Shuffle Festival founders Kate MacTiernan and Lizzy Daish: 'We can't live in a city that's just a machine'

Jimi Famurewa
Into the woods: Lizzy Daish, left, and Kate MacTiernan in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: Matt Writtle

It’s oddly fitting that the early part of my interview with Kate MacTiernan and Lizzy Daish — joint brains behind the community-focused Shuffle Festival — is interrupted by some unexpected collaboration. A lady has wandered into our space in a near-empty Mile End community centre to ask for assistance fastening her grandson into a BabyBjörn-style carrier. MacTiernan and I grapple with the straps as Daish offers instruction until the job is done.

The grateful stranger heads off and I’m left with a reminder that Daish and MacTiernan are inveterate doers. Rather than roam the streets of Tower Hamlets helping other locals, they have instead poured all their energy and hands-on attitude into Shuffle, an annual, hyperlocal celebration of film and culture now entering its fifth year.

Originally conceived as a way to bring E3-dwellers into Mile End Road’s St Clement’s building — a former psychiatric hospital and workhouse earmarked for a pioneering affordable housing development — the festival has adapted and evolved. This year, with the first beneficiaries of the London Community Land Trust (LCLT) scheme having moved into their homes, it continues to be based across the street in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: an evocative, densely wooded nature reserve that has cast a visible spell over Daish and MacTiernan.

“It goes back 35 acres and it’s run by this amazing group of volunteers,” enthuses MacTiernan, a 32-year-old architect who moved to the capital from her native Melbourne nearly a decade ago. “So many bugs and butterflies there don’t exist anywhere else in London, which means you get kids running through in term time. But when school is off, Shuffle brings in people that wouldn’t come to the park otherwise, helping it live as a public place.”

“Plus, our main theme this year is ‘public/private’,” adds Daish, a 27-year-old who studied human geography at nearby Queen Mary University and met MacTiernan when they ended up working on St Clement’s.

That highly relevant theme has been interpreted in all manner of ways. LCLT residents will be opening up their newly occupied front rooms for special screenings, a former women’s workhouse will be explored, five ad-hoc cinemas will show films including Get Out and Turkish cult hit Mustang and, until August 27, chef India Hamilton is presiding over a temporary restaurant called Eat With Your Hands, where customers forgo cutlery after some ritualistic hand-washing. “It’s quite a strange experience because you’re basically tearing a chicken apart, fighting for food with your hands,” laughs MacTiernan. “But kids in particular love it.” What’s more, surprisingly enough given Shuffle’s smallscale, homespun ethos, Canary Wharf Group has funded a free feast for 500 locals. “People see [Canary Wharf] as this island of wealth but they’re a joy to work with,” notes MacTiernan.

Directors Kate MacTiernan and Lizzy Daish of the Shuffle Festival in Mile End (Matt Writtle)

There’s an improvisational boldness to Daish and MacTiernan’s curatorial approach — once, while passing character comedian Marcel Lucont, they “screamed like van drivers” in a bid to book him — but there’s one part of the Shuffle formula that they couldn’t do without. Having helped get the festival off the ground in 2013, Danny Boyle (East End local, film director and patron saint of London 2012) is back to give Q&As after screenings of both Trainspotting films, including one with male mental health charity CALM.

"Danny the champion of Shuffle,” says MacTiernan, grinning. “He’s flying back from the set of a shoot to be here.” Daish adds: “It’s ridiculous. He was filming T2 in Glasgow last year and he came down for the afternoon. He always gives everybody the time of day.” Boyle’s backing isn’t the only example of the Shuffle team utilising their connections — for one thing, they’ve parlayed cross-collaboration into a free office in Second Home Spitalfields, the co-working space founded by MacTiernan’s husband, tech entrepreneur and former Downing Street policy advisor Rohan Silva. Is it right that former Mayor of London Boris Johnson was also pivotal in bringing the festival to life?

“He let us do the festival and he let the Land Trust go through — but I’m not sure he knew what was happening,” says MacTiernan with a mischievous laugh, before explaining that Johnson also changed the developer at the housing scheme from a “social” firm to one now poised to bring in “Starbucks and all the usual chains”. “I actually saw Boris and said to him, ‘Why did you do that? It’s just so stupid. You’re really into classical stories, myths and beautiful architecture. And yet, for London, it’s just bland developments. What is that about?’ He was just like, “Who are you?” She lets out another rueful laugh.

They’ve had a positive early conversation with current mayor Sadiq Khan and “would love to get him down” to a festival that they insist is unique in terms of its inclusivity, cross-generational appeal and safe atmosphere. “We work closely with one of the local policemen who comes every year and says crime actually goes down when Shuffle is on,” says Daish. “He’s even met people here that he’s arrested before and they’ve just hung out and had a drink.”

It’s as good a snapshot as any of this event’s purported ability to bring disparate members of a community together. Daish and MacTiernan’s focus is a plan to take the spirit of Shuffle into a permanent cultural space within a tumbledown lodge at the edge of the Cemetery Park. After a successful premises hearing the previous evening their dream of a café, workshop space, mini cinema and office for the volunteers who look after the grounds is closer. “We want to be able to say, ‘This place is for the public and for a specific type of activity.’ And it can’t be moved, gentrified or sold on.”

Still, as they depart to prepare rain cover for a planned fundraiser, they’re adamant that the festival itself will continue to have a life. If only to stand as a reminder of another way to offer outdoor entertainment in the capital. “Big festivals such as Lovebox and Field Day serve a purpose but we’re the opposite of that,” says MacTiernan.

“It’s a calm experience that’s not about cramming [people] in, pumping them full of £5 Red Stripes and letting them out. We’re passionate about it. Because we can’t live in a city that’s just a machine.”

@jimfam

Shuffle Festival, E3 (shufflefestival.com) is on August 26 and 27

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