I’m writing this a couple of days after spending a weekend attending the Panoptikum Festival of Children’s Theatre in Nuremberg. I went as part of a contingent of programmers, artistic directors and leaders of arts venues in the East Midlands. Although the festival itself lasted for a number of days, mine was a rather whistle stop visit, arriving on Friday evening and returning to the UK on Sunday afternoon. My colleagues had taken a little more time, arriving on the Thursday so had seen a number of shows whilst I was travelling.
In the end over the weekend I saw four pieces of theatre made for children and family audiences. It should have been six, but one piece I’d seen previously at a theatre festival in Denmark and another turned out not to be a show, but a conference on children’s theatre and my German wasn’t of a standard to have taken part – shame on my language skills.
As I reflected on the shows I’d seen, (as always when attending festivals the work was of varying quality and production values) it occurred to me that it might seem to some a long way to go to see four children’s theatre shows – especially when at the end of it I don’t believe I saw the jewel in the crown that desperately made me want to programme it at Lincoln Drill Hall. But upon further reflection it is clear that the value of attending any festival, performers showcase or Go and See opportunity shouldn’t be judged purely on whether the only outcome is number of shows booked.
As arts programmers I believe that there is an importance in seeing and learning from how artists in other parts of the country, continent and world make their work. You can learn about the types of stories people across the world like to tell, how they produce the work and the form that artists use to tell their stories that could inspire our own practise. For example, when I attended Danish+ in 2014 I was discussing with colleagues from Sweden some of the work that we had seen. I and other UK colleagues had been surprised by the number of shows aimed at children that had significant swearing in them. As it turns out, in certain parts of Europe there appeared a much more liberal attitude among artists and audiences to swearing in shows aimed at young people. At the same festival there was a high level of sensitivity to how ethnicity was portrayed and perceived on stage from some European colleagues. Those cultural differences between all of us doing broadly similar jobs can be a source of continued professional development.
Sometimes there is value in validation of our own practise. If the outcome of attending opportunities to see work is that the work isn’t of a standard that inspires you, it can act simply as a reiteration that we are making, supporting and developing high quality performance ourselves and that shouldn’t be underestimated.
However, there is always a hope at the heart of attending any showcase. You might just find that gem of a show. There is a huge difference in attending short term individually curated festivals and month long events such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With the latter you can bide your time as a programmer, wait to trawl print and social media to see which productions that your peers, audiences and critics rave about and essentially curate your own experience. It gives you a better chance potentially to really find shows that have the quality in terms of story, production values and execution to seriously consider programming – here in Lincoln we regularly programme work that we have first seen at the Fringe. Festivals such as Panoptikum, with a shorter time period, narrower focus such as work for children and less shows available sometimes make it harder to pick out the one must have performance. But it can happen.
At Danish+ in 2014 virtually our entire group were incredibly excited about one interactive performance within which we explored our own reactions to events in our lives with others in the audience, and created a unique city with the cast that we could all explore in a large open performance space. As it turned out, it was the size of space needed to present the work and the costs of bringing that show to the UK that made it unviable. There was a large touring cast involved in making it happen, which is a real shame, because it was an amazing piece of work.
I also believe that as arts producers we need to take every opportunity that we can to learn from peers and colleagues and travelling overseas certainly adds value to that experience. Most go and see events, festivals and showcases include opportunities to network with other delegates, artists and audiences and this provides more chances to find out how others work, sometimes helping me to look at our own artistic challenges in a different or fresh way.
I do sometimes feel that we need to be clear about the parameters of attending festivals, especially overseas. For example, if we travel to Europe are we going simply to see great work, or does any work we want to programme not only need to be great, but unique and something that we can only present if we bring it across to the UK from other parts of the world? I believe the former has as much value as the latter.
Anyone attending these events also needs to ensure that there isn’t the pressure to book something just because of the time and money invested in attending the event in the first place. The wider value will also benefit our organisation and our practise in the long run. Among the four shows I saw this weekend there were stories told with elastic bands, Prince songs, plastic bottles attached to shoes, technically superb shadow puppetry and even one where we sat inside a hot air balloon. Although I’m not rushing to book any of those shows, I certainly learned something from each of them and from my all too brief time in Nuremberg. I’m looking forward to the next opportunity.