Dorothy Max Prior talks to Joe Mackintosh, chief executive of Out There Arts and artistic director of the Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts, which returns to Great Yarmouth 17–19 September 2021
‘There is quite an upbeat mood around culture in Yarmouth at the moment,’ says Joe Mackintosh, ‘an upswell of energy – we’re awash with all this levelling up stuff…’
He’s not wrong: there has been news recently of a 10 million pound investment to restore the Winter Gardens, a beautiful, deserted seafront palace of cast iron and glass; plus the re-opening of the legendary Venetian Waterways. Then, there’s Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft’s joint bid to become UK Capital of Culture; and what Joe calls ‘all the Banksy action’, referring to the street art/graffiti that has appeared in the town, verified as bona fide Banksy work by the artist himself.
So this oft-neglected East Coast town – a once-famous seafaring and fishing port which has been in existence since Roman times at least; a lot longer than its posher neighbour, Norwich – is on the up.
And Joe has a vision for his organisation, Out There Arts, and the festival they produce, that fits in very nicely with the development of Great Yarmouth (or plain old Yarmouth, as it is more usually called) as a high-flying cultural centre:
‘What we really want to do over the next ten years is to develop and grow Out There Festival, but also to build a high-level, creative artistic hub – to create a circus and street arts community that live here… They may tour worldwide, but Yarmouth would be their year-round base. Circus and street theatre artists like the idea of living in Bristol, Toulouse, Ghent, Barcelona – if Yarmouth is to compete, we’ll need to make artists a great offer!’
And yes, Out There Arts certainly does have a great offer to make. More on those future plans anon…
Meanwhile, how are things right now?
Out There Arts has recently rebranded itself. Joe winces at the word ‘branding’, but it can be a positive thing. The organisation was previously known as Sea Change Arts. So why the change?
‘We had all these different names: Sea Change Arts for the arts organisation, the Out There Festival, our venue Drill House. People were confused and nobody understood it was all the same organisation doing all these different things. The aspect people mostly knew about was Out There Festival so we thought, why not bring it all together around that?’
Hence the emergence of Out There Arts – with the tag line ‘A National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus’. Not ‘the’ but ‘a’, we note. One of many, in the style of the fourteen French Creation Centres or Ateliers dedicated to outdoor arts, often (but not always) linked to a major street arts festival.
‘To combine a year-round creation space with an annual festival,’ says Joe, referring to the new organisation’s mission, ‘to produce and commission work under one banner.’ The name change thus ‘makes some kind of sense’ as the organisation strives to ‘develop the town as an International Centre of Excellence for circus and street arts creation, training and delivery’.
In fact, Out There Arts – which is based at the Drill House – already operates a year-round programme of events and residencies; as well as producing Out There Festival, the region’s largest free festival of street arts and circus, which is now in its 13th edition, and regularly attracts audiences in excess of 60,000 people. So they will be building on what has already been established.
‘We’ve done a lot already,’ says Joe, going on to flag up that none of this would have been possible without the skills and experience of his right-hand woman, executive director Veronica Stephens, who Joe describes as ’the best street arts producer in the country – she just delivers it all. Brings together the best art and artists with the best community engagement.’
And so to this year’s festival, which – gods and governments willing – takes place over the weekend of 17th to 19th September. When I speak to Joe, there’s around a month to go. How is he feeling about it all?
‘We’re doing pre-production work now that we’d ideally have done a while ago,’ he says, with a wry smile, ‘but we’re getting there’. We talk briefly about the recent cancellation of Stockton International Riverside Festival by the local council on just a few days’ notice, which is enough to strike fear into the heart of any festival director, but Joe feels confident that this isn’t going to happen in Yarmouth, where the support of the council and communication between all parties is a key feature of the success of all ventures to-date. Plus, they have Veronica!
‘It’s all extremely challenging but she is a genius. And we have a great team, a young team, the next generation of producers and directors, numerous apprenticeships. Veronica is such a terrific leader and mentor and role model…’
So what will we see at the 2021 festival?
’First and foremost,’ says Joe, ‘we wanted to honour commitments made to artists for the cancelled 2020 programme. Of course, there have been changes, especially with the international programme, as some shows booked are not going out this year… So we have additions. Throughout all of lockdown, more or less, we kept going as a creation space with a stream of companies coming through – quite a lot of stuff that has come out of those residencies is in the festival.’
In fact, almost half of the festival programme of 35 or so companies has been co-produced or nurtured by Out There Arts.
‘There’s a good mix of national and international, and a good mix of scale,’ he says.
Of the international programme, Joe is especially excited about the appearance of Orquestra De Malabares from Santiago de Compostela – which features a core-company team of six jugglers who perform and interact with an orchestra from the region, in this case Norwich. Joe tells us to expect ‘Morecambe and Wise-esque chaos’ as the jugglers take on a 50-piece brass band.
A change for 2021’s festival programming also comes as a result of leaving the Without Walls grouping of outdoor arts festivals. ‘Without Walls is a great consortium,’ says Joe, ‘but we are slightly different to many of the partners as we have both a fully-fledged street arts festival and a year-round creation centre making work that we want to include’. The emphasis for Out There Arts is now on nurturing and developing both local artists and incoming artists-in-residence, national and international.
One of the local talents being nurtured is Matthew Harrison, whose lovely Actual Reality Arcade was a massive hit of the pre-Covid 2019 street arts season – a show which restores ‘game playing’ to actual physical engagement with the material world. Produced by Out There Arts, and created in residence at the Drill House, the new show is called The Community Chest – which Joe describes as ‘a local community themed escape room’.
Another of the in-residence companies has been Puppets With Guts, whose show The Lips was developed at Drill House. The Lips features a chorus of ‘delightfully deviant divas’ whose mouths have broken free from their bodies, allowing them to lip-synch and jive merrily to an exhilarating mix of much-loved pop tunes. ‘Seductive yet subversive’ promises the advance publicity! The company have not only been in residence at Drill House developing the show throughout the past year, but have also delivered an extensive amount of community engagement work with local schools.
Joe has also been keen to lend a helping hand to some of the companies whose premieres were sadly put on hold with the Stockton cancellation. Shows ready to go, but with nowhere to go, included a new work by flying trapezists Gorilla Circus (last seen at Out There Festival 2019, collaborating with Generik Vapeur in Thank You For Having Us). So their new show, UNITY, will now be seen in Yarmouth at this year’s festival. We are promised ‘high wire and hair-hanging’. Sounds terrific!
Other highlights of the programme include Whalley Range All Stars’ Godzillatown, in which audience members are invited to collect a Godzilla mask; fold, tape and put it on; then, enter the ‘town’, negotiating a maze of cartoonish buildings whilst trying to avoid collision with confused fellow Godzillas.
The festival is also taking over a number of disused shops in the town centre, giving them over to various commissioned artists. In what looks to be a particularly exciting event, Mark Copeland (of Insect Circus fame) will be turning a closed department store into a retirement home for elderly pantomime horses, possibly titled The Equidae Retirement Home, although as it’s near Anna Sewell’s home it might reference Black Beauty (pronounced Booty locally!)
There will also be a new strand to the festival called Extremities – a kind of festival within the festival, focusing on high-energy dance and acrobatics with a strong street vibe and African /global culture influence. It’s hoped that this might be a way to engage with that oft hard-to-reach demographic, the teen and young adult audience, especially boys. Traditionally, they’d come to the big Saturday night spectacles, but eschew the ‘family-friendly’ daytime programme on streets and in parks. Joe points out that there is a decent-sized Portuguese-speaking Black community in Yarmouth – mostly from Brazil, Angola and Capo Verde – and it is hoped that Extremities will also draw more of those communities into the festival. This strand of work will be sited right in the centre of town, in the Market Place, and is supported by partners Freshly Greated. Artists and companies appearing include Morocco’s Said Mouhssine with a show called Routine; Etta Ermini Dance Company with the Hammich Brothers; and Joseph Toonga with Born to Protest, a new hip hop dance work.
Also aimed at the young adult audience – although no doubt to be enjoyed by all – is a promenade show called Ghosted, created by James McDermott and Marcus Romer. Ghosted follows six Norfolk teenagers as they investigate the disappearance of a schoolfriend, whose clothes are found on the beach.
Joe describes it as ‘a mini-soap opera on headphones; a kind of voyeur theatre – Yarmouth’s version of Skins – sex and drugs on the seafront!’
Which brings us neatly to talking about the fact that the seafront and beach will be used far more in this festival than it has been in the past. The Gorrilla Circus show will be sited on the seafront, and there will also be a special Friday evening Cobham Island Beach Party, bringing elements of the festival to Yarmouth satellite town Cobham.
And talking about parties, Joe says, ‘What the outdoor arts sector really wants at the moment is to get back together and have a party… we’re really excited about doing a proper festival!’ A festival that will include a programme of workshops, seminars, and networking events for artists and producers – with a Total Theatre Talks on artists at the crossroads, and a Total Theatre Training session on scripting and scoring outdoor arts work amongst the delights on offer.
All this sounds terrific, but what happens once the festival ends? Joe is keen to reflect on what happens on the other 51 weeks of the year: ‘How does that transformational energy feed into the rest of the time?’ he says.
Well, for a start, as if one festival is not enough, 2021 will also see the launch of Out There Arts’ new venture Fire on the Water in October and November, an event postponed from 2020 that might evolve into a new annual festival:
‘We’ve commissioned a lot of work – site-specific installations using fire and water – for the Venetian waterways,’ says Joe.
As well as commissions for circus and physical theatre artists to re-purpose their skills to make non-performance work, Fire on the Water will also see the inclusion of some of the heavyweight fire-artists, such as the legendary Paka, who’s bringing along some flame-throwing saxophones…
And when that one is done too? What happens then?
‘We have a brilliant festival and creation centre (at Drill House), and we do good stuff year round. Most days I go up there and discover artists in there I’d forgotten were coming! Always a pleasant surprise. The word is going around and demand is going up…’
Over the past few years, Drill House residents have included many contributors to the festival programme, alongside numerous others, including the highly renowned Colombian circus company Circolombia, who developed their award-winning show Acelere there.
The Drill House is currently being revamped, with a new big tent over the rear courtyard space so it can be used day-in day-out for making and doing, and there are plans for a new Portuguese deli and bar at the front:
‘The Drill House is great but it’ll be even better when you can get a nice Portuguese coffee and cake, and a little glass of Douro there,’ he says with a smile.
The Drill House’s capabilities already match the facilities available at many of the well-known French outdoor arts creation centres, but it is now at full capacity, so a crucial part of Joe’s vision and Out There Arts’ plans for the next ten years is the creation of a new venue, the Ice House.
The Ice House is a 3400 square-foot former storage warehouse. Once repurposed and redeveloped, it will be able to provide the additional large-scale making space and dedicated circus training space that the UK so sorely needs, and which is no longer possible to initiate in London and other southern cities as property prices are at such a premium. It’s now the turn of the more neglected areas of the UK to take the cultural lead – all part of the aforementioned ‘levelling up’.
‘It’s right in the middle of town on the waterfront’ says Joe. ‘We can have a riverside terrace bar, and late-night events. The Drill House is great but it is a bit hidden away in a residential area, and we can’t make a lot of noise there…’
Out There Arts have already secured half a million pounds worth of government funding for the Ice House project, with plans afoot to raise the million or so it’ll take!
And that’s not all. Another thing on Joe’s mind is housing for artists – and has started to purchase properties for that purpose. The first is a building opposite Drill House, which will provide extra artists’ accommodation, to tie into that stated desire to encourage more circus and street arts practitioners to make Yarmouth their year-round base.
‘That’s such a big obstacle,’ he says, referring to the high cost of housing in many cities, forcing artists out. Here in Yarmouth, Joe wants to turn the tables and welcome them in. ‘We want to come up with an offer to attract artists to Yarmouth; one that combines training, housing, storage space, industrial making space, mentoring support, and the opportunity to work as part of a collective… to collectively transform this town. I think that’s a very exciting offer in these troubled times!’
He envisions building a collective of around 50 artists from a mix of disciplines – acrobats, jugglers and other circus artists; plus makers, technicians, kinetic artists, sound artists… He’d ideally like to see this collective take over the Extremities strand of Out There Festival, ‘so it takes ownership of that part of the festival and it is not just me programming it; it becomes artist-led – a foundation for experiment and collaboration’.
As for Out There Festival as a whole, he’d like to see it not just sustained but growing, with possibly an ‘off’, a fringe festival, and perhaps a showcase element. His vision, both for the festival and for all of the arts organisation’s ventures, is summed up in one neat line:
‘We want to create something that is truly transformational of place’.
A worthy ambition indeed!
Featured image (top) and above image: Out There Festival 2019. Photos JMA Photography
Out There Arts is an independent arts development charity that is based in Great Yarmouth, but collaborates with artists worldwide. https://outtherearts.org.uk/
Out There Festival takes place across Great Yarmouth 17–19 September 2021. It is funded by Arts Council England and supported by Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Norfolk County Council. For more information and listings for Out There Festival 2021, see https://outtherearts.org.uk/out-there-festival/
Fire on the Water takes place 21 October–6 November 2021. It is funded by The Norfolk Strategic Fund (NCC), Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Interreg Experience, Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Out There Arts. For further details, see https://outtherearts.org.uk/event/fire-on-the-water/