25th October 2011

Interview- Michael Mayhew

Alice Hughes talks to performance artist Michael Mayhew
Interview- Michael Mayhew

Fresher’s week 2010. A bunch of nervous freshman bustle into a lecture hall for an introductory lecture. Welcome to Manchester Drama department. I am your lecturer, you are my students and this is what you will be taught. Half way through, a mysterious scruffy figure wearing baggy trousers and a tweed hat stumbles into the hall. He plonks himself somewhere between the lecturers and students, sniggering to himself whilst noisily fumbling in his pockets. Who is this man whose uninhibited nature intoxicates us as he tells us to forget about lectures and so called “required reading”, to venture off the Oxford Road, to explore and to “do”. The answer is simple yet indefinable. The answer is Michael Mayhew.

A year on I find myself walking down a cobbled alleyway lined with old, rehabilitated Morris Minors. I end up next to the last garage on the street, nervously calling out under the crack in the door. With the great theatricality of a stage curtain, the garage door slowly rises, revealing feet, legs, torso and then finally the man himself, as a whole; Michael Mayhew, defined by some as performance artist, but more importantly to him, as an organism, a living breathing, “doing” human being.

When asked to define himself, Michael replies; “I think the things that happen to you shape who you possibly are and you have a series of decisions to make about who you want to be.”

From day one Michael Mayhew lived outside the box. Born and raised on a “seedy fairground” with an uncle as an all-in wrestler and a dad who drove dirt-cars, it was not only his back ground that set him apart from the rest. Experiencing a “horrific” accident when he was a kid Michael broke his legs and his arms leaving him an invalid for a period. In a more socially segregated time, with much discrimination against disabled people, Michael’s role as an outsider was further confirmed.

Determined to explore these formative experiences, Michael rejected the family business and attended the radical Dartington College of arts. Dartington’s focus on a performative and multi-disciplinary approach to the arts catalyzed the evolution of his ideas. It is the influence of this particular education system which prompted what he represents. A system “which asked you to ask not what something is but the possibilities of what it could be.”

“It was just… standing still was dance which was electric for someone who just had two broken legs”

Unfortunately, Michael claims that this particular ethos of a very open education system has, since, been diminished, eroded and attacked by the “establishment” and doesn’t exist anymore. “The establishment has swallowed up every subversive aim that has been thrown at it, and has made it its own”.

Theatre was Michael’s first love, but he felt uncomfortable with the hierarchical system within it, everyone has their particular roles, the set designer makes the scenery, the builders build, the actors act and the rehearsal process is meticulously planned out in advance. “It was departmentalized structuring and that’s not for me”. Leaving conventional theatre behind, Michael decided to dedicate his work mainly to the exploration of performance art.

Mayhew accepts that performance art such as his own provides a fundamental change to conventional theatre, but as part of an “evolutionary process”. He believes the role of an artist is to reflect and question our culture in order to understand where we are. It is a “barometer of our times and you can’t blame the barometer for the weather.” This aspect of art is, he claims, a deeply historical tradition which has always been a fundamental underpinning of society. “You can’t pin it down and so the academic can’t own it, it’s a very fluid thing.”

Art is for Mayhew, incapable of categorization. His own art has taken place in many forms, or different “language, patterns and structures” as he describes it. He has won awards for dance, traditional theatre and writing and is currently nominated for a British composer award even though he can’t read music or play an instrument. Why shouldn’t one be able to practice multiple means of expression and test the pre-conceived boundaries the so-called “establishment” has created? What defines what he asks?

When asked why this is art and not theatre, and is theatre not art? He replies yes! It’s all art! For Michael, the creation process is a very holistic process “and that’s not hippy, that’s just about being complete”.

In keeping with his ideas of completeness, Michael’s life has come full circle. Nearing fifty, and after years of travelling he has finally decided to return home to Manchester. “This city shines with people saying I’ll give it a go. What if? Why not?” and it is “full of musicians who can’t read music”.

Michael wants to introduce Manchester to performance art with his new performance piece In Remembrance performed on 11/11/11; a date, the significance of which, not only relates to Remembrance day, but also the rarity of the three elevens. “I took one look at this date and thought I’ve got to do something!” he says, “You cannot let that date drift by and not recognise it as completeness”.

So, its 11 artists, in 11 hours, performed on 11/11/11.

But while the structure is complete, the substance within the structure is, in true Mayhew style, unknown, secret and ever changing. It is a holistic package of the unknown, loaded only with humanity. But humanity, he claims, is unpredictable and constantly in flux. All Michael would reveal, and all he probably knows of the performance, is that 11 artists will arrive at Platt chapel on the 11/11/11 and for 11 hours they will remember, but we don’t know what and we don’t know how.  The only way to find out is to go along and experience it for ourselves.

As I take my leave from this strangely unsettling man, I am confused but oddly exhilarated. His ideas are slightly incomprehensible and at times arguably pretentious, yet I can’t help but feel perplexed and liberated. I am left with his final words echoing within my head.

“You can go, I got a plan, but actually the world starts changing around you. So you have this plan, and the structure of the work is happening, but actually there are things that will start happening that you haven’t written down, that you haven’t pre-empted and you haven’t expected; and those are the things that will change your life. And that’s what this work does.”

Performance will be held at Platt Chapel on 11/11/11

Tickets are available at

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