Out & About

Feature in Issue 21-4 | Winter 2009

Pippa Bailey shrugs off the autumn chills remembering this summer’s festival season.

As the autumn settles in for the long chill, I am reflecting on the fact that Britain really does spring and autumn best, as seasons go. However much we hope for heat, summer is inevitably variable and this year has been no exception. Thankfully British audiences are hopeful and resilient, so the outdoor summer festival has grown and multiplied over the past decade and I was lucky enough to get to several between July and September. What I noticed was how much the outdoor festival is integrating performance and participation, blurring lines and realities in very interesting ways.

Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF) installed NoFit State Circus in Trinity Green Park for the full five days of the Teeside celebrations. Parklife is an extraordinary undertaking, aiming to develop a new outdoor show via a series of residencies interacting with local people, the company parked up circus-style in a town park. There is a large circular stage and an aerial rig, sans tent and open to the elements. For four days in Stockton local groups met circus folk and exchanged skills, then presented a ‘show’ on the final evening. Now, showing process or work-in-progress in public is extremely difficult to achieve well. The dangers include public humiliation, professional and/or critical damnation, as people are too quick to judge and may not sufficiently appreciate the process. But NoFit State may have cracked a new model. While working within tight restraints of budget, schedules and weather, they brought a large young company to SIRF, held workshops in the park, exchanged skills and then captivated the good people of Stockton who were glued to their seats in the rain for an afternoon of repetitive rehearsal. These rehearsals were all accompanied by live direction, announced over the PA by director Orit Azaz asking for feedback and gauging audience response, which informed the company’s next moves. During the evening performance, professional and community were artfully combined. In addition to the expected spell-binding circus, the audience was introduced to a local unicycle troupe whose leaders had actually married on their cycles (yes, really!); young lads from a football team; and a newly invented sport involving trapeze – a cross between netball, basketball and quidditch. The Parklife project is brave and has great integrity. It will be interesting to see how the series of residency shows are then distilled into a fully-fledged production, what dramaturgy is employed, and how they retain the flavour the community groups bring to their work. See more in Brighton and Norwich for their respective festivals in May 2010.

Audience participation where revelers turn performers were featured at both Big Chill and Bestival – rival ticketed music festivals. The Big Chill at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire entered the Guinness Book of Records with 4026 zombies as part of a scene at the centrepiece of a mockumentary by Film4 and Warp Films called I Spit on Your Rave. The undead are the result of a virus released at the 2012 Olympics with Noel Fielding playing the zombie king. This travelling circus approach to filmmaking, where volunteer crowds are included and therefore invested in the outcome of the film, is at the heart of participatory arts practice and increasingly being adopted. At Planet Bestival on the Isle of Wight the annual fancy dress party adopted a space theme. A large percentage of the crowd obliged with impressive costumes emerging from tents all over the site, transporting the festival to another galaxy. The acts also played their part with Lily Allen (Lily Alien?) dressed as Barbarella and the English National Ballet sporting futuristic costumes while dancing to contemporary tunes. Bestival culminated in an adaptation of The World Famous and Peepolykus theatre company’s touring show Blast (Blastival) over two nights, starring intrepid spaceman Michael Santos trying to reach the stars and festival director Rob da Bank, DJing atop a mighty ‘afterburner’ bonfire. The escapist aims of Bestival cast all 40,000 punters into active players where fact and fiction become indistinguishable. Even the police looked like characters in a surreal drama, a sign of the times perhaps.

Pippa Bailey is Creative Director of the Total Theatre Awards. See report on the Awards 2009 elsewhere in this publication. For the Stockton International Riverside Festival see www.sirf.co.uk For the Big Chill see www.bigchill.net For more on Bestival see www.bestival.net The World Famous www.theworldfamous.co.uk NoFit State Circus www.nofitstate.org

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-4
p. 20