The Lancashire woman who's driving the Manchester International Festival
One of the world’s most influential arts festivals events begins in Manchester on Thursday featuring an extraordinary range of world premieres, one-off shows and a host of famous names. We meet Christine Cort, the East Lancs-born associate director of the Manchester International Festival.
CHRISTINE Cort slumps down into a chair and orders a cup of tea.
“I think this is the first time I’ve sat down in six months,” she laughs, “at least it feels like that.”
As associate director of the Manchester International Festival, Christine is one of the driving forces behind an event which has taken the North West’s cultural credentials to a new level.
For the last two years Christine and her 75-strong team have been working flat out to bring three weeks’ of world class entertainment to the region.
This year’s festival will be the third and biggest so far.
Held biennially, the Manchester Festival is unlike any other arts events in the UK.
“The festival is unique,” said Christine. “It is the world’s first festival of original and new work.
"Nothing that will be performed or on display will have been seen before.”
Christine’s eyes shine with excitement as she runs through some of the events lined up for the next three weeks – a new musical written by Victoria Wood, an opera written and performed by Blur’s Damon Albarn, performances by Bjork, rapper Snoop Dogg and even a live show for children to appear in their own Doctor Who adventure.
“The aim is to offer something for everyone,” she said.
“Unique is much overused but I can honestly say that this festival genuinely is in every sense of the word.”
Much of the success of the event, which has become a model for other cities around the world to follow, is down to the enthusiasm and effort of Christine, her fellow directors and their team.
Now living back in the Ribble Valley, Christine grew up in Blackburn attending Wensley Fold Primary School and St Wilfrid’s Secondary School.
After going to college she studied arts and business administration in London where part of the course was spent on work placement.
“I was so lucky,” she said. “I worked at Riverside Studios where choreographer Michael Clark and Brian Eno of Roxy Music were based.
"I was basically chief envelope stuffer but they gave me a chance to get really involved and I worked with Kenneth Branagh doing Shakespeare. I was hooked.”
Christine clearly made an impression on the Riverside Studios as they held a position for her to take up after college and within five years she was director of marketing.
Next came a short spell at Terence Conran’s Design Museum before she was approached to join Time Out.
In 12 years, Christine rose to become group marketing director overseeing the publisher’s operations around the world including establishing its famous travel guides and setting up listings magazines in many of the world’s major cities.
“It was a marvellous life,” she said. “I was at all the shows, openings, concerts, that was the job. I had to know what was setting trends, which shows to see, where were the up-and-coming places to eat.”
To bring a little calm to their lives, she and husband Paul bought a small cottage in Barley in Pendle as a weekend retreat.
“Paul’s from Oswaldtwistle and we always felt the lure of our roots,” said Christine.
When their son Jack approached school age the couple decided to come back to East Lancashire permanently “Paul’s an illustrator so he can work from home,” said Christine, “but I had to go to Time Out and call it a day. It was a major step but it was the right one.”
Christine only enjoyed a few months as a full time mum before she was approached by an old friend, Alex Poots, to help him with an idea for a new festival.
“The Commonwealth Games had just finished and Alex wanted something that would build on the buzz created by the games,” said Christine.
“It was such an exciting opportunity I couldn’t turn it down.
“The hardest thing was getting major organisations to buy into something which didn’t exist at the time. We only had the concept.”
Christine remembers having over 70 meetings with various departments of the BBC before finally getting the broadcaster on board.
Now the festival’s reputation is truly established with many original works going on to acclaim around the world.
The opera Monkey premiered at the 2007 festival and toured the world’s leading opera houses before the characters were used for the BBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics.
Christine is quick to emphasise how important the festival is to the North West as a whole.
“It is not just about Manchester,” she said.
“I think people in East Lancashire are beginning to get it now that we are about to hold the third one, but I believe it is my job to raise awareness locally even further.
“Commercially the festival brings millions of pounds into the economy.
"Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy it and that has a spin off for the whole region.”
To underline the point, ticket applications from 41 countries have been received for a series of shows by Bjork.
“The good thing for East Lancashire is that there is a world class event right on the doorstep,” said Christine.
“There is a perception possibly that every event is sold out or may be a little elitist but that is just not the case.
“This year we have put on more performances, one third of them are free and we have deliberately targeted a number of shows at children and families.
“We don’t want to be another Edinburgh. We like to take a less is more approach where the quality of every show on offer is truly outstanding.”