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Careers Clinic: How do I set up a festival?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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We’re a small local theatre company with a very big vision, and last year, which was our first experience of doing festivals, really expanded that vision.

The three festivals we took part in (two in the UK and one overseas) were pretty magical experiences.

After having been the ‘only theatre of our type in the village’ for the past three years, we were suddenly working with and learning from contemporaries who were not only on the same page as us creatively, but often leaders in our field.

It was also really encouraging to get good reviews, which shows our work has broad appeal.

Inevitably, that has set us thinking about the possibilities of launching a festival in our home town.

We’re not expecting to create another Edinburgh or Brighton overnight, but even the big international festivals had to start somewhere, and we have lots of contacts we made while on the circuit last year that we’re pretty sure would say yes to coming.

What are your tips for creating a great festival for them to take part in when they do?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE The dictionary defines a festival as “a day or period of celebration traditionally for religious reasons”, and whether you are religious or not, most festival organisers would probably agree that there are definite ‘heaven and hell’ aspects to getting one off the ground.

To take the heavenly aspects first, festivals can be an excellent way of boosting the profile of a local theatre company, both within the arts world and also to the general public.

In addition to the artistic and collaborative benefits that can arise when a puppet theatre organises a puppet-based festival or a physical theatre company puts together a themed physical theatre event, the influx of nationally and internationally recognised companies and performers over the festival period can often have a knock-on effect in reminding local audiences of a venue or company on their doorstep, and hopefully encourage them to return.

Another obvious advantage of being able to extend the invitation for companies and performers from far-flung locations to visit your local area is that there may well be reciprocal invites to take your own work to their shores.

As you say yourself, festivals can be magical experiences for all concerned… but like all magic, when you look behind the glitter, the mechanics are often a bit more mundane, which is where the more sober consideration of what you might be taking on needs to come in.

One of the first things a festival organiser needs to get to grips is logistics, legalities, by-laws and insurances. This can be time-consuming and tedious enough when addressed in advance, but as many a first-time festival chair has discovered, absolutely horrendous if left until the last minute, or neglected altogether.

As just one example, if there is an international aspect to the festival, every member of every exciting and prestigious theatre company you are thinking of inviting will need flights and visas sorted out, and if you think that is going to be a simple operation, just ask any seasoned festival organiser (although you may have to wait until they stop laughing for an answer).

I’d suggest sitting down as a company and doing an honest assessment of the skills you have. If there is not a strong organisational base, I would seriously consider looking to hire somebody who fills that gap, not only because it will make the festival run smoother, but because funders and local authorities are likely to be much more interested in helping you make it happen if they can see there is some kind of organisational structure in place.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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