Rural Arts Festivals: Heads Up Festival in Hull, United Kingdom
This season, I joined Vancouver’s Theatre Conspiracy on the UK Tour of their award-winning Foreign Radical. Following the successful presentation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and receiving The Scotsman Fringe First Award, Conspiracy was the first Canadian company invited to join the Battersea Arts Centre’s Collaborative Touring Network. This was a unique opportunity to experience the network’s activities from the inside and meet with some of the folks leading arts festivals in the UK rural areas.
The Collaborative Touring Network (CTN) is a partnership between London’s Battersea Arts Centre and eight local partners in Hull, Darlington, Gloucester, Thanet, Torbay, Wigan, Peterborough and Medway. The CTN was founded in 2013 with the vision of “a nation where everyone has inspiring art and culture on their doorstep”. Over the past five years, the Collaborative Touring Network has produced, presented and promoted diverse events to feed an appetite for culture in communities across the UK.
Conspiracy began our tour at The New Theatre Royal (Portsmouth), then joined the CTN for three festivals: the Heads Up Festival (Hull), the Paint the Town Festival (Medway), and the Strike a Light Festival (Gloucester) with a pitstop for a week of performances at London’s Artsdepot.
Through our tour, we were supported by the magnificent B.A.C. technical team clambering up ladders, setting up the CCTV cameras, and basically adapting to the unique needs of our interactive installation to each unique venue we landed in – especially important as Foreign Radical was also the most technically demanding production to be brought to the network. Our traveling companions were, Non Zero One’s Ground Control. Due to the age restriction of the piece – only 7-12 years olds were permitted to participate – I was unable to catch the interactive space mission but heard nothing but exciting feedback.
As I was about to take the helm of The Ship’s Company Theatre, a rural company in Nova Scotia (Canada), I took advantage of this opportunity and reached out to the leadership teams of the festivals to learn more about the UK rural arts initiatives and the companies making them happen.
E52’s Senior Producer David Windass on the Heads Up Festival
Hull’s Heads Up Festival is produced twice yearly by the creative company E52. This is led by artistic director, Andrew Pearson, senior producer and playwright, Dave Windass and producer, Joanne Hill. The company makes, programmes and develops work by colliding art forms from theatre to music, graphic art to dance and film. Often working in found spaces, E52 reaches out locally, nationally and internationally to seek out and nurture the best emerging creative forces.
Tell us a little about Hull, the Head’s Up Festival and E52.
Heads Up Festival is part of the Collaborative Touring Network and was established six years ago. March 2019 will be our 12th festival as it takes place twice a year, in Spring and Autumn. Battersea Arts Centre were looking at places with low engagement in the arts – and Hull is one such place – and E52 had an approach to get involved. We jumped at the chance!
As a company it was never originally in our plans to become festival producers, so we like to describe ourselves as accidental producers.
In terms of programming, for each season we get to select from a range of work that has been developed at BAC, productions that are drawn to our attention via other members of the network we’re a part of, and content that we commission locally and regionally, and from makers that approach us. E52 is a creative producing company. We make performance work for found spaces, unusual places and strive to make culture, creativity and the arts accessible to everyone. In the past we’ve created work for moving trains, warehouse spaces, sheds, street performance as well as more traditional theatre spaces with seats! Whether creating new work for theatre or film, delivering our twice yearly festival of contemporary performance – Heads Up – or working with companies to unlock their creative potential, we aim to be constantly innovative.
Why did you feel a performing arts festival such as Heads Up was needed?
Well there was nothing like it in Hull. Aside from Hull Truck, one of a handful of NPOs in the city, there was very little in terms of contemporary theatre when we established the festival, and certainly nothing that pushed the boundaries of what is possible. We’ve been instrumental in developing and building audiences, enabling makers to get their work in front of audiences and contributed to the arts and theatre ecology in the city, all of which was needed and very important in a place like Hull.
What are the challenges and barriers you face in bringing the festival to the public?
Money, time, energy, getting the word out, logistics, securing venues, the usual stuff. Getting the right programme mix is always a challenge. Creative disagreements over what shows will work are always a challenge. The city still feels challenging when it comes to getting audiences away from their TVs in exchange for something live that they might feel they’re taking a chance on. We’re a small team, so every festival is a challenge due to limited resources.
What are your ambitions, dreams and future hopes for the festival?
That it continues. That audiences build. That everyone knows about it. That work produced for and at the festival is regarded as the best. That it thrives and that audiences take ownership of it and that it outlives us. That we continue to present great theatre and performance.
Why do you believe this work is necessary?
The work we include in the festival programme can change lives, the way people think, make life worth living. It says something about contemporary Britain and the rest of the world. It provides artists with a new way of presenting and touring their work. It shakes the foundations not just of the city but of the nation.
About David Windass
Dave Windass is a Hull based writer. His plays include Revolutions (2015), Yalda (with Roya Amiri, 2015), The Whitsun Weddings (2014) and, for Hull Truck, Ballroom Blitz (2012), On A Shout (2008), Sully (2006) and Kicked Into Touch (2005). For E52, he co-produces the Heads Up Festival, produced in partnership with Battersea Arts Centre. He co-founded arts venue and E52’s base The Other Space (now Kardomah94). He founded the long-running theatre development night Scratch@Fruit. He was a founder member, in 2003, of Hull Truck’s Blockheads, which developed and explored skills in writing for the stage. He was a theatre critic for The Stage and whatsonstage.com, arts correspondent for Artscene and a regular contributor to The Big Issue in the North. He is currently involved in the development of several new pieces of work and working for First Story, whose programmes in secondary schools help young people find their voices and realise that their voices have value.
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