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Lyn Gardner: Let’s celebrate theatre festivals as unique hotbeds of grassroots talent

Brighton Fringe Brighton Fringe
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The festival season is upon us. The Brighton Festival is blooming on the south coast, Mayfest starts shortly in Bristol with a great line-up, as does the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

June brings Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, one of my favourite festivals for its predominantly free performances, family-friendly offerings and the way it uses the city itself as a giant set.

Also next month is the biennial London International Festival of Theatre, which is under the temporary stewardship of David Binder, following the departure of Mark Ball.

LIFT features a host of delights including a number of shows – or versions of shows – that I’ve already seen at other festivals including Anu’s These Rooms (previously at the Dublin Theatre Festival), Dries Verhoeven’s Phobiarama (Holland Festival) and Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Nightwalks With Teenagers (In Between Festival).

New Punchdrunk family show to feature in LIFT 2018

I heartily recommend them all, not least because I am sure each will be changed by being seen in a UK context or a different location. Phobiarama, in particular, will be fascinating in the context of Brexit partly because of the ugly impulses it has given rise to on occasion, but also because the piece slyly challenges liberal sensibilities and our view of ourselves.

The days are gone, or at least declining, when expensive theatre shows zoomed around the world, racking up air miles and parachuting into a succession of international festivals, never changing, like flies set in amber.

It’s a good thing too. When a country has underwritten, or contributed to, the costs of getting a show to a major festival, it’s interesting to think about why they chose this show and what message it sends about that country. Governments around the world regularly use arts festivals to peddle soft power.

Great art almost always travels well, but it doesn’t travel unchanged; it shapes itself to the conditions on the ground, the political and social settings in which it finds itself. If the art cannot change, how can it hope to change those who encounter it in contexts outside where it was created?

Festivals increasingly understand that programming is not about going on a shopping trip with an empty trolley to fill, but about encouraging collaborations with local artists and people at the grassroots to develop something unique. So it creates a legacy that lasts long after the bunting has been put away.

There’s been a proliferation of festivals in recent years, partly because they often supply a financial fillip to the local economy. So by the time we get to the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, it can be hard not to feel festival fatigue.

But maybe that’s because the festival tagline is overused. What used to be described as a season of theatre is now often called a mini festival. That might make it easier to market, but I wonder if by selling so much arts activity as festivals we end up devaluing the idea of festival and making them seem commonplace. I love a knickerbocker glory, but I want one as a treat once in a while, not every day.

Something doesn’t immediately become a festival just because you’ve booked lots of thematically linked shows or decided that instead of renting out your space for one show a night you will rent it three times over the same evening. That’s not a festival – it’s simply aping the Edinburgh Fringe’s economic model, which is showing signs of creaking as the costs to both artists and festival-goers spiral out of control.

Backstage: Lyn Gardner on what theatremakers need to go to Edinburgh next year

For the audience, attending a festival is not about going to see shows linked by the same theme over the period of a month. It’s about taking time out from the everyday and immersing themselves for a day or two – or up to three weeks if you are lucky enough to go to Edinburgh – in a range of work.

Whether curated, like LIFT or Brighton, or entirely un-curated, like the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s always fascinating to see how certain themes emerge of their own accord, or resonances start to echo. Often it happens in a much more interesting way than if you see a production or two a month over the course of a year.

At a festival, you make connections between different plays and begin to notice the things that are niggling away at artists and giving them the impetus to make their work. You start to notice the shapes and patterns that lie under the listings in a festival brochure. That’s exciting, and makes festivals worth celebrating.

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