Interview: Mikey Martins, Director: Freedom Festival

Words: Jamie Potter


Freedom Festival is back for 2019 and it’s bigger than ever before. 


This year’s festival promises yet another extravaganza of world class indoor and outdoor entertainment, as artists from across the world converge in Hull to delight, challenge and mystify audiences with jaw-dropping circus, weird and wonderful street theatre, thought-provoking performances and talks, music from all over the world, and mischievous projects that engage all ages. 



Audiences have grown to expect and love such a packed programme, and this year they can begin to enjoy it even sooner, with a selection of ticketed indoor shows opening on the Wednesday.


This means audiences will be able to see extraordinary productions ahead of the busy weekend,” says artistic director Mikey Martins. “It will also introduce a different rhythm to our festival experience leading up to the big free outdoor programme across the weekend.”


This includes opening the bar in Queens Gardens next to the Big Top, which will welcome in people to soak up the festival atmosphere in the late summer sunshine – fingers crossed –  regardless of whether they are seeing shows or not.


As for those shows, Mikey is reluctant to pick out highlights. Freedom doesn’t do headline acts and he wants audiences to find their own festival moments instead, whatever the size and scale.


It may be a small intimate one-on-one show in a tent,” he suggests. “It may be a big spectacle with thousands of people dancing in the streets, or it may be a quiet moment of conversation after seeing an inspiring show which has made you think differently about something personal to you. All of these experiences are what make a truly unique festival.”


One strand of work that will definitely draw the crowds is the number of circus, dance and physical theatre acts, whose perennial popularity Mikey puts down to their accessible and exciting nature.


They are very human, which is important for me to celebrate what we are capable of when we are truly free to choose our personal directions.”


This year we have managed to bring four of the most sought after indoor festival shows from as far afield as Australia, Argentina, Catalonia and Belgium to Hull, to tents in our Queens Gardens site.”


“It took over two years to get these shows here due to being so in demand all over the world, so don’t miss out!”


Those shows are not alone in taking time to book and, with 20 years of experience in festivals, Mikey has many productions on his radar. 


The Freedom Festival team plan festivals way in advance, scouting talent all year round, with Mikey handpicking all of the shows that people see each year. 


I travel far and wide scouring the national and international festival circuit looking for inspiring shows that will work here. I genuinely try and find the most brilliant, innovative, virtuosic and awesome artists; it’s a brilliant but exhausting part of the job.


Then there are the multiple co-productions and co-commissions financed and produced in partnership with other arts festivals in UK and across Europe. 


One that Mikey is particularly proud of this year is On Edge, which uses physical theatre, parkour and dance to tell a very urgent story of Modern Day Slavery in the building industry. 


We always aim to raise awareness of slavery today, to always to be true to William Wilberforce’s work,” he says, “and this show sits alongside in excess of 10 brand new shows we’ve commissioned this year.”

ON EDGE / short documentary (2018) from Justice In Motion on Vimeo.



On Edge is an exciting example of the way Freedom Festival Arts Trust (FFAT) works as a ‘producing house’, working with local and wider UK artists. 


They are so successful at this that they are now influencing others outside of the city.


We’re proud to wave the Hull flag wherever we go and people all over the world know about Freedom Festival and Hull now, that’s exciting,” says Mikey.


We’ve firmly established Freedom Festival as one of the most unique arts festivals in the country, across Europe and beyond. That’s not bullshit, that is the truth, and we’re damn proud of it.


Freedom doesn’t just aim to change thinking about how to create great art. It also continues to stay true to its roots, in creating a space for people to challenge and address ideas of freedom and human rights in society today.


I seek out artists who are brave with their messaging and narratives. I seek collaborators, nationally and internationally, with different perspectives to combat inward-looking narratives, which challenges issues head on.”


Is it too much to say we all need to constantly learn from each other and learn to listen?” he asks. 


Internationalism is important, crucial I’d say. Different perspectives are critical when tackling and understanding the challenges of today. We need to understand each other better and what a great platform to do this from.”


The Freedom Talks strand is one part of the festival’s deeper political work. A free-to-access big top in a park, it will allow everyone to listen to experts from different perspectives explore different topics and encourage debate, questions and interaction.


Raising awareness is critical but allowing options and suggestions for change is really important also,” says Mikey.


Alongside the strong political voice among artists, another hallmark of Freedom Festival is the huge numbers of young people who take part over the weekend.


We’ve seen a real increase in young audiences enjoying the programme,” says Mikey. “They’re seeing some amazing work and I hope getting inspired to be in the arts themselves.”


We really aim to empower young people even more, as well as get adults to regard and understand young people better.”  


Following Haircuts by Children in 2017, Freedom favourites Mammalian Diving Reflex are back to work with a group of local teenagers to create a series of performances, events and interventions that will positively disrupt this year’s festival. 


Meanwhile Teentalitarianism will create environments where young people rule the roost, with Hull teenagers placed in charge of Freedom Festival itself. 


I’m not going to give too much away, but do sign up for the Nightwalks with Teenagers project,” adds Mikey. “It’s brilliant, hilarious and a lot of fun.”




The panel discussion Asking for the Moons is also going to be a real highlight, led by Hull teenagers demanding the changes they want to see in the city.”


That project will lead into a series of other works in 2020 and beyond, focusing on climate change.


This is another step in building that relationship even more deeply with the young people of Hull,” says Mikey, “because next year we really want to hear their voice, loud and clear, across the wider programme.”


Music is also on the cards this year, as Freedom Festival celebrates 40 years since the birth of ska music and 40 years since Hull established its partnership with Freetown.


The music stage will return to Zebedee’s Yard, playing host to the likes of Natty Bo and The Top Cats, while Sunday will see an international carnival take over the city.


With so much to choose from then, any final words of Freedom Festival advice from Mikey? 


Be brave get amongst it, get the ticketed shows booked in early and let’s get together in the streets of Hull and celebrate this great city.”


Freedom Festival takes place across the city centre, from Wednesday 28th August to Sunday 1st September. Have a Browse of the full programme here:


Tickets are on sale now via the Hull Truck box office: