collaboration with Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne presented Showing without Going, which offered ideas and solutions for touring models that reduce carbon emissions. It felt like we were part of a movement to create new ways of working.

We launched Concept Touring online in March 2021. A call-out like this is rare for LIFT. We invited artists to come to us with an idea for an international collaboration with little to no travel, to set a standard for touring and international collaboration that is ecologically sustainable and forges new ties between global and local artists, participants, and audiences. The responses, and there were nearly 300 applicants, really ranged. There was a major appetite, and we could have filled the cohort six times over. In the end, we had 15 artists working on nine different projects.

We offered a nearly three-month residency where we met with artists over time and offered mentorship and funding. We selected four mentors, most of whom had been supporting artists to work through high precarity – such as Kee Hong Low, the then director of theatre for West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong – he had had whole seasons cancelled because of the crackdown on the protest movement and had to find ways of repurposing projects. There are so many aspects to these conversations.

We were asking how artists can work with new forms of precarity. By the time we were working on Concept Touring, we found artists with really impressive ideas of how low-to-no travel international collaboration could occur. For our residencies, artists needed to take an idea and bring it to the next stage, which could be a prototype, a demo, a script, a pitch, a synopsis for a funding application or a co-presenter. At the end, they needed to present what they had developed within the residency and what would be the next step for the project. They reported back that it was crucial for them to have this sandbox and to make something with low stakes. We will see how the dynamic changes as we take two of these projects forward into production for our 2022 festival.

It was clear that there was a need for the development of Concept Touring. 300 artists applied from 50 different countries and I’ve been invited to speak about the initiative to festivals and funders in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Korea, and New Zealand. Following the project, Dr Meg Peterson from King’s College London carried out an evaluation on two fronts: (i) How did we do on this initiative? and (ii) What can we learn from this model? Is it specific to us or something that we could promote with other partners?

Meg fed back to us that this was a system of work or a set of processes for touring. There are several potential models rather than a singular one. If you place us alongside Hampton and Vidy’s work, which was a mapping of all these different methodologies, LIFT would probably demonstrate these and add more to the mix. The findings also suggested that it is crucial to implement proposed methodologies to truly understand what it takes to make them work. What we have already discovered is that not relying on travel takes different brains and likely often takes more effort. Covid has meant that we always need to have back-ups. What will we do if everything gets shut down? With one of the projects we are producing, it would be much easier to put everyone on a plane, but we are not going to do that.

The other finding that was useful was that we identified at least three modes in which low-to-no travel touring can happen: (i) a relay between artists, the action of passing the work from artist to artist, (ii) the action of passing the work from artist to audience, or (iii) from artist to participant.

An approach to Concept Touring by artist Peter McMaster. Photo by McMaster.

If you are touring the concept rather than the material production, then the question is whether the concept is strong enough to travel. Can it move? In relation to the Sustainable Theatre programme at Vidy with Katie Mitchell and Jérôme Bel, we might ask whether it is still the trademarked work of Mitchell and Bel as the concept moves from one location to another. If a maker in Taiwan, who does not have the same international standing, is restaging Bel’s work then it is not a co-sign. The thing about international billing is that authorship and the tension of handing your work over to someone else is very high stakes for an artist.

The concern around authorship is a big one. Years ago, there was a company I was working with in Vancouver called Theatre Replacement and I have often reflected on their work. One piece they created was called Town Choir where a writer situates themselves in a public space and types out ideas, which a choir sings. You do not travel with the writer or with the choir. There is a choir conductor and a sound person who moves with the work. Years earlier, they had done a version of this great piece by Tim Etchells and Campo called That Night Follows Day in 2009 in Vancouver and Seattle. The original production was in Belgium with kids saying spiky things that adults hate to hear but also secretly want to hear. In North America, they staged the British-Belgian script, so it was not ‘concept touring’ as such. It was a Vancouver production of a ‘play’. At the time, I had just become Theatre Replacement’s touring agent, and when I told people about this staging of an existing text created by Etchells and Campo it seemed to diminish their status on the international art market. This was not as powerful as claiming they were part of a diffuse collaboration. The response was: the company did not originate the idea – they are only doing a cover. When any theatre stages a text by a playwright we do not bat an eye. But in the contemporary performance world that really is not cool. So, we come back to authorship.

What about people who collaborated on Bel’s previous work where the instructions are given to every dancer and they make a piece? Is there room for interpretation or their own vision? Are they considered the authors? Do they have the same status as Bel? All of these questions are crucial for performance when we consider the auteur versus the interpreter, which is further augmented by touring.

Could this approach to touring disrupt the centrality of authorship? If we believe that artists from the Global South need a presence on our stages in London – which I do – how can we adapt Concept Touring? Or does this become a way of excluding artists outside of the European centre? Once you have made a piece of work, how orthodox or strict do you have to be about the rules of not travelling? What skills, nuances, abilities do we need as presenters? One of the projects we are working on now involves finding an artist from Southwest Asian or North African origin to create or record stories that respond to an artwork. One of the questions the artist asked us is what connection we have with those communities. Am I your vehicle? And if I am your vehicle to connect you with those communities, then under what terms? How can I be held responsible, and how can you be responsible for me and my connections with these people? This brings up a whole new set of relationship skills and practices that we as presenters need to have.


[1] This critical reflection is a condensed version of an interview with Bryce Lease that took place on Zoom on 22 December 2021.

[2] Royal African Society, Visa Problems for African Visitors to the UK, July 16, 2019,

[3] Another example was when, in 2018, LIFT presented In Search of Dinozord by Faustin Linekulya from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Faustin spoke in the artist’s talk about how precarity is just a fact for how they have to make things. The production was an autobiographical piece with six dancers, of which only five were able to get their visas to travel to London because the Home Office decided someone in the UK could perform the sixth role. We were back in precarity right away – how do you replace the performer?

[4] See Mexican theatre-maker Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez’s open letter in which he addresses French choreographer Jérôme Bel’s call to reconfigure the world of the performing arts:


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Contemporary Theatre Review on 06 January 2023, available at