Issue 14, 2011
Since its inauguration in 2007, the Manchester International Festival has become one of the landmarks of the British performing arts calendar. (That's a mixed metaphor, I know.) This is due in large part to its director Alex Poots' proactive approach to programming and commissioning: at Manchester we get to see new works specially created for that event.
This is entirely in keeping with my first encounter with Poots, as co-curator along with David Sefton of a strand of music programming entitled Flux on the Edinburgh Fringe in the late 1990s. Poots and Sefton, for instance, managed to get The Divine Comedy and Michael Nyman (who was clearly a major influence on both Neil Hannon's compositions and Joby Talbot's arrangements) not simply to appear on the same bill but to collaborate actively. The following year it was composer Steve Martland and the band Spiritualized. Sefton, meanwhile, went on to make Meltdown on the South Bank the phenomenon it now is, then to run the live art programme at UCLA, and has recently been appointed the next director of the Adelaide Festival.
Festival, festival, festival. We think of this as "festival season", with Edinburgh as the obvious centrepiece, preceded by Manchester (in odd-numbered years), also Brighton and the under-regarded Norfolk & Norwich, more recently Latitude and HighTide, and continuing through to Dublin in September and Belfast around Hallowe'en. But recently more and more of the things have been cropping up. Next1 1, a new international festival in Nottingham, took place in late May and early June. As I write, Surge, Scotland's festival of street arts, physical theatre & circus, has just ended.
London has this year already seen The Devils Festival at the Print Room, Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, the Almeida Festival, the Sprint Festival at Camden People's Theatre, the One-On-One Festival at BAC and 33% London at Oval House as well as more obvious examples such as the London International Mime Festival, the upcoming Camden Fringe (now with over 140 shows)and... well, Connections at the National Theatre isn't billed as a festival. Although a number of shorter events are: Junction Sampled at the Junction in Cambridge was, and it lasted all of two days.
How much does the term "festival" even mean any more? It may be a season or a strand of programming at one particular venue, it may be a limited showcase dressing itself up in finery (hello, HighTide). It may — and increasingly, it is — simply a label to make a group of events sound bigger, more important and more exciting. This can be especially true during the "festival season". Well, that's obvious, isn't it? Well, yes and no. It's not that there are more, as it were, "proper" festivals, but rather, with so much attention going to the larger events, more modest ones have to try harder to get attention, hence the festival label gets deployed in their cases as well.
Are, say, the Grimeborn and T6te-6-T6te opera festivals at the Arcola and the Riverside respectively events which have arisen out of original, positive impulses in their own right? Or are they rather the products of a recognition that those venues' traditional theatrical constituencies — makers of work and audiences alike — are likely to be in Edinburgh in August and therefore that shifting focus on to opera, especially and opera festival, may well boost the venues' audience figures during what would otherwise be the summer doldrums? Obviously, the answer is that both factors are in play, to uncertain or varying degrees.
But we are in danger of becoming "festivalled out". Last year I reduced my Edinburgh stay from the three and a half weeks which had been my usual stint for 20 years or so to a mere two and a half weeks, and I felt liberated. This year, I have been commissioned for still less time: two visits totalling a mere eleven days. And I was outraged and heartbroken for maybe three minutes, until I realised that I no longer had the zeal to drive me through the entire duration. Yes, I still feel that it is crucial that Edinburgh be given far greater coverage than the London-based papers now bestow on it... but not all by me. And anyway, what shall I be doing in my week between Edinburgh visits? I intend to go to a festival: my first time on the Camden Fringe. I may even call the collection of resulting reviews a festival...
Ian Shuttleworth | email@example.com