Streetwise

Feature in Issue 23-2 | Summer 2011

Jenny Graham from Lakes Alive reports on the annual Mintfest International Summer School for Street Arts.

The idea was simple: take a group of aspiring performers, give them a week’s boot camp in street theatre, and then unleash them on a global audience. It was a daring experiment and one that produced equally daring results with a series of innovative outdoor performances at last year’s Mintfest, Kendal’s international festival of street arts (2010).

One group of students made a big splash with a torch-lit dinner held amid the flowing River Kent; another formed a sect and took to the streets in a blaze of yellow to spread love and joy through the Lakeland town. All impressed with their verve, imagination and daring.

One of the saffron-clad members of the imaginary sect believes the experience has given her the fresh incentive needed to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time artist. Chloe Osbourne, an arts administrator from London, says: ‘The Mintfest summer school has totally reinvigorated me. It was a chance to explore the potential of street performance without any of the limitations of real-life responsibilities. It was incredible and continues to inspire me in my work now.’

The brainchild of Lakes Alive’s artistic director Jeremy Shine, the Mintfest International Summer School for Street Arts (MISSSA) is an innovative new venture that gives students from across the UK and beyond the chance to gain a first-class lesson in the art of performance. Although there have, in the past, been other street arts ‘professional development’ initiatives in the UK (such as the Carnival Caravan project which ran throughout the 1990s, hosted by Bodily Functions, supported by Zap Arts, and funded by Arts Council England); and although there have been recent initiatives to bring training in street arts into the higher education sector (including the new BA Street Arts at University of Winchester, which has links to Hat Fair), the Lakes Alive initiative is currently the only course of its kind in the UK – an ongoing, vocational, street-arts-specific summer school linked to a successful international festival.

The first collection of students overwhelmingly judged it a hit. Jeff Wallcook, theatre practitioner for Storytree at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, says: ‘I would recommend it to anyone as a great learning experience and confidence builder. It’s definitely strengthened my resolve to do what I love doing.’

In just a few years Mintfest has established itself as one of Europe’s most important street arts events. The festival has brought some of the best artists from across the UK and overseas to Kendal, a small town on the edge of the Lake District. But this was the first time that relative unknowns were given the chance to take centrestage.

After a nationwide advertising campaign, a total of nineteen students were selected to join the Summer School. Their skills sets were as diverse as their age-range, which stretched from 21 to 57. They included two international participants from the USA and Canada, six full-time students and a professional dancer.

Speaking to the people who took part in the course, the word that crops up time after time is ‘inspiring’. And much of the source of this inspiration came from the four tutors who led the training.

On the first day of the course each of the tutors – Jon Beedell from Desperate Men, Doug Dougal of Surreal McCoy, Jean-Luc Prévost from Les Goulus and Richard Stamp aka Stompy from Dot Comedy – presented their shows and ideas to the students who then chose which performer they would most like to work with.

Jean-Luc Prévost admits: ‘It was a huge challenge! You have to realise that most street theatre artists have experimented by themselves in the streets and didn’t go to university to learn it. So the first challenge was to see if street theatre could be taught.

‘The second challenge was to push the students to choose the experience which could really suit them and encourage them to dare to do something different. And the biggest challenge was to do this all in one week.’

Once the four groups were selected the countdown to the final shows began. With just six days until the main event the pressure was on to create a piece of work that would be performed as part of Mintfest 2010.

In the realm of street arts there are no limits – the students were given free rein to perform wherever, whenever and however they chose. The theme of the week was ‘to dare’.

Chloe says: ‘It was terrifying and fun at the same time! We were all really pushed as performers by a tutor that we trusted and respected.

‘My previous experience in performing was always dwarfed a little by the enormity of the challenge. But guided by a tutor with serious experience we went out there to really push ourselves, to test our abilities, our capacity to think on our feet and to let it go and not worry about it!’

It was an intense experience for all. Not only did the students work together, they also shared accommodation in the local youth hostel and socialised together in the evenings. Few deny there were some fraught moments. Bringing such a diverse mix of people together – all with varying degrees of experience – meant sparks did fly.

As Jeff says: ‘Yes there were clashes – everyone had different expectations, different skills and different desires. Some people were more interested in the aesthetics of the piece; others in making it more risky and in-depth. But in the end we all came together and submerged ourselves in the performance.’

Quite literally in Jeff’s case as he was a member of the group who found themselves knee deep in cold water in the River Kent. It was a memorable experience for both the artists and the audiences.

The feedback to the Summer School performances was excellent and generated much discussion with videos and photos of the performances featuring extensively on Flickr and Facebook.

Following the success of the pilot, the Mintfest Summer School will return in 2011 and some of the original students will return to share their new-found experience and confidence.

Also returning is tutor Jean-Luc who says: ‘The best gift for me was to see these students proud of themselves and very fond of each other. All of them want to go on, which means the experiment was successful. The masterclass is now an integral part of Mintfest and will hopefully create its headline performers of the future.’

Lakes Alive and Mintfest

Mintfest, Kendal’s international festival of street arts will return for its fifth triumphant year 2–4 September 2011. An array of the world’s finest outdoor artists will descend on the Cumbrian town for a weekend of dazzling performances. For full details of Mintfest 2011 and the rest of the Lakes Alive programme across Cumbria in the summer months see www. lakesalive.org

Mintfest International Summer School for Street Arts 2011

The Summer School 2011 will run for a total of 10 days from 27 August until 5 September.

Tutors will be: Lina Johansson from mimbre, Brian Popay from Fine Artistes and Les Goulus’s Jean-Luc Prévost. A few of last year’s students will also be returning as paid performers and working on one of the shows.

The successful applicants will be given a chance to work with these talented teachers before performing their own show to Mintfest’s international audiences.

For all the latest information on the school go to www.lakesalive.org/mintfest-summer-school

Anyone who would like to participate in the Mintfest International Summer School for Street Arts should email jenny@kendalartsinternational.com

Jenny Graham is Marketing and Summer School co-ordinator for Kendal Arts International (who produce Mintfest and the Lakes Alive programme in partnership with Manchester International Arts). Jenny has worked with Kendal Arts for two years, working on Mintfest and the broader Lakes Alive project.

Referenced Festivals

This article in the magazine

Issue 23-2
p. 16 - 17