Hat Fair - A Declaration of Love

Feature in Issue 16-1 | Spring 2004

Hats off to Winchester, says Director of Celebrations Sian Thomas.

Falling in Love

It’s the year 2000. A friend of mine has been trying to get me to Hat Fair for years. As I arrive in Winchester, there are all sorts of performers arriving in their various vehicles. Their excitement at being here is contagious and reminds me of my early experiences of arriving at festivals in Europe.

The day seems quiet as I walk through a serene park; ducks and moorhens are doing their thing on one of the city’s babbling streams. I ask someone for directions to town – suddenly I sense a buzz. Turning round the next comer, I’m stunned. Thousands of people are watching street theatre and loving it; performers are lapping up the adoration and applause. The exchange of performance for donations in the Hat only adds to the excitement and edginess of it all.

That night, Skate Naked run through the anticipating crowd, a fiesta atmosphere pervades; as they perform their high energy semi-naked acrobatic show, the joy on the audience’s faces is warmly highlighted by fire torches and street lights; the full fiesta vibe ascends as the Heliosphere aerialist swoops down from her illuminated globe; hundreds of hands reach up to touch hers. This is like Avignon in the seventies or Festival of Fools in Amsterdam. This is Winchester – hmm.

I enthusiastically went to Hat Fair for 2001 and 2002, particularly enjoying the Sunday picnic, where you can hang out with performers and families enjoying the mellow atmosphere after the previous night’s revelry.

In Autumn 2002 I’m out with some colleagues; they mention, in passing, that the Hat Fair job is going…

Love and Marriage

2003, my first Hat Fair as Director of Celebrations. Wow! This is what I call a learning cliff! I could write a whole book about the highs and lows of the first time running an event like this.

My major programming risk was to introduce a different shade of outdoor work to Winchester. This materialised in the strong and perfectly formed Carmen Funebre by Polish company Teatr Biuro Podróży. The piece dealt with the extremes of human behaviour in a state of war. The company had been performing it for many years, though given the global political situation and the deep success of their performance at Ground Zero, it seemed right for it to visit our shores once more, and it was completely new to Winchester audiences.

It was also the chance to open a new yet locally politically difficult site for Hat Fair. The commitment of the company and the overwhelming response from the public made every hoop worth jumping through.

There were so many extremely wonderful moments at the festival that I cannot detail them all. Personal highlights included seeing a group of teenagers, boys and girls, confidently performing an acrobatic dance piece that came out of workshops done with Mimbre, to a huge audience that had gathered to see the company’s Tryp-Tic – which we had co-commissioned. Then there was the clown who hung out his washing, sunbathed on his roof, did his ironing, and watched telly – viewed by the public through spy holes in his chip-board house in front of Winchester Cathedral, all day. Even when he left to go shopping, he was followed by groups of people, curious and questioning. That was Habitant Public by Compagnie Provisoire.

The camaraderie of the performers, many of whose relationships with the festival have grown over years, the people of the city and the festival staff was really what struck me even more intensely than I could have imagined. One thing that occurred to me was that I felt I had come full circle. My childhood was spent with a travelling fringe theatre company. We performed in Iron Curtain Poland and Franco’s Spain. Now I am booking theatre from Poland that has its own political edge and style as well as theatre from Spain that has been released from the talons of dictatorship. I am meeting many old friends who were adolescent performers that I admired as a child, and are now respected veterans still being innovative and involved in street theatre all over Europe.

The validity that Hat Fair has as a community event is much clearer to me now than when I came as a punter. I am in Winchester all year round and recognise the enormous value that the annual Schools Day has in giving children from all walks of life a chance to possess the City Centre for a day.

Hat Fair came into being as a buskers’ festival in 1974, miraculously and largely due to the dedication of founder Jonathan Kay. It survived and thrived as a celebration for both professional practitioners and the local community – a long time before the wider recognition of street arts came about. An innovative city arts officer, Marilyn Michalowicz, recognised this, and created a part-time post to coordinate the event. After many years of being run by volunteers, given the ongoing focus of this post, the festival flourished hugely under director Cat Loriggio between 1999 and 2002.

The festival was able to commission new work and bring in international acts such as The Bioscope Show, by Martinez and Fabrega and Compagnie Provisoire. Other groups included The Strangelings. The World Famous Company and Compagnie Elixir. It is amazing that the festival is still run by two part-time posts and many volunteers. In its 30th year, Hat Fair has an exciting artistic programme and crowds grow each year, yet with innovations in community work, a love of creativity and the maverick, the sense of ownership of the festival still belongs to people of Winchester and to the performers.

Horse and Carriage…

In 2004, we will be piloting Inside Out Day, a citizen project that will involve representatives from the ‘professional’ world of the City being invited to take part in workshops in schools, culminating in formal presentations to be performed on the street at Hat Fair on the opening Thursday. For our opening night show on Thursday, we are commissioning The World Famous Company to create a piece about the maverick history of Winchester, which will be staged on St Giles Hill. This is named after the largest medieval fair in Europe which took place there, on the feast of St Giles, ‘the titular saint of rags and squalor’. It sits at the head of Winchester High Street, the spine of the City. Friday is Schools Day and starts with a huge schools’ procession and a programme of children’s theatre. The highlight of Friday evening will be a performance of Mirando Al Cielo by Producione Imperdible from Andalusia in Spain who perform fifteen-minute dance pieces on a glass stage, while the audiences watch from below. Saturday will see the city transformed by street theatre all day and in the evening there will be a street party with a giant fire sculpture to commemorate Hat Fair’s 30 years.

So here’s to the next 30 years – hats off to Winchester!

Full details of this year’s programme are on www.hatfair.co.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 16-1
p. 14 - 15