Festivals: Home in a golden Dome

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The 50th Brighton Festival opened last weekend with a theme of ‘home and place’, secure in its own domus beside the Royal Pavilion



When the Brighton Festival was founded 50 years ago its progenitor, the music impresario Sir Ian Hunter, said its mission was “to stimulate townsfolk and visi- tors into taking a new look at the arts and to give them the opportunity to assess developments in the field of culture where the serious and apparently flip[p[ant ride side-by-side”. Flippancy is not a weord we hear often today, but the mission under the hands of the four subsequent directors, if anything, has intensified. 

The festival had physically changed in that half century. It’s bigger, the venues have changed, since 2009  there has been a guest director to give their particular tweaks to the programme, this time the American performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson who has featured in the festival several times and has been excited to “watch the city be- come the heart of so much art”.

It began as a largely musical jubilee but now it sits lightly across music, theatre, danced, visual art, film literature and even debate. This time the choreographer Akram Khan has brought an exclusive new full-length production of his Until the Lions, and there’s a new collaborative work by the Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing; Anderson’s inventiveness is manifested in her Music for Dogs, devised to appeal to the canine ear; there’s a new play by Neil Bartlett and a commissioned symphony dedicated to Brighton; there’s circus with the Ricochet Project from New Mexico that features “poetic acrobatics”; there’s even a sound installation homage to Anderson’s partner Lou Reed who died in 2013. 

There are more than 50 commissions, co-commissions, exclusives and premieres in the golden anniversary festival gthat opened on May 7 and runs until May 29 that might reach into flippancy but always have serious intent, loosely fitting the theme designated by the current director, Andrew Comben, of “home and place”. The theme has been seized on by Laurie Anderson who sees it as a plea on behalf of the world’s displaced, “on the move, now looking, like all of us, for a place we can belong”.

But the Brighton Festival is probably more at home in its city than most others, its as sociation with the key venues in and around the Dome now enshrined in property law and political assent. It is hard to think of Brighton without its festival, and this is a festival that could happen nowhere else in the world because of the unique structure that has developed.

Brighton’s suite of Dome venues and its festival are actually run by the same team, so integrated have they become. The Brighton Festival began in 1967 when the city had such a wealth of lyric theatres it was known as “The West End by the Sea”. Since then most have closed or changed their purposes, but through it all has been the Dome and its smaller sisters, the Corn Exchange and The Studio, once owned and run by the local authority.

In 2002 Brighton’s council came up with a scheme which has become a blueprint for other plans since, but was revolutionary then: instead of running the Dome complex it owned it would give the concert hall a long overdue remake, costing £22m, and lease it to the festival, a charity, along with a revenue grant. “The driver was looking at the charitable purpose of our organisation and seeing if it could be put to advantage” says Comben, who is also chief executive of the Dome. “A charity can access sources of funding that non-charitable organisations can’t, and with the festival expanding in its breadth and mission while the shrinkage in venues here in the 980s had been dramatic, we needed stability in a home – the Dome”.

The Grade I listed Dome was built close to the Royal Pavilion at the start of the 19th century to be the Prince of Wales’s stables and riding house, its design inspired by Delhi’s Friday Mosque. In 1850 it was bought by the local authority from Queen Vic- toria and turned into a concert hall. The riding house became the Corn Exchange – electric lighting was installed in 1868. Both buildings were refurbished in the 1930s in the art deco style and the concert hall became the building we know today, with flexible seating now for between 1,400 and 1,800 depending on the seating pattern. The Corn Exchange, which had been a grain market and an ice rink, was turned into a theatre and now seats 320. The third venue, the 300-seat Brighton Dome Studio Theatre (as it has been known since 2012), is on the site of a stables belonging to the Prince Regent’s mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, replaced in 1935 by a theatre, formerly the Pavilion Theatre.

The Dome complex has become the essential part of Brighton’s three week May festival, which brings an audience of 400, the product for the rest of the year. The two main features of his mission now, Comben says, are audience development and fundraising – the festival is much more capable of raising the kind of sponsorship and philanthropy he needs than the Dome, and underpins the work outside the festival. “The three weeks in May tend to be most experimental, and effectively test work on a very loyal and antici- patory audience that is of a different character to the year-round audience” he says. The successful work, like Hofesh Shechter’s dance pieces or Anderson’s own experimental performance, then comes back.

The quality of such commissioning also raises the international profile of both the Brighton Festival and the Dome, and that quality is what attracts the increasingly vital private funding. Comben oversees an annual turnover of £7.5m, a third of which comes in subsidy from Arts Council England and Brighton & Hove City Council, which will almost certainly shrink.

Therefore Comben is planning another capital development, a £19m programme to create new office space for running both operations, new storage space, proper backstage facilities for artists. Work will start after this month’s festival. “In the last six or seven years we have been finding ways of operating with serious constraints and have had to be adaptable in programming and really careful with formats of work – it’s hard at the moment to move from one to another quickly” he says. “It takes a lot of juggling, and for the future we need to be more flexible and streamlined to develop, and to provide facilities international companies expect”.



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