19.04.2012 / Festivals / 0 Comments
Some of our leading festivals are part of Without Walls, a consortium determined to promote ‘the outside arts’. Its new chair, Jo Burns, talks to Simon Tait
It took Artichoke and a giant puppet elephant, imported from France, to define what is being recognised as a particularly British talent. In 2006 Helen Marriage and Nicky Webb, Artichoke's directors, brought the 42 ton 35 feet tall Sultan's Elephant, an automaton created by Royal de Luxe in Nantes, to tour the streets of London for four days of that spring, telling the fairy story of a magical time journey.
Traffic had to be diverted, people thronged the streets to see the extraordinary creature lumber its mechanical way along, it was entire- ly free to the audience, and it was uplifting in a way we hadn't experienced here before.
"It took that one wonderful moment for people to realise that there had been great street artists in the UK for years" says Jo Burns, the cultural strategy consultant, "but they'd never really been given much opportunity."
Burns has just been appointed chair of Without Walls, the consortium of established festivals put together four years ago to give opportunities to the makers of what she insists should be called "the outside arts".
There has been, she says, an acknowledgement that this is "a genuine area of endeavour not before recognised". It has enormous international possibilities because it is largely verbal with minimal text: "I would like our outdoor artists to be seen as some of the top producers of great works in the world".
While European countries like France and Belgium have invested heavily in outside art, here it had been associated with face painters and fire eaters, she says, and that needed to be rethought. But the outside arts phenomenon is a development of traditions such as Punch & Judy, pavement art and puppetry, which has inspired more conventional theatre design with productions such as the National Theatre's War Horse and the physically meandering productions of companies like Punchdrunk. Now it is being promoted as its own art form.
The consortium is seven festivals of different sizes and natures, all well established and committed to bring- ing forward performances that go to the public rather than vice-versa.
They are the festivals at Brighton, Norfolk and Norwich, Salisbury, Greenwich and Docklands, Stockton Riverside, the Winchester Hat Fair and Mintfest/Lakes Alive base at Kendal.
Salisbury is the latest, replacing one of the founders, the Bristol Festival. Maria Bota, director of the Salisbury International Arts Festival, believes the consortium is an important structure for supporting outdoor arts. "The festival's audiences love outdoor arts and in the last three years we have presented major out- door spectacles and commissioned new work form UK companies" she says. "Membership of Without Walls will enable us to take another step up and to seed ideas and projects with artists and collaborators which will be developed and experienced across the UK".
Because Without Walls is a commissioning agent that brings new extravaganzas with all seven partners approving, though not all of them necessarily taking them each year, and it has Arts Council funding to help.
Since 2008 the consortium has supported 45 companies delivering 31 new commissions and reaching an audience of more than 1.3m. ACE has given it £940,000 from its lottery- fuelled Grants for the Arts fund.
"One of the most important things we can do with this money is research and development" Jo Burns says, "and we can use our collective expertise to see a project and let it grow". They can also find other commissioning partners thanks to the ACE start-up funding, and so far there are 30, both form the UK and overseas.
Commissions cover a wide range of dance, theatre, pyrotechnics, installation and music. Last festival season's involved fly-by-night hotels brought to life with music and dance, audiences involved in a climate change crisis, and circus.
For 2012, the commissions are a new ballet of supermarket trolleys by C-12 Dance and Shaun Parker and Company; the Helen Chadwick Group is making a satire on the arms trade, called The White Suit; Company Chameleon's Push is a psychological exploration of touch; and the dance group Upswing is drawing on fairytales, romantic and macabre, for their piece, Red Shoes.
And Without Walls is also supporting touring projects this sum- mer: acrobatic theatre from Mimbre's Falling Up; Requardt & Rosenberg's Motor Show is a love story in a car on a wasteland; and Seasaw by Tilted Productions is a trail of dance and performance about the relationship between humans and water.
All the partners will be taking something from that portfolio, and other clients are found too. "These events can have along life so we need to build relationships with a whole range of festivals, - one of last year's was at the Sydney Festival last month, for instance" Burns says.
"We believe that it's really important for there to be those great moments of joy for people to share, and that's always been so exciting about circus, in the Dickensian way. I believe in that" she says.
It will develop because it has Arts Council backing, it has a growing body of artists enthusiastic about it, and it has an audience.
Andrew Comben became director of the Brighton Festival in the year Without Walls was formed and, coming from a concert hall background, found colleagues generous with their experience of outside art. "Outside art is growing, but it's com- plex and expensive"he says. "Together we can make things happen which couldn't otherwise, and we can encourage and support artists to be ambitious".
Last year's As the World Tipped, an extraordinary outdoor aerial event, was the idea of Wired Aerial Theatre but a small scale project, which was made into a much larger experience by bringing in the director Nigel Jamieson and it has been since seen in festivals around the would, thanks to With Walls support.
Making outdoor art is hard, not being confined by a theatre's four walls or by them having bought a ticket, the audience can drift away if their attention is not being held. "It's all about having creative imagination" Jo Burns says. "You have to want to do outdoor art, to be able to have that excitement about different forms of scale and different interactions with the audience. The opportunities are there for outdoor work, but you can't turn to a group of artists and say 'There's some money over there, go and get it'. It has to be about the creative drive."
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