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Meet the man who brings the drama (and acrobats) to Glastonbury

Haggis McLeod at Glastonbury 2017. Photo: Charles Gervais

Haggis McLeod has been programming Glastonbury’s non-music performance for three decades and is one of the few to work directly with festival co-creator Michael Eavis. He talks to Adam Bloodworth about enticing audiences away from the pop stars, his pick of the acts and how he creates a cauldron of outdoor performance

Glastonbury’s full title may be the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, but for most ticket holders theatre and non-musical performance will be low down on the priority list when they arrive at Worthy Farm.

Yet, it plays a large part of the festival experience. This year, 1,200 shows are scheduled in the theatre and circus area, across three 2,000-capacity tented stages, and a collection of smaller, more intimate stages.

Haggis McLeod. Photo: Both Hemispheres Photography

It is all programmed by Haggis McLeod, who reveals his boss, festival co-creator Michael Eavis, has a natural inclination towards the music rather than the performance scheduling. “He doesn’t mind what the acts are,” says McLeod. “He knows the circus is good, but he’s not a fan of circus, I wouldn’t say.”

McLeod is one of the very few “lucky enough” to work directly alongside Eavis, the man synonymous with the festival. “Not a lot of people can say they work for Michael directly,” he says. “We’ll be wandering along, and [performer] Rimski’s got a piano on a bicycle that he peddles around and plays; Michael made a beeline for that. ‘Oh, that’s an amazing contraption you’ve got there. Do you know this song? Or that song?’ He’s much more into people than he is into the acts.”

McLeod has known Eavis for more than 30 years. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he performed nearly every year at Glastonbury as a professional juggler, a profession that took him to stages around the world. It was at the festival that he first met Arabella Churchill, founder of Glastonbury’s theatre and circus fields and granddaughter of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.

In 1988, McLeod and Churchill married in a joint wedding ceremony with Michael Eavis and his late wife Jean Hayball. McLeod has been programming the theatre and circus fields ever since his wife’s death in 2007.

McLeod’s job is to make the theatre shows reach new audiences at the festival. “One of the best things for me is listening as I walk past someone on a phone, who’s 19, 18 years old,” he says. “They’ve come here for the music, and they’ve discovered the circus field, and they’re on the phone to their mates saying: ‘You’ve got to come here, this is incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this.’ They go to bands every week, but they don’t go and see theatre. It’s interactive theatre on the ground.”

The Glastonbury Festival returns today. This follows 2018’s fallow year, which gave the Worthy Farm site, still owned and operated by the 83-year-old Eavis, time to recover from the damage caused by 200,000 annual ticket holders.

For the first time this month, the festival’s theatre and circus fields are scheduled over five days, rather than the usual three-days, which provides an added challenge for McLeod, as well as the opportunity to put theatre and circus front and centre on the Glastonbury map.

“Thursday is our busiest day, because the main stages aren’t on,” he says. “So if we can get them there on Thursday and show them a good time, they’re going to come back.” There are eight main stages in the theatre and circus fields, alongside four smaller stages and 100 ‘walkabout’ acts.

The main destinations are the Astrolabe, the major destination for theatre, the Circus Big Top, the Cabaret tent, the Pavement riser for street performers, the Outside Circus Stage, the Poetry and Words Stage, a late-night stage known as Mavericks, and the Sensation Seekers Stage, which the festival describes as the destination for “hours of fun with ridiculous music, world-class circus, and trashbag idiocy”. The Summer House is a mix of music, dance and comedy.

Cabaret audience at Glastonbury 2017. Photo: Both Hemispheres Photography

Another strategy to get potential audiences away from the music and into the theatre is the strategically placed location of the performance tents. After midnight, when the main live music acts have finished, people walk through the theatre and circus fields to reach the nightlife areas at the festival. “We try to entice them in,” McLeod says.

He continues: “My outdoor circus stage is a cauldron of some of the best outdoor performers in the world. What we tend to do is kick in with an outdoor trapeze show and fire shows. I’ve got a woman who is bringing 100 LED hula hoops and is prepared to do workshops at midnight. I told her that it was a crazy idea, but she builds them, so she doesn’t mind. I like the idea of walking past a lot of people doing hula hoops, as everybody likes to have a go, and I think it’ll be visually a very nice thing.”

Rimski’s Bicycle Piano and Double Bassicle, one of Glastonbury Arts Commissions, at the festival in 2017

Applications from artists range from opera to Shakespeare, and tip into the thousands. “I try to look at everything, and I try to respond in some positive way to everything, even if I’m not going to book it. Sometimes there’s a technical reason: we’re looking at eye level to the stage, so we want something that’s upright facing forwards – you get these esoteric theatre companies that roll around on the floor, it just doesn’t work, it would only work if you were looking down on it.”

Many of the applications McLeod receives would only work in a studio space with silence, he says. “The one thing we don’t have at the festival is silence, so those pregnant pauses in theatre just don’t exist, because there could be a brass band coming back.”

He continues: “Breaking the fourth wall will hold their attention. If you go for straight theatre where you’re ignoring the audience, you really have to do something quite amazing: you’ve got to reach out to them, it’s such a visceral sort of place, you can’t ignore that there’s sound and noise around, or that the rain’s beating on top of the tent. I have tried putting on straight Shakespeare and it doesn’t really work in its original form.”

Glastonbury festivalgoers in 2017. Photo: Both Hemispheres Photography

In terms of programming, McLeod says simply: “We’re always trying to make it better”, and this year’s must-sees include a world premiere by theatre company Blackskywhite, whose members are driving across the Finnish border from Russia to get to Glastonbury.

“He’s built a structure, a big rotating structure in the middle of the stage. People just go and watch them now because they know that for an hour they’re just going to have a feast for the eyes.” The festival works with Arts Council England on a small number of commissions per year. The festival mentors either up-and-coming companies, or established ones that want to try out new shows.

Others include Mufti Games, whose interactive show about social housing is a rare political gesture from the theatre and circus area. “You’ve got to remember that the festival is an escape from reality, as much as it is a mirror to reality,” says McLeod.

McLeod highlights another show, Neil Balfour’s The Cold Song, as an example of the diversity of the performance at Glastonbury – “I can’t believe how powerful his voice was, I’ve never seen a piece of street theatre involving opera and costuming like he does it” – as well as controversial comedian Jonathan Pie (comedy is mixed in with the programming). “Without a doubt, that’s where I’m going to be,” McLeod says. “I’m going to be at the side of the stage watching Jonathan Pie.”

He concludes: “I might even sit at the front, but when you do this job for a while, you always like to be at the side of the stage, because if you don’t like it, nobody sees you leave.”

Glastonbury runs until June 30: glastonburyfestivals.co.uk

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