East Anglia has always had a thriving theatrical scene, but recent years has seen nationwide attention focus on the region for the number of successful festivals the area hosts. Aldeburgh, Norfolk and Norwich, Latitude and Pulse just a handful of the arts festivals that see the region punching way above its weight.
Ten years ago, HighTide joined those ranks, and as the festival prepares to open the 10th HighTide Festival, Sam Hodges, HighTide founder and now Director of Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre spoke to Glen Pearce about his memories of HighTide.
So much has happened with both HighTide and Sam Hodges’ career over the last decade that founding HighTide must seem somewhat distant. “God, it’s amazing, it feels like such a long time ago, but I’m a bit proud that it has now reached 10 years, it feels like a real milestone,” Hodges admits.
So what does he recall about that first ever festival? “The first year was amazing. It was just me and a couple of producers; Lilli Geissendorfer, who’s now at the Almeida, and Moss Barclay, who’s now a film-maker – the three of us in my living room, working on computers,” he explains.
So why set up HighTide? “I suppose the original premise of HighTide was knowing a bunch of writers in particular, but also directors and actors who were all kind of brilliantly talented. A lot of people were getting developed a bit but so many of them seemed to be frustrated and kind of lost in, kind of development hell.” Hodges explains.
That challenge of writing but not getting plays staged was something Hodges and the fledgeling HighTide team were keen to tackle. “If you can get your play in front of a proper audience, there is nothing quite as invaluable. That was the concept, very clear to me, and we decided that even though financially, that seemed like a kind of crazy idea, to take unnamed writers, and put their plays on—and produce their plays in front of an audience. That was our commitment, from day one.”
Not only was setting up a new writing festival a challenge, the decision to hold it in rural Suffolk was a move some of the London Theatre community also saw as strange. For Hodges though, staging a festival on his home turf was a natural choice. “I went to speak to Jill Freud, because I had grown up in Suffolk, and I knew Jill and her iconic Southwold Summer Theatre company. I went to see her, and said, “I’m thinking of setting up a festival. What do you think, and where should we do it?”
It was Freud who suggested the unlikely location of HighTide’s original home, The Cut in Halesworth. For Hodges, it was a journey into the unknown. “The Cut was a complete discovery, and I think it remains one of Suffolk’s great hidden gems,” he explains. “That’s what led me to the sleepy market town of Halesworth. I remember in year three, we were co-producing with the Old Vic, and Kevin Spacey was walking down Halesworth High Street with his dog, I don’t think Halesworth ever quite worked out what hit them.”
The first festival may have been a big step but it worked and the team soon needed to expand, bringing on board current Artistic Director Steven Atkinson. “It was really the second year whenwe knew we had something and we wanted to expand it,” explains Hodges. “That was the point at which I recruited Steven, and was very lucky to meet him. He came on board initially as a producer and very shortly we realised we got on very well, and worked really well together, so we made him Artistic Director with me.”
Although the early years saw a positive response, it was, perhaps, the staging of Adam Brace’s first play Stovepipe in Halesworth that really set HighTide on the road to success.
“The National theatre came and said: ‘You know, there’s something really in this show. We should try to bring it to London,’” recalls Hodges. “That was, I guess, the point we knew this could become a thing. And we were very lucky; it went to London, and it was a huge hit.”
It wasn’t just HighTide’s future that seemed assured, though, with writer Adam Brace, then getting a commission for what has ended up as They Drink It In The Congo, currently playing at London’s Almeida theatre.
It may have taken eight years but the development of Brace, alongside other writers, is something Hodges is proud of. “It’s been my most satisfying thought about HighTide, other than the fact that it’s still going, and it plays an important role in the wider sector, that the number of writers and directors that I met, in the early years, Tom Basden, Adam Brace, Mike Longhurst, Polly Findlay and others – a real generation of artists came out in that first couple of years. Which is very satisfying.”
The discovery of Brace by HighTide highlighted to the team one of the issues with new writing at the time. “ What he’d written was very ambitious, but you get sent all these plays by writers in their early-20s, and for the most part, inevitably they’re written from primary experience, but what have you lived, up until the point that you’re 21, or 22?” He continues: “It’s no surprise that we got hundreds of plays about being a university student, three or four-handers, in a student flat somewhere. And, you know, some of them were glorious, but very few of them have the real ambition to see beyond the immediate world that you live in.”
“So, when a play like Adam’s came along, which went, ‘You know what? I’m going to really try and engage with the big questions. And I’m going to lead with the idea; we’ll make it work one way or the other.’ That typifies, I suppose, what HighTide is for: risk-taking and not being constricted by parameters.”
Perhaps as wider attention fell on HighTide have those early risks become harder to pull off? Hodges agrees. “Inevitably as HighTide is growing up, it becomes harder and harder, but it was not about the glitz and glamour, it was not about established writers, It was about unknown writers, and we were giving them a platform to experiment, which felt safe.”
Hodges thinks that, although it has evolved, HighTide has recaptured that ability to experiment. “I think HighTide has really found that again in the past couple years, something I’m really happy about, watching from afar.”
HighTide has had a formative impact on Hodges’ practice since leaving the festival. “It’s a funny old industry, and one that kind of feels, at its worst, competitive, and hence a little bit bitchy. And at its best, it is about collaboration. It’s about relationships that last,” he elaborates. “You look at the greats, and they work with the same designers, and the same writers; they go back to those relationships. That’s been very formative to me.”
So what was the one overall lesson that founding HighTide taught Hodges? “If you kept your head down, and worked with peers who are similarly passionate and energised, you will attract the support and enthusiasm of established artists and practitioners.” He recalls. “It is at its best a very generous industry. People really do want to help. That was the single best and most useful lesson I learned those early years at HighTide.”
Image: Paul Stead