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HighTide Festival’s Steven Atkinson: ‘We want to be theatre’s Sundance’

Soho Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company's production of Girls will fetaure at the festival
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East Suffolk’s HighTide Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a programme of new plays, innovative comedy and special events that would give the Edinburgh Fringe a good run for its money.

Over 10 days, the Aldeburgh-based festival will offer up six new plays, numerous play readings, four comedy shows, and celebrity interviews with people such as Celia Imrie, Ben Miles, Eleanor Bron, Christopher Hampton and Elizabeth McGovern.

Steven Atkinson
Steven Atkinson

It is only HighTide’s second year in the coastal town of Aldeburgh – home of the Aldeburgh Music Festival for 20 years before it moved to Snape Maltings in 1967 – having been based in the Suffolk market town of Halesworth for its first eight years.

“There just wasn’t the tourist infrastructure to expand the festival in Halesworth,” says director and co-founder Steven Atkinson. “We now have more venues for performance in Aldeburgh and more places for our audience and staff to stay, eat, shop and camp.”

In addition to the main venues, such as the Jubilee Hall, where Benjamin Britten premiered his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Pump House, three new Aldeburgh buildings have been pressed into service this year, including the East Coast Cafe, once the clubhouse for Britten’s Festival, and the independent Aldeburgh Cinema, which is serving as HighTide’s box office collection point.


5 things you should know about HighTide

1. In 2015, HighTide produced four stage premieres and mounted 74 events in 10 days.

2. In its 10-year history, HighTide has premiered more than 60 plays by playwrights including Ella Hickson, Nick Payne, Beth Steel, Sam Holcroft, Luke Barnes, Vickie Donoghue, Anders Lustgarten, Jack Thorne and Joel Horwood.

3. The festival originated in Halesworth, moving to Aldeburgh in 2015.

4. Patrons include Stephen Daldry, Richard Eyre, Sally Greene, David Hare, Nicholas Hytner, Sam Mendes and Sinead Cusack.

5. More than 30 productions have transferred from HighTide, from Australia to London’s West End.

Atkinson regards HighTide’s main purpose as “providing a launch-pad for new writing”, whether it is the festival commissioning and producing the work itself, or innovative companies such as the Arcola Theatre, Talawa Theatre, Soho Theatre or the Royal Court attending play readings and going on to produce the work themselves. The festival has become a happy hunting ground for producing theatres with the resources to put on new plays.

“If HighTide has improved over the years, it is because we’ve become better at finding really good new plays and new writers,” says Atkinson, who also takes a pride in cultivating particular young writers.

Playwright Elinor Cook. Photo: Richard Davenport
Playwright Elinor Cook. Photo: Richard Davenport

One of the main presentations this year will be the world premiere of Girls by Theresa Ikoko, a London-based writer with a Nigerian heritage, which has already won two prestigious playwriting awards even before its first performance. “We had a reading of another play by Theresa last year, so I am particularly pleased to be doing this terrific new play inspired by the abduction of the girls by Boko Haram. We are co-producing it with Soho, and then Talawa is hoping to tour it at a later date.”

Another of this year’s playwrights, Elinor Cook, was produced at HighTide two years ago, and is now back with a revised version of an earlier play, Pilgrims, a psychological battle of the sexes about ambition, colonialism and mankind’s impulse to conquer the world.

The steady increase in visitors has prompted and driven HighTide to find the best quality new work every year. Even though the festival only lasts 10 days, it is a year-round job for Atkinson, trying to find new plays of exceptional quality, not to mention drumming up funding from businesses, trusts and individuals. The festival, which aims to attract some 5,000 visitors this year, is also supported by an national portfolio organisation Arts Council England grant of £191,654.

Visitors tend to be mostly from East Anglia, with about 30% coming from other parts of the country. One of the reasons for the move to Aldeburgh was the greater availability of guest accommodation. “Nobody comes to HighTide for one show,” says Atkinson, “the median ticket buy is 2.5 events, which suggests that most people stay around for longer than a day.”

Atkinson doesn’t envisage making the festival any bigger than it is now, preferring to focus on the quality of what’s on offer. “I’d love it to become the theatre equivalent of America’s Sundance Film Festival, showcasing work that then goes on to wider distribution,” he says. “One idea for the future is to do one fully staged play, and then do workshops and readings of all the other plays. It’s the way most new work happens in the States.”

Profile: HighTide

Artistic director: Steven Atkinson
Executive producer: Francesca Clark
General manager: Robyn Keynes
New work manager: Marcelo Dos Santos
Audience figures: 5,000 approx over 10 days
Festival staff: 100 approx.
Turnover: £800,000
Website: www.hightide.org.uk

The HighTide Festival is at Aldeburgh, Suffolk until September 18

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