A round-up of Out There Festival 2023 which brought good cheer and top-notch physical, visual and musical performance to the streets, parks and seafront of Great Yarmouth. Dorothy Max Prior reports
It’s 11am on a sunny Saturday in September, and here we are, in St George’s Park in Yarmouth, sitting at a cafe drinking a flat white and eating a pastel de nata – there’s a massive Portuguese-speaking community here, and these delicious little custard tarts are very much a local delicacy. As I sip my (excellent) coffee, I’m watching the park come to life for Out There Festival’s biggest day.
There are small brightly-coloured vintage caravans scattered around the park, acting as information points. There are craft stalls, and booths selling food and drink. There is an interesting-looking contraption put together by Japanese musician and installation-maker Ichi, a kind of giant marble-run made out of scrap objects, which he’s called Tobogan Gaki. There are flags and tree-dressings and hanging sculptures. A big mechanical metal horse is whinnying and tossing his head – this is Paka’s wonderful creation, the trusty Rusty, who’s about to go Out and About with a Whinny and a Canter. A nun on a giant hoverboard sporting a baby grand piano (Musical Ruth) whizzes past Rusty, who neighs loudly at her. And all across the park, soundchecks and rigging checks are happening at the six or so different stages and pitches, where in just an hour’s time, the day’s programme will kick off with a whole host of outdoor arts and circus shows of all scales and styles.
Although Saturday is the fullest day, the festival is well and truly in the swing by now. It had started on Friday with a day of professional networking for artists, producers and other industry types. As people arrived in the morning, they were greeted with a What3Words game to share where they’re at and how they feel about the current state-of-play, for their own practice and for the sector. A communal lunch gave people the chance to catch up, and this was followed by a panel discussion on music in outdoor arts – the Sounds Out There strand of the festival saw an emphasis on music as an integral part of the outdoor arts sector, as witnessed in very many of the shows in this year’s programme, in which the music was far more than just an accompaniment to physical performance. At the official festival launch on Friday early evening, tributes were paid to artistic director Joe Mackintosh, on the occasion of this year’s double anniversary: 15 years of the festival and 25 years of Out There Arts, the organisation behind it that Joe has steered from small-scale outfit to Arts Council National Portfolio status. The role that Joe’s right-hand woman, executive director Veronica Stephens, has played in that was also acknowledged. Veronica is well known to many in the outdoor arts industry as as a former director of Zap Arts (in its later days) and producer of Streets of Brighton – a once major part of the Brighton Festival which is sadly no more. Brighton’s loss is Yarmouth’s gain, clearly…
Friday evening saw Party in the Park animating St George’s with a team of renowned DJs and dancers, and the organisation’s HQ at Drill House was also a hive of activity. Meanwhile, along the seafront at St Nicholas’ car park, we had the fabulous opening night show Résiste by Les Filles Du Renard Pale, who festival director Joe described as the ‘all-female powerhouse’: a dynamic duo who combined live music with a breathtaking display of tightwire skills on a rig that was scarily tugged and tilted into different permutations. The duo comprises a talented multi-instrumentalist who is equally at ease with grungy feedback guitar, trip-hop synths, and dreampop vocals; paired with a very talented circus performer who dangles and dances on the wires with wild abandon. And sometimes the musician also joined her, cocooned in an aerial pod hung from the wire! Here was a show where the music and the physical performance worked together in perfect symbiosis – an exciting start to the weekend. A shout out also to local bands Arthur Black and Jehenna, who warmed up the space for an hour or so before the main show, with an onsite bar to help ease everyone into the weekend.
The coming together of circus and live music was something of a theme for this year’s Out There Festival. In one way, nothing new there: live music has always been a key element of traditional circus, and it is usual for clowns to also be talented musicians, incorporating their musical skills into the ground routines (providing the space for aerial rigging and act turnarounds).
But what is different here is the number of companies that are integrating live music into a more progressive or experimental contemporary circus landscape – often with no demarcation between roles.
Take, for example, Sur Mesure with their show Barriere, presented as part of the Spotlight on Flanders showcase, and seen Saturday daytime. The story here is of four border guards who get up to all sorts of high jinks when bored. The staging is a small hut next to a metal barrier which is attached to a winch that can be cranked up and down. Our team of three women and one man have an astonishing array of skills between them. All are fabulous physical performers. The trio of women also gig as a music ensemble, and all three are talented multi-instrumentalists and singers. We have guitar, banjo, various brass instruments, keyboards and percussion in the mix. The barrier, when cranked up, gets used as an aerial rig – giving us a very lovely upside-down coffee-drinking act, and a comedy straps number. The male performer does a great macho put-down as he paso doble dances himself into a tight corner. It is all a joy to behold, and musically brilliant to boot – a mix of great tunes and fabulous sung harmonies.
Also part of the excellent Spotlight on Flanders programme is Collectif Malunés with We Agree to Disagree, which was the big draw in the park on Saturday afternoon. And my goodness, what a show! It has it all. There are extraordinary circus skills, including high-flying swinging trapeze on one rig and doubles on another, wire-walking, teeter-board, acrobatics and hand-to-hand. It has live music. It has humour a-plenty. And it has audience interaction – and then some. Audience members are roped in to tug ropes and counter-weight, to read out speeches, sing in a choir, play keyboards, throw rice at a ‘wedding’, push buzzers, be climbed upon or jumped over – and even to be taken up as high as the sky on the trapeze (firmly and safely held by the artists). A young girl looks like she’s achieved her heart’s desire as she is carried high, supported from above and below as if by angels; and an elderly woman standing on the trapeze, the aerialist wrapping her arms around her as they are drawn upward to the heavens together, is beaming with joy. It is a fabulous 75 minutes of immersive performance of the highest order – one of the best outdoor shows I’ve seen in many a year, and one that will stay with me for a long time.
Meanwhile, down at the Marina Centre on the seafront, a stage on the beach is the setting for Orbita, an intriguing mix of music, dance and circus. The music is mostly live classical/flamenco guitar (with a little bit of looping and effects here and there) by a wonderful female guitarist, who moves around the stage with ease; with a fantastic coming together of flamenco dance, urban dance and circus skills (hand-balancing, Cyr wheel, acrobatics) from a very talented male performer.The couple, collectively known as Zen del Sur, come from Cadiz in Andalusia, but are now based in Granada. I’ll admit, as a flamenco aficionado, to some trepidation as I arrived at the start of the show, as these kind of hybrid re-interpretations of flamenco can so often go awry – but within minutes I relaxed, aware that I was in the hands of people who loved the form and had worked hard on a respectful honouring of the traditions whilst demonstrating a wonderful willingness to experiment and to create something brand-new and exciting. I particularly love the way that objects such as the cajon percussion box and the Cyr wheel are used in an innovative way – the cajon used for hand-balancing, the wheel enclosing the two performers into a tight circle. A magical performance.
Poppy Plowman and Zara Hudson’s Turk(ish) also combines live music and contemporary circus. Here, we have cello from Zara Hudson and tightwire from Poppy Plowman. Plus, pre-recorded verbatim text and live spoken word – a mix of autobiography and true-life stories giving us a feminist debunking of the intrinsically racist Western beauty industry. Turk(ish) comes with good intentions, and both performers demonstrate a high level of skill in circus and music. The use of radio mics feels like an unnecessary faff – not least because they are erratically-functioning, so the live text is often inaudible, but also because turning radio mics on and off before doing a hair-hang or a complicated dance along a tightwire feels a little awkward. Perhaps it would be better if all or most of the spoken text became pre-recorded and integrated into the soundscape? But these are decisions for another time – this was the very first outing for a show newly devised, and outdoor arts work inevitably needs to be tried out in the open air with a live audience to know what works and what needs working on. It is early days for (Turk)ish and as the show is supported by Out There Arts it will no doubt get further development.There’s the makings of a good show in there: both performers are clearly talented, there are very many strong visual images, and the ‘subject matter is interesting.
One of the most exciting and extraordinary music and circus combinations seen at Out There 2023 was a collaboration that only came about at the eleventh hour. Amoukanama are a Flanders-based acrobatic troupe, comprising performers of African heritage, who only just made it to Yarmouth after a hair-raising dash across Europe to pick up visas that had previously been refused. They were paired with The African Choir of Norfolk, who feature songs from 16 different African nations. After just one Zoom rehearsal, and an in-person meeting a mere hour or so before the show, the two companies pulled out all the stops and wowed the night-time park audience with an extraordinary display of song, dance and acrobatics. We started with the beautifully-dressed women singers – resplendent in traditional circular skirts and head-dresses – doing a short set on a stage. Then, the male acrobats burst into the space, giving us a fabulous display of tumbling and balancing, human towers and pyramids rising and falling. The women then moved down onto the grass, and their lyrical song and traditional dance moves were met by the acrobats, so that all of the space was filled with one harmonious team creating a wondrous mix of music and physical performance. Amoukanama also performed a number of great daytime shows in St George’s Park the next day – seemingly still full of energy.
Music of another sort was seen in the Oktopus Orkestar trio which features three wonderful one-man bands: orchestra leader Karl Stets, a former circus performer now focusing on his music, but retaining a circus sensibility and flexibility; the Martin Kasper Orkestra which declares itself to be ‘minimalist and virtuoso all in one’; and Santiago Moreno (from Argentina) who uses a series of pulleys and strings along with his guitar, utilising the principles of puppetry and the complexity of Latin American rhythms. I catch Santiago Moreno’s show down at the Marina Centre, and marvel at just how many things he manages to manipulate with his hands, feet, arms, elbows and head. I see the multi-armed and many-legged Oktopus at Drill House, where each man gets a solo slot, then the three combine to create something extraordinary that is far more than the sum of their parts. It really does sound as a if a full orchestra is on the stage, with brass, wind, guitar, and percussion of all sorts combining into a magnificent musical melée. The trio were greeted with tumultuous applause at the Drill House – definitely a popular booking!
One of the many things I like about Out There Festival is the thoughtful programming that sees a genuinely eclectic mix of experimental and genre-defying work with the classic crowd pleasers of traditional street theatre.
In this second category come such stalwarts as MarkMark, who seemed to be everywhere over the weekend, with interactive walkabouts such as PC Gone Mad, which comes with the tag line ‘whatever you’re doing, stop it now’ and the ‘spectacularly camp’ swashbuckling Pirates of Northants; an indoor cameo slot for Team B Gees, their irrepressible tribute to The Bee Gees, seen at Friday’s launch event; and static show The Maniax, presented right outside the Drill House on a high stage, and featuring comic routines, daring stunts and illusions, and a Houdini-inspired escapology finale, replete with audience countdown.
Also outside the Drill House – and at numerous other locations across Yarmouth – were Hicks & Rudkin with Tony & Ray Find Their Feet, in which two mature workmen steal a moment to indulge their passion in eccentric dance. A mobile tool cart becomes the vehicle for a portable sound system, so the team are self-sufficient – and although static for their ten-minute slots, they provide many of the advantages of a walkabout act. This was the show’s very first outing, but it is already a winner – the combination of well-honed physical humour (as the pair attempt to capture an invisible squeaking something-or-other on the ground) with the lovely little dance routines, that include a classic soft-shoe-shuffle and a paso doble, working very well. Of course, the two-man act is a mainstay of physical comedy, in both music hall and film/TV – and these two play on all the tropes of rivalry and one-upmanship with experienced ease. I suppose it could develop into a longer show, but there is something very pleasing about it being a little burst of heart-warming humour that pops up all over the place, in between the longer static shows at the fixed pitches, or anywhere on the streets.
The solo clown or comedian is also well in evidence here, with a great one-man act from Daryl J Carrington, whose word-free act combines clowning, juggling and object manipulation with comic portraiture (in chalk) and audience participation, as he draws (literally) two men in from the audience to form part of his giant-ball-throwing team. Belfast comic Paul Currie – a last-min addition to the programme – is certainly not word free. His act, presented on the seafront stage, features a barrage of patter from beginning to end. It’s great stuff! Described by the man himself as ‘a screaming hysteric waterslide ride of joy all the way back to your childhood’ it’s chock full of popular culture references, mostly from TV and film of the past couple of decades so much of it goes over my head, but I love it all anyway. He has us all flying through the air riding a dragon, playing imaginary pan-pipes, and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. There are an endless number of props, dragged out of a suitcase he constantly rummages through. He plays a ‘hus-key-board’ – a little Casio inserted into a husky dog puppet – and a pair of panda puppets become his ‘panda hands’. There are plenty of comic references to his Belfast childhood of 40 years ago, at the height of The Troubles. When handing out party poppers to a row of kids he says ‘Beware Belfast men handing you explosives’. A noisy, windy beach might not be the ideal pitch for this sort of act, but Paul Currie overcomes all obstacles and conquers the crowd. His control of the ‘house’, the ad-libbing and the full-on interaction with the audience (particularly the children) is of the highest order. A grand success!
Still with the comedy: The Miraculous Theatre Company’s Dead starts as a processional piece as we follow a pair of undertakers (a classic pantomime duo of bossy fool and obsequious servant) as they manoeuvre a coffin from a pub through the backstreets of Yarmouth. They rap on church doors to be let in, stop the traffic with officious bluster, and enlist audience members to help carry the coffin. When they arrive at the Drill House, they set the coffin in place on a bier outside. The energy goes up a notch as we learn that our undertaker friends are fed-up with their usual traditional offerings, and have decided instead to transform the business into Happy Endings Funeral Services. Audience members are enlisted to don grass skirts and Hawaiian leis in rainbow colours, and to dance and play the ukulele to see the dead off with gay abandon. Only one problem: they seem to have lost the body… A solid, old-fashioned piece of British street theatre, well realised and performed by two seasoned artists who know how to work an audience.
French company L’Abre a Vache are also a comic duo, but of a fabulously surreal bend. Goodbye Persil is the story of two brothers on a mission: to bury their dearly departed dog in a small roadside park. Sporting balaclavas and glasses, one tall and dressed in casual hipster mode, one short and wearing an ill-fitting shirt and tie, they make an odd couple. They arrive in a car which, like the famous Herbie the Love Bug, has a mind of its own. They hop out, dead dog wrapped in a blanket, and try to locate their spades, and their dog’s beloved toys, for the burial – but then the trouble starts. The seemingly sentient car is out to sabotage: it sounds its horn whenever it wants to, turns its windscreen wipers on and off, locks the brothers out, and shakes and bangs at random moments. All the neighbourhood dogs are alerted, and a ferocious barking starts up from over the wall, causing our heroes to go into total panic mode. Worse, as they dig the grave, pipes would seem to be hit, and fountains spurt all over the place. The show is a text-book example of a great concept brought to fruition with perfect precision and attention to detail, and fantastic performances from both actors. Street theatre of the highest order – and managing to be both crowd pleasing and innovative at the same time. One of the highlights of the Out There 2023 programme for me.
Other theatre offerings included the UK’s Inverted with The Precious Thing, a tale of environmental concerns about planetary care and water preservation that uses colourful costume and set (all yellow to start, with purple creeping in slowly), well-chosen props, and a soft and gentle performance mode to tackle its subject in a pleasingly non-polemical manner. The two performers use object manipulation, including some very nice hat juggling, acrobatics, hand-balancing and contortion, and clowning to tell their tale. Look after what is precious, is the message – it might not last for ever. With so many ‘take care of our environment’ shows out there, it’s good to see one that treads softly softly rather than ramming the message down our throats.
Cocoloco is a Norfolk-based company supported by Out There Arts. Their latest work Shangria-LaLa, a 2023 premiere, is set on a mini-site of its own on the edge of St George’s Park, a circle of calico tents enclosed by a fence. Shangri-LaLa promises the delights of heaven on earth, exploring famous utopian ideas from Avalon to Xanadu. A showman brings us through the entrance into the site where we are welcomed with a short speech introducing the ‘I Have a Dream’ theme, then led off into the first utopian space, Arcadia, where all is gentle pastoral pleasures. I’m picked to be a sheep, which is a great honour, and dressed in a woolly sheep-robe and mask, sat knitting on a bale of hay (rather like the old ma sheep in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I think to myself). Baaaaah! All is indeed an Arcadian utopia – until the butcher arrives to lead away us sheep… Next comes Avalon, where we encounter the Knights of the Round Table, who are sat around a circular table, putting the world to rights. A note of disharmony creeps in when we hear what Lancelot has been up to; and there is also a rather odd, deliberately anachronistic, debate on gender and sexuality that I don’t quite get. And so we continue, into more utopias. Cocoloco’s very own mystic, Dr Yaya, takes us time-travelling; we get a touchy-feely New Age moment of gazing into another’s eyes; and we get to write our utopian wishes onto a wall. A good time is had by all! It’s an ambitious show with a large cast and a great deal of audience interaction and participation – and thus the sort of show that has to be rehearsed in public, so to speak. This was its first outing, and I am sure it will blossom and grow with each new presentation. Big dreams are nothing without a dash of pragmatism is the message, it would seem.
Interactive shows have always been a key component of a successful street theatre festival, so it was good to see so many different sorts at Out There. The Losers Arcade is a giant games emporium with nothing to lose. ‘Leave your ego behind and join the Losers as you focus on putting the fun back in failure’ says the invitation. Like Shangri-LaLa it’s on its own site within a site, set up like a mini fairground, bobbing ducks and all. I try my luck on a roulette wheel spin and am rewarded with a shot of sour apple liqueur (there is a non-alcoholic alternative, I’m told). Every one’s a winner!
Right next to it is a tent housing Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent, in which photographer Martin Thompson is set up in a Victorian style photo studio, with a low stage, a beautiful backdrop, a selection of props (knives! clubs! balls!), and two rails of splendid dressing up clothes. The Prof is aided and abetted by artists Mark Copeland and Sarah Munro – they of the legendary Insect Circus Museum. Audience are invited to stroll up and have their portraits taken, dressed as a circus artiste. You can have the end result emailed to you for free, or buy a print for a mere £2. It’s a lovely idea, and when I go along – to be kitted out as an over-the-hill pierrot in faded gold – I’m second in line to a family who are dressed as strongman, trapeze girl and baby clown in a tiny pink hat; and followed by an excited gaggle of girls who all want to wear flamenco dresses. A roaring success which will hopefully return to a future Out There Festival.
This lovely booth show is an example of one of the unique festival commissions that differentiates it from many of the country’s outdoor art events. With the Without Walls shows dominating the programming of so many festivals these days, it is good to see Out There putting on some very different work that you won’t get to see anywhere else. Pair that with the collaborations with overseas partners that the organisation has nurtured – with Catalan arts organisations in past editions, and Circuscentrum in Flanders here in 2023, for example – and you have a truly unique programme.
Out There Festival is always a great event. This year’s programme was full of phenomenal work in so many different forms and genres – a fitting celebration for both the 15th edition of the festival and the silver jubilee of the organisation that presents it, Out There Arts.
It is also the end of an era – and heralds the start of a new one – with a move for the 2024 festival from September to the May-June spring half-term week, alongside the exciting news that the company has received a substantial National Lottery Heritage Fund award to develop its second venue, the Ice House, into a year-round national centre for circus and outdoor arts training and professional development.
It has been a fabulous story to date – with a lot more to come from Out There Arts over the coming years. Here’s to the next 25 years!
Featured image (top of page): Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste. Photo David Street
Out There Festival ran 15–17 September 2023, its 15th edition.
Over those years, the festival has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme, attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year.
Out There Arts and the festivals and events it produces has built a national and international reputation for world class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement.
The Ice House is set to be transformed into a new Centre of Excellence in Outdoor Circus and Arts. Built between 1851 and 1892, the Ice House was once a vital asset in the Great Yarmouth’s once-thriving fishing industry, enabling the storage of freshly caught seafood before transportation to London’s Billingsgate fish market.
Out There Arts recently received news that their National Lottery Heritage Fund bid had been succesful, and the project also receives support from Great Yarmouth Towns Deal, Brineflow, and the Architectural Heritage Fund, enabling the Ice House building to be repurposed into an arts and circus training hub, with opportunities for performances plus a licensed bar.
The completion of the project, which is being led by Out There Arts, would be a significant step towards the realisation of a vision for Great Yarmouth being recognised as the UK Capital for Circus and Outdoor Arts.
The development for The Ice House has been a long term project for Out There Arts. Much of the vision had been established with the local community through community consultations and events surrounding the building.
Out There Festival returns to Great Yarmouth 30 May – 2 June 2024