Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

Now almost entirely performed in open spaces, the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival has an ambitious, large-scale line-up this year, including the premiere of a work from the puppeteers behind War Horse. Artistic director Bradley Hemmings tells Natasha Tripney why he wants to break down barriers

22This diversity reflects the choices made. Work is also staged in Bow and Woolwich, and Hemmings is very keen to make the festival as inclusive as possible of people “who might not otherwise have access to the performing arts, to theatre”.

The centrepiece of this year’s festival will be the UK premiere of Crow, a new work by Handspring Puppet Company UK, the British offshoot of the team behind the National Theatre’s international hit, War Horse. Crow draws on Ted Hughes’ dark and mythical poems, and promises to be both “very English and very visceral”, says Hemmings.

Uniquely for a festival dominated by outdoor work, Crow is a building-based piece and will take place in Greenwich Dance’s Borough Hall. Hemmings hopes the piece will bring the “spirit and energy of the outdoors inside the building”. While Crow is ticketed, the rest of the festival is free, something that, given the current economic climate, Hemmings believes is now “more important than ever”.

The GDIF began in 1996 and has gone on a journey over the intervening years. It’s now almost an entirely outdoor festival. “Our audience knows us for creating these extraordinary outdoor experiences,” says Hemmings, who believes part of the magic of the festival lies in its “sense of congregation”, the sharing of an experience.

“People come away feeling a sense of transformation in the way they look at a place,” he says, citing Graeae Theatre Company’s 2011 production of The Iron Man (another Ted Hughes adaptation), performed in St Alfege’s Churchyard, as an example. Those who saw the performance “won’t look at that park in the same way again,” he says. The Handspring collaboration looks like being the next step on that journey, a renegotiation of the relationship between indoor and outdoor theatre.

In 2011, 82,000 people attended the festival. Hemmings hopes the numbers will be even higher this year, given “all the attention this part of the world is enjoying”. In addition to running the festival, Hemmings is also, along with Graeae’s Jenny Sealey, co-artistic director of the Paralympic Games, and he is passionate about the role of the disabled artist within the festival. One of the highlights of the 2012 line-up promises to be another Graeae work, Prometheus Awakes, an “exceptionally ambitious, large-scale project” being developed with the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, to be staged at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The piece, says Hemmings, “sets out to place disabled artists at the heart of an outdoor spectacle. As far as I know, this is the first time this has been done in this country”. Prometheus Awakes, performed by a cast of disabled and non- disabled performers, will feature large-scale projections, a dramatic aerial display and a 14-metre-high puppet.

Also, the Greenwich Fair project returns this year. As in 2011, this attempts to recreate the atmosphere, if not – as described by Dickens in his 1836 book Sketches by Boz – “the hallooing of showmen, and [the] occasional roar from the wild-beast shows” of the original. An annual fixture in the area, the fair, wrote Dickens, took the form of “a three days’ fever”, during which people poured in on the new railway and the streets were “in a state of perpetual bustle and noise”.

It was, explains Hemmings, “extraordinarily raucous, famed for its naughtiness”. The fair was closed in the mid-19th century at the height of its popularity. Hemmings hopes it’s possible to honour the spirit of the fair, while also acknowledging the inevitable path of progress and social change. “A festival shouldn’t feel routine – it should be a disruption of the everyday,” he says.

This year’s GDIF line-up demonstrates Hemmings’ commitment to creating a process of “osmosis between the worlds of building-based and outdoor theatre”. Aided by Nathan Curry of Tangled Feet, the GDIF’s associate director, he’s interested in further “breaking down the walls between the indoors and the outdoors”.

Curry has helped curate a programme of productions branded Word on the Street, a programme designed to bring newer and younger companies from the building-based to the outdoor world. These companies include RashDash Theatre, Nabokov, Curious Directive and Les Enfants Terribles. Writers Bryony Lavery and Inua Ellams have also created pieces for an outdoor environment.

Hemmings believes the project “will be interesting for both sectors” in terms of what can be achieved. “It’s up to us, as an outdoor festival, to confound expectations with our programme,” he says.

One of his biggest ambitions is “for the work we do here to attract a similar level of critical attention to the work that happens inside theatres”. He cites Bill Mitchell’s Wildworks, the company responsible for BABEL, part of World Stages London, and last year’s award-winning The Passion, in Port Talbot, as the exception that proves the rule and worries that a lot of outdoor work still falls under the critical radar. “I’m trying to move towards a critical parity for the sector,” he says.

In this, he faces some unavoidable challenges. The British climate is one, alongside the often prohibitive costs involved in running a work over a period long enough for it to embed.

To counter the latter, the GDIF is part of a consortium of outdoor arts festivals called Without Walls, which also includes the Stockton International Riverside Festival, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and the Brighton Festival, among others. This allows the work a greater longevity and an opportunity to be seen by international producers in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

It’s a beginning, a small step, but Hemmings believes there’s still some way for the sector to go: “Wouldn’t be amazing if there was an Olivier award for outdoor theatre?”

* The Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, London, runs from June 21-30. For details, see www.festival.org

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