After starting out as a broad community-arts festival almost 20 years ago, Pulse has gone back to basics and honed its offering to provide the best cutting-edge theatre from emerging and established artists from Ipswich and beyond. Its co-director Robert Salmon tells Fergus Morgan how the organisation aims to support theatremakers every step of the way
For a regional town of only 130,000 people, Ipswich punches well above its weight when it comes to culture. It boasts large-scale ensemble shows at the New Wolsey Theatre, dedicated dance at DanceEast and a plethora of inventive theatre companies including Gecko, Red Rose Chain and Eastern Angles. And, every June, it’s home to an intimate but exciting fringe-theatre festival that often flies under the radar.
Produced jointly by the New Wolsey and Birmingham-based company China Plate, Pulse is spread out over 10 days and features a range of established and emerging theatremakers. This year’s edition – the 19th – sees hit fringe shows such as Chris Thorpe’s Status and James Rowland’s A Hundred Different Words For Love arrive in Ipswich alongside new work from young companies.
“It started in 2001 as a community festival of everything that wasn’t part of our typical main-house programme – a bit of theatre, dance and art – produced with a few different partners,” says Robert Salmon, associate director at the New Wolsey and one of Pulse’s directors. “Gradually, those partners have grown and gone elsewhere, which has allowed us to refine it over the years into a festival that’s all about theatre and performance.”
For the last few festivals, the structure has stayed roughly the same: a launch night with two already successful fringe shows followed by a regular schedule of three shows per evening, with three special days slotted in the middle.
There’s Scratch Day, when all the shows are still in an early stage of development. Free Day is a selection of experimental work for which tickets cost nothing. And there’s Suitcase Day, when 12 theatremakers will present 20-minute snippets from their work in the hope of winning a £1,000 prize to develop shows with a low-carbon footprint that can be packed into a suitcase and toured via public transport.
“That cash award is to further the work, or for personal development. Or a holiday – a low-carbon holiday. Definitely no flying,” says Salmon.
“It’s all very curated. We work with China Plate to populate the Pulse programme with as much high-profile work of the right scale that’s available in the UK. The rest comes in through open applications or through conversations with different people. There’s a bit of a programming bias because we’re committed to ensuring that there’s representation of regional artists at this festival.”
Alongside Thorpe and Rowland, Pulse’s programme includes Fran Bushe’s acclaimed one-woman comedy Ad Libido, Dom Coyote’s new sci-fi sound-infused show We Can Time Travel, and 1927’s inventively staged The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
Such shows might be firmly established fringe fare, capable of drawing a crowd at the Edinburgh Fringe or in London, but they’re a far cry from the New Wolsey’s main-house programme, which features largely family-friendly work aimed at the theatre’s core constituents. That disparity is essential, according to Salmon, because one of the theatre’s responsibilities is to broaden horizons.
“We have a mission,” he says. “Fundamentally, our duty is to expand our audience’s taste beyond what they think they want. Not because they’re wrong, but because there’s more to it than that. That’s what we try to do with Pulse. Otherwise, I don’t really understand what we’re here for.”
According to Salmon, the key to getting audiences moving from main-house shows to fringe festivals is in the marketing. “There’s a tendency in the subsidised sector to promote shows on the back of how miserable they are, or how challenging they are, and then we wonder why they don’t get an audience.”
“To attract a diverse audience, you have to tell them they’ll have a good time” Robert Salmon
He continues: “I saw a scratch show recently that was being described as ‘a little-known epic about ethnic cleansing’. Someone said: ‘It’s a bit like Fiddler on the Roof’, and I replied: ‘Say that instead.’ That’s how you attract a diverse audience. You have to tell them that they’ll have a good time.”
Making marketing decisions like that are just one of the ways Pulse helps its practitioners. It prides itself on being a fair festival, from the finances – a negotiated guarantee for the artists, with the festival retaining the box office – to the food: everyone involved is fed for free by the theatre’s cafe.
“We want to ensure that the artists’ experience here is one of benefit, not loss,” says Salmon. “Obviously, there are costs and implications about working that way, but the payoff is that there’s no conflict between the venue and the artist, which ultimately makes for a better experience for the audience. We are proud of being a friendly festival.”
Pulse doesn’t just perform that supportive role for 10 days in June, either. It’s active all year round, seed-funding companies, offering commissions and free rehearsal space, and mentoring emerging artists.
“A massive amount of support goes on,” says Salmon. “We extend our professional resources in terms of expertise and use of our spaces, and where we can, we support financially as well. I think we have a fundamental understanding of our responsibilities as a publicly funded organisation. We’re keen to constantly be stimulating activity.”
He adds: “There’s a perception of Ipswich that we’re all sat on tractors chewing straw, waiting for the world to arrive. But, while there’s something to be said for sleepy Suffolk, that doesn’t translate into a lack of aspiration. There are big cities in the UK with fewer national portfolio organisations, producing less work than Ipswich.”
For more details go to wolseytheatre.co.uk/pulse-festival