Focus On….Outdoor Arts & Summer Festivals

As public finances have tightened in recent years, the ‘political’ agenda for publicly funded art has become increasingly focussed on making sure as many people as possible experience it (The Arts Council of England’s mission statement is ‘Great Art for Everyone’). In 2012 the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, alongside the year-round Cultural Olympiad, much of which took place outdoors, marked a bit of a ‘lightbulb moment’ for cultural policymakers: It was realised that placing what I will broadly call theatre (including dance, spoken word, live art, circus etc) into public spaces is an easy way to get more people to see it - including the elusive but all important ‘least engaged’ (those who do not make art a regular part of their lives). Since then there seems to have been an explosion of opportunities to both see and present work in the outdoors across the UK.  The point of highlighting this is to encourage you to think beyond the touring theatre circuit’s ‘spring and autumn season’ model, because pretty much anything that can happen inside a theatre or arts centre can be adapted and taken outdoors.

In 2013 I was lucky enough to go to Europe’s largest festival of outdoor arts Oerol, which takes place over ten days each midsummer on the small (10km x 30km) island of Terschelling just off the coast of the Netherlands, much of which is a nature reserve. As the day-long (plane, train, train, ferry) journey to get there neared its destination and the train began to fill up with (mostly Dutch) festival goers with tents strapped to their flower-garlanded bicycles it was clear that this festival I’d never heard of until the year before, is hugely popular. It felt like arriving at Glastonbury – although Oerol is not quite as big – it’s attended by around 50,000 people at any time (130,000 tickets are sold over its ten days but the programme is repeated after 5 days). Terschelling’s settled population is just 5,000.

As an introduction to the possibilities of outdoor arts, Oerol could hardly be better. I spent five days from morning until after dark pedalling my trusty hired bicycle across and around the island seeing work in a wide range of artforms, styles, scales and presentation formats. There are free installations dotted everywhere around the landscape - in the forests, the sand-dunes, the moors, the hedgerows, the beaches, and in public and disused buildings. Also in these spaces, there is a programme of ticketed theatre, dance and music from companies all over Europe, some of it made specially for Oerol, some adapted from indoor to outdoor presentation, some of it made for the outdoors, and some taking place inside ‘found’ or specially constructed spaces. This part of the programme crosses scale and genre like nothing you’d ever see inside a theatre: On my first night I saw a largescale promenade piece with about thirty performers, which took us on a journey through the forests at night, scaling massive sand dunes following a procession of performers lit up against the distant horizon, and opening out onto an enormous beach of white sand where there was an installation of thousands of roof tiles jutting out of the sand like massed WW1 graves. On my last night I was part of an audience of 300 people running around on a sports pitch recreating Pina Bausch’s iconic Rite of Spring to instructions and music relayed through headphones. In between I was part of an intimate 30-strong audience experiencing a devised piece by Kosovo’s National Theatre telling the performers’ first hand stories of the Kosovan conflict, many had lived through as children, and a bonkers performance in the forest at dusk of four Dutch men dressed as contemporary shamans (their outfits made of recycled anoraks), playing ritualistic music on instruments made of found objects.

There is also a programme of more traditional street theatre such as circus, clowning and juggling, which takes place in the streets of the main harbour town, and two big music stages surrounded by popup bars and cafés – one in the centre of the island and one on the coast near the harbour – which have live music late into the evenings. If that isn’t enough most of the campsites also have their own music stages which take the party through into the early morning.

The work I saw ranged from quite sophisticated and experimental to populist and accessible, offering something for everybody, and multiple points of access. The festival director explained that a lot of people start attending Oerol as teenagers when they come to see the bands while their parents come for the art – but as they start to form the habit of attending every year, they will build in more of the art over time. It’s a really clever model for establishing a life-long love of the arts. There are families who have been coming every year for 30 years.

To my knowledge there is nothing quite like Oerol in the UK. Glastonbury is probably the nearest thing we have, although the balance between the music and arts programme is probably reversed there. But there are ever-increasing numbers of outdoor festivals here which range from Glastonbury, to ‘boutique’ music & arts festivals, and festivals of free street theatre such as Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, Out There in Great Yarmouth and Fuse in the Medway towns. As our summer climate becomes ever more unreliable, we seem want to be outdoors more and more with ‘city beaches’ springing up all over London and festivals of free outdoor theatre such as the National Theatre’s River Stage which this year hosts picks of other festivals’ theatre programmes from Latitude to Mayfest. Even if you wanted to see some culture outside every weekend of the year from June through to September, you would be spoilt for choice.

In the East we have a number of festivals programming a range of music and other artforms. Increasingly these are interested in high quality theatre, dance, live art, spoken word and so on. Probably the largest, Latitude, has a huge arts programme which seems to grow every year, much of it curated and presented by established organisations such as Sadlers Wells, Paines Plough, Live Art UK, The Royal Court. The Secret Garden Party has an (as yet unpublished) arts programme. Village Green in Southend is a relative newcomer to the festivals sector, and Out There in Great Yarmouth celebrates the best of street and circus arts from across Europe. Venturing beyond the region, you’ll find outdoor programmes all around the country sitting within traditional arts festivals (Brighton, Norfolk and Norwich, Salisbury, Milton Keynes etc.), as well as a network of specialist outdoor arts festivals such as Lakes Alive, Mintfest, Greenwich & Docklands, Stockton International Riverside Festival, InsideOut Dorset. There are also consortia such as Without Walls which commission and tour new outdoor work via an annual open call for ideas.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past few years is that the kind of work being made and promoted outdoors is starting to shift slightly to include more conceptual and experimental work, as well as much more dance: this sector is a happy meeting place for promoters seeking work with broad appeal – ie. less ‘text’ more spectacle – and dance artists looking for more sustainable touring circuits beyond the limitations of the dance houses network.

I think, given sufficient consideration to the different way/s audiences engage with work outdoors –they are free to come and go as they please when it’s free and taking place in their town centre or a field amongst a load of other stuff - almost anything can be adapted for these circuits. And as cuts start to bite deeper making funding and traditional touring even more competitive, it’s those artists who adapt who will survive: it’s really worth having a think about whether what you do can be adapted for the festivals & outdoor circuits. Good places to start looking for information, contacts, commissions etc. are:

International Street Arts Network – a membership organisation for the outdoor arts sector, which holds regular meetings around the country and publishes a newsletter with opportunities and callouts. (I sent an artist whose work I was producing to one of their meetings and she managed to pick up two commissions just from the post-meeting drinks!) If you look at the list of members you’ll get a pretty comprehensive overview of this sector in the UK.

XTRAX – supports and promotes excellence in outdoor work, and runs Without Walls.

This is an interesting article in a recent edition of Arts Professional about why the outdoors is a good place to diversify your audiences: Outdoor pursuits: Audiences for outdoor arts | ArtsProfessional in partnership with The Audience Agency