Over the last few years I’ve gained a lot of experience in producing Festivals and programmes of work in both voluntary and paid capacities. This work has involved teasing out and supporting the development of ideas generated by communities, producing and marketing performing arts and theatre and building public engagement with academic institutions.
I’ve also been carving out a career working with organisations wanting to overcome barriers to greater inclusion and diversity within their workforce and hiring practice, challenging unconscious bias and promoting a better understanding of what diversity means in practice and how this might be achieved with cultural programming.
After a well-established career in marketing, PR and digital comms gained in online news and lifestyle publishing, it’s been a fascinating learning experience for me too. It’s not been without challenges, but it has also been positive and affirming and enabled me to build connections with inspiring teams from whose dedication and excellence I’ve learned a lot, and of which it’s been a privilege to be part of.
What’s been involved and what have I learned?
Team working and the ability to work collaboratively within a multi-disciplinary team while keeping a wider view of the whole Festival’s function is key. And this creates a lot of work. Prioritising and managing a varied workload is an essential survival skill. The Festivals I have been involved with have largely been voluntary experiences, though some have also been paid. Whilst some experiences cut across both models of community engagement and participation, others are quite distinct. For example, how far can you really push a volunteer as compared to someone paid to deliver a particular set of skills? Volunteers usually bring multi-faceted skills sets to bear whilst most paid workers have a specialism. Expectations in both cases need careful managing and and a deep understanding of the individual’s motivation.
Excellent communication is central to the work of cultural producers, in writing, in group conversations and also via wider dissemination tools like social media. Stakeholders have widely differing abilities to understand information, breaking down complex scenarios can generate a lot of support and practical engagement and help. ‘Selling’ an event or ‘idea’ is made infinitely easier in recent years with the increasing sophistication of social media targeting. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram has enabled reach into the 18-30 age range, leaving Snapchat struggling to cope. Twitter is a great awareness tool, supporting word of mouth with simple, ‘grabby’ messaging opportunities. And the increasing reliance on social media demands the creation of content, a core publishing skills. As we always used to say ‘content is the king/queen‘, and that still holds true. If there is something interesting, well presented, authoritative yet accessible, audiences will ingest what you are saying. And we can go beyond words, video does really well on Instagram and Facebook, just as Instagram and Twitter love images and enigmatic statements. Its a different communication style to talking to people in the room, where breaking down complex scenarios is much more effective in creating ways in for a diverse group of people.
Communication is about translation. ‘Phenomenology’ won’t mean much to most people. Saying to people that we would like to programme an event for a Festival entitled New methods for exploring the phenomenology of landscape and gardens might leave them cold. Explaining that it is all about getting a feel for how people react and experience landscapes, and how those spaces might influence their behaviour and emotions will lead to people becoming intrigued by the idea – make it something that is part of all our experiences. Looking at it this way might also influence how we might plan events. Might our local park, for example, be able to host a promenade style ‘light up’ with promenade performances as spring approaches as a metaphor for the expected ‘awakening’ with social anthropology as part of that experience? In this context, clear communication leads to an outcome that people can understand, ‘grab’ and lead to create a public experience which they own, but with academic experts can also be part of. Lift the veil, but allow people to experience the mystery and magic of creating something. It’s about influencing an outcome across widely diverging communities which brings them together and enables better communication between them.
None of this comes without problems. How you handle them is what matters. After all, problems are opportunities in disguise – a chance to make it better. Taking the scenario described above, how would you manage crowd control? Timed tickets might a solution. Though the event itself would be free, we could set up timed tickets with, say 150 free tickets available at 7pm, a further 150 at 7.30pm, 150 more at 8pm and so on, with one point of access monitored by voluntary stewards who have received a full health and safety briefing and where there are also a couple of first aiders. More stewards, or ‘guides’, would be placed within the park with torches ready to greet groups and lead them along the journey through the park, made unfamiliar with underlit trees and pop-up performances like poetry readings and ambient music. By 9pm you could close the event and start unpacking, having enabled up to 700 people to experience something magical. Where would you get power from? We might hire a portable generator or use sturdy cabling from an existing site with power and invest in making the cabling safe. Of course you would need a lot of stewards, but that can be easily managed with a well defined role for each which enables people to know what they might be stepping up for. And of course, you need to plan. Having a project template, a spreadsheet for each event which feeds off the master Festival programme project plan helps and enables you to identify skills and potential cost-savings where hiring in kit might be involved and returns could be maximised by having events which use the same kit being held on the same day (at different times!).
Being open to problems and solving them creatively, but well, also lends itself to the way you might support new work. Just be open. An idea could be nebulous for some people, they may struggle to explain it. Listen. Have more than one meeting. Arrange for others to come in to. Help the person whose idea it is by creating a simple one-pager and agree with them that this represents their idea fairly. If it doesn’t, revisit this till it’s right. Then, break down the constituent elements to explain what might be involved and how you can help them achieve their idea. New work can never come to light unless there is an open and welcoming embrace of new ideas. Simply repeating what happened before ad-infinitum doesn’t enable opportunities for new people and new ideas. Yes, it takes time. It is time worth spending if you value an ethos of providing opportunity and access to all.
All of us who work in the arts, especially the performing arts, have a huge range of academic, technical, practitioner and media contacts across the country who can be called upon to help with a particular enhancement, advice or expertise. This springs from the essentially collaborative nature of working in the performing arts. Whether the forum for this activity is in academia, a theatre, museum or public space, many of the issues and challenges are the same and require focus, creativity and a positive appreciation of the possibilities that such work can unleash.
It’s been a tremendously exciting few years and I wouldn’t want to swap those experiences. It might not have been easy at times, but it has been inspiring seeing how the right kind of support can enable the scope of events to widen, of how a positive engagement with people can lead to achieving seemingly disparate outcomes with one idea and how execution is key.
As I look ahead, I see a world filled with possibilities.