Rural Arts Festivals: Interview with Paint the Town (UK)
Last 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. Founded in 2013, the vision is 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: Heads Up Festival (Hull), Paint the Town Festival (Medway), and Strike a Light Festival (Gloucester) with a pitstop for a week of performances in London at the 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 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.
Lyrici Arts Producer Natalie Clarke on the Paint the Town Festival
Medway’s Paint the Town Festival is produced by Lyrici Arts, a local theatre and arts company. founded and led by Keely Augustus. The company aims to champion arts development and promote diversity in Medway. Lyrici has created productions such as The Invisible Man starring Wil Johnson (of Waking the Dead fame), commissioned BAME culture focused events in local libraries, and of course the Paint the Town Festival. Lyrici’s small but passionate team is a tight knit group of Keely’s sister Clara Augustus, the Community Engagement Manager or “The smart cookie and ideas maker” and Natalie Clarke, the Festivals and Cultural Events Producer, otherwise known as “The Brain”. Nat has known Keely and Clara since university and hasn’t got rid of them yet.
1. Tell us a little about Medway and the Paint the Town Festival.
Medway is an area in Kent, which is in the South East of England. It is made up of a number of towns and smaller villages, of which Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Strood and Rainham are the largest. The areas are steeped in rich history and each town has character traits that make them somewhat unique from each other. The arts scene across Medway is quite varied. There are many great organisations, performing arts schools and individuals who arrange workshops, performances and opportunities in different artforms in their areas, but we have found that there was a lack of ways to showcase this work on a larger scale and that it would be great to encourage arts companies from London and beyond to see Medway as a hub of creativity.
So in 2016, newly formed company Lyrici Arts, launched Paint the Town Festival. Keely (Artistic Director) had seen that Battersea Arts Centre was looking for new partners across the UK to join the Collaborative Touring Network, and in partnership with her friend and co-producer they applied and joined the Network in May. The first Paint the Town Festival took place in September 2016 with some brilliant shows, and has gone from strength to strength over the last five seasons.
2. Why do you feel a festival like Paint the Town was needed?
We felt like Paint the Town was needed for various reasons:
- as an opportunity for the arts groups working on similar artforms in the Medway Towns to have a platform to showcase these skills
- to encourage Medway locals to engage with brand new theatre, and to provide an outlet where access to this type of theatre doesn’t mean having to travel to London or other big cities.
- to champion local creatives, supporting them to make work on their doorstep and showcase Medway as a creative hub.
- because the arts is great fun, and we want as many people to interact with it as possible – especially those who at the moment feel like the arts ‘isn’t for them’.
3. What are the challenges and barriers you face in bringing the festival to the public?
Both Keely and I, work on various other projects and in other roles, so sourcing enough time to plan, market and run the festival twice a year is a challenge, but one we continue to enjoy.
When an area has a belief that they need to travel to see great quality work, it’s sometimes hard to make these same audiences recognize that high-quality work is not only being shown, but is being created in their area and on their doorstep.
Some local companies have nailed that and are pushing themselves forward and seeing people engage with it, but there is always a need for more. We try to engage new audiences by positioning work in non-theatre spaces, by taking performances and installations into community venues like cafes and libraries, and by working in partnership with community organisations to meet with potential audiences/participants throughout the year to build trust and relationships.
4. What are your ambitions, dreams and future hopes for the festival?
Our ambitions are to see Paint the Town Festival develop and grow. We definitely want to work with more local creatives and help to support and produce new works that will hopefully tour to other regions, we want to build on our engagement offerings and partnerships so they grow stronger between festivals. The dream would be to encourage everyone in Medway to engage with theatre and the arts in some way, to not be scared or think it’s ‘not for them’ and to champion Medway as a place where exciting, new, accessible, exploratory arts is produced, performed and provided for its residents.
5. Why do you believe this work is necessary?
The arts is well documented to help people express themselves and discuss the subjects they feel are socially important. It has a profound effect on health and well being, can help to reduce isolation and bring people together, builds confidence and pride in your local area and on a much wider scale supports social change and community cohesion. At its most basic, the arts is fun and can be accessed by anyone and touch on any subject that feels relevant. It gives voice to members of the community who may feel they haven’t got one and a platform such as Paint the Town makes sure these stories are being heard and seen regularly.
6. What advice would you be willing to share with artists and administrators seeking to create or working in similar festivals?
a) Work in a way that makes you excited and keeps you excited. Book the shows you love, and run the workshops that make those around you smile – it’s much easier to talk about something you are passionate about and encourage others to join in.
b) Build great partnerships – be that with venues, with arts organisations, local authorities, performers & creatives, schools, businesses, funders etc etc. Their support is what makes Paint the Town what it is, you can pick up so much knowledge and work that into your practice and it is essential to feeling like the festival is for the community and by the community, not just parachuted in with no interest in the area.
c) Surround yourself with a team that make you laugh but also will accept an apology – festival planning is hard work, and you can work really long hours and have lots on your plate during the festival period. It’s inevitable you will snap or get moody with one another but cake often helps :)
About Natalie Clarke
Nat is a Londoner through and through, living and working in the capital as a freelance festival and events manager. She has much experience from community events to producing outdoor screenings, on beaches and ice rinks. With a background in dance and performance, and a degree in drama she loves the arts and feels at home with creatives. She is most likely to cry laughing at something really inappropriate, be found tweeting on the festivals, or looking forward to a cheeky G&T.
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