Helen Marriage

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR HELEN MARRIAGE ON UNFORGETTABLE MOMENTS, BENDING the rules, and what happens when artistic imagination holds no bounds

Helen on the TED stage, 2019

Helen Marriage has fundamentally changed the way artistic events in the public domain are experienced; not just physically, but culturally too. Along with Artichoke (the independent arts company she co-founded in 2005), her name and that of the company are synonymous with spectacular, large-scale disruptive moments.

With previous posts at Artsadmin, London International Festival of Theatre, Canary Wharf, and the Salisbury Festival, Helen has long been orchestrating groundbreaking artist-led visions, and not without recognition. The proud recipient of a Loeb Fellowship in 2012 from the Graduate School of Design, Harvard, four years later she was awarded an MBE in the UK’s New Year’s Honours List.

Now, as Artistic Director at Artichoke, she’s making her own rules, and is committed to transforming people’s understanding of what a city is and who controls it, one mind blowing event at a time.

WW: What’s your background? 

HM: I’ve worked in the arts all my life. I’ve never worked for an institution. I’ve always worked for organisations that were fluid and outside the mainstream but always doing interesting things, both Nationally and Internationally, in order to create a sense of adventure in the public. It’s always been an interesting marriage for me between creating opportunities for artists they wouldn’t normally get, and creating a platform from which they could show that work to the broadest possible audience. I’m not so interested in working in a way that is exclusive or requires someone to know a lot before they turn up at something. I love interrupting people’s daily lives with things they never expected. I’ve always worked in that way. We started Artichoke in 2005 and delivered The Sultan’s Elephant in 2006, though it had taken seven years of planning to make that happen. It was unprecedented and made people think differently about art that took place outdoors. It was a real new way of working.

WW: You studied English at Oxford. How do you go from that to a career in the arts? 

HM: I got involved in lots of interesting art-related activities while I was at Oxford: plays, stage managing, producing events, etc. About a year after I left, I took a show to Edinburgh Festival and thought “Oh! This is what I want to do.” Then I did an Arts Administration course at City University, which was one of the few that existed in those days. From there I leapfrogged into various organisations and projects, and started things of my own. In those days it was much easier to start things of your own, to think of a good idea and make it happen. Things are more rigid now and it’s harder for young innovators to get things off the ground. That said, the kind of work we did – new, innovative, in found spaces and unsupported – is much the norm now, so it makes it harder because everyone is doing it. It’s more competitive.

WW: You spent seven years as Director of the Salisbury Festival. What did you manage to achieve there?

HM: Well, according to the Times, apparently I turned it from an established festival into a “miracle of modern British culture.” It was a transformation of what had essentially been a classical music, cathedral/church-based festival into a naughty art form happening in all kinds of venues, including outdoors, including lots of stuff for free. Much more eclectic in terms of the work we put on. Not just concentrating on that classical genre, but doing everything – world music, events, installations, street theatre programmes, stuff in the libraries, discovering places outside the city itself. Recognising that lots of people have lots of different interests and you can’t just play to one sector if you’re working in a town that is as confined and small as that. If it’s really going to work you have to appeal to a broader audience.  It really worked with the audience growing and growing, always hungry for the next great thing, rather than hunkered down in a more conservative and reserved cautious position.

WW: What led you to set up Artichoke?

HM: I just wanted to do this one project, and I thought we, my partner Nicky Webb and I, were setting up a vehicle that would let us do that. We needed a charity and a limited company structure in order to make it work, so we set that up as an entity, and then we did the show eventually. The Arts Council was so delighted by what had been achieved, a million people on the streets, that they offered to fund the company if we continued to work in that way, which was very new back then. They funded the costs of the company and we continued to make work which was always different, always free and in the public domain, but always that same embedded learning, participation and community programme that led to some spectacular outcomes. It was a very unusual scenario for them to actually come and offer money, but that’s how it happened. 

 WW: How would you describe what you do? 

HM: We create extraordinary experiences for people – artists, audiences, participants. The aim is to transform the physical landscape and in doing that, transform how people feel about being there. Building a better world is what we’re trying to do. 

 WW: You make the seemingly impossible happen with standout spectacles that create positive change – Why do you do it?

 HM: I don’t know how to do anything else! It’s a passion to change the world for the better. I know the arts and I know how to make that happen. It’s how we’ve always worked. 

WW: Connection is a strong theme in your work. Can you speak a little about the important role of connection in society and how you create events that foster it?

HM: If you think about running a theatre or concert hall, or doing something in a gallery, what you have is facilities; four walls and a door for people to come through. You have a bit of security in terms of your physical space and effectively your control of that space. What you can do and what you can’t do is completely within your imagination, and anyone who comes through your doors is complicit. They’re coming because they know something arty is going to happen there, and they’re willing to be surprised. They’re signed up.

 If you do what we do, which is to invade the public domain, the only thing you don’t have is control. Therefore you have to work in partnership with all the people who have an interest in that space. It could be the council, it could be the fire, police and ambulance services. It could be the shopkeepers or the people who live there or work there, and the artists are an essential part of that. All of the work we do is subject to negotiation.  

WW: You were the Creative Director for Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture and you worked with Wonder Works on the opening ceremony. What was the aim of the event? What were the challenges? 

HM: The aim was to create an event that was of the community, but bringing in International expertise like Steve Boyd and Wonder Works, who are used to doing those big opening ceremonies. The thing we did that was different from anything we’ve done before was to unite the County and the City in one single celebration. We worked with volunteer performers from both areas; working in little venues in tiny towns right across Galway County, but also bringing people together in Galway City. Then for six nights in each of these little towns there was a smaller version of what would be the opening ceremony. Performers from that town performed for the immediate local community and then we would move onto the next town, and the next, and so on, before the finale brought it together with all of the performers from all of the different places, plus the city band, to do this one big final ceremony. Though unfortunately it got cancelled because of the terrible weather. 

Events like this are logistically really complicated. You’re dealing with thousands of people – both audience and performers. To keep artistic integrity is the real challenge. You want it to be something that is mind blowing and people will remember forever. You fight the weather because ordinary rain is one thing, but an entire hurricane coming from the Atlantic is something completely different. Weather is always a risk, but never to that extent. In this case it really did just finish us off. Neither Piers or I had ever had to cancel a show due to bad weather in a lifetime of work. It was devastating

 WW: What satisfaction do you gain from your work? What keeps you doing it?

HM: It’s the pleasure of thinking of something, making it happen, then seeing that everyone else who is a part of it is blown away by what the artistic imagination is capable of. All of our events have an artist at their heart and I think that’s what sets them apart from things which are done by ordinary event companies. The artistic imagination really knows no bounds and is truly transformative. Artists are people who really see the world differently. If you put that in front of an audience, that’s one of the best things.

 WW: Have you always been a risk-taker? Where did you first get a taste for making disruptive events? 

HM: I haven’t always been a risk taker. When I was young I was quite obedient and always wanted to follow the rules, but I think certainly with Artichoke and with that first show (The Sultan’s Elephant), it was quite clear that the rules that existed about how you did or didn’t use those roads just couldn’t apply if we were ever going to make that show happen, so I had to find a way to negotiate my way past that. It set a precedent for thinking “if I want to do this and if it’s really important and it works in this way, surely none of that is illegal, it just requires somebody to look at it from a different point of view”. That’s what I’ve become good at, persuading people to look at things differently. People in authority, people who have the power to say no, you just help them understand that they don’t have to say no because you’re not asking them to do anything that breaks the rules, it just bends them slightly or you’re just interpreting them in a different way.

WW: What’s your career highlight? 

HM: So many things! I always think the next thing is going to be the best thing. People talk about The Sultan’s Elephant because they remember us for that, and it was so mind blowing in the context in which we did it. It was fantastic. But I think there have been tiny moments of satisfaction when you see a child looking at an installation in a wood somewhere and you just know you’ve changed their lives forever just by showing them a different way the world works.

WW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

HM: The thing I’ve learnt is never to ask somebody a question they aren’t comfortable answering. So; “please can I burn a model of London on a river?” or “please can I close the whole of central London for four days?” Don’t ask those questions. Just say, “this event that we’re talking about is going to happen on these days and I really need you to help me”, then people aren’t being asked to take responsibility, they’re being asked for help, and then, in my experience, they rarely say no!