It’s May 2001 and Suffolk Youth Theatre is about to take to the New Wolsey Theatre stage with their innovative adaptation of The Jungle Book. Nothing remarkable about that but the opening night also marked the first performance under the Pulse Festival banner.
Over the 16 years between, the festival has grown to become one of the countries most influential theatre festivals. Glen Pearce looks back on Pulse and speaks to some of those involved to find out how the festival has developed.
Twenty artists appeared as part of Pulse in that inaugural year, from musicians to theatre-makers, dancers to storytellers. ‘Welcome To The Future’ the brochure proclaimed but did the New Wolsey Theatre, then open for barely three months in its new incarnation, ever see the festival forming a cornerstone of its offering?
For inaugural Festival Director, Mary Swan, memories of that first festival are still vivid. “ The first year was hilarious,” she explains. “I essentially just put the word out as much as possible with the caveat ‘OK, we have a theatre, come and play with it!’”
The sense of play was an important one for Swan. “That was the idea behind it; come and put your work on, play with it, no one’s going to judge.” In an age where we talk about the right to fail, Swan believes it’s something artists struggle with. “Over the last few years, that’s become more and more rare for artists, to be able to make work, take it out and show it and not feel like they’ve shot their bolt.”
The ability to provide a nurturing environment was an important consideration when establishing Pulse. “I wanted Pulse to become a safe place to come and try things out and not be judged, to find out what was wrong and what was right with it.”
So how was Pulse born? While she’d performed and directed at Festivals such as Edinburgh and Brighton, Swan had never programmed a festival before, so the instruction to arrange one for the fledgeling theatre company came out of the blue. “We’d reopened the New Wolsey after two years of it being closed and there was a period of getting the programme sorted and, once we were up and running, Sarah Holmes [the New Wolsey’s Chief Executive] said to me: ‘We ought to look at a festival of some sort and you can sort that out!’” she laughs.
“The name of Pulse came from the idea of taking the pulse of the artistic community in the region as well as further afield,” she reveals. “ So much has changed in the last 16 years, but when we started Pulse, it was the beginning of the period when people realised that artists needed to be able to come together, needed a fulcrum, needed a focal point, to launch their careers and create new work.”
Swan, who is now Artistic Director of Basingstoke-based Proteus Theatre, believes passionately that the rural nature of the region helped shaped Pulse. “I was aware in Suffolk and Norfolk that there were a lot of artists who were genuinely quite marooned and stranded, and essentially Pulse could become a way of artists getting together, seeing each others’ work but also informing each others’ work, raising their game and collaborating.”
It’s a view shared by Swan’s successor as Festival Director, Lynn Whitehead. “Before Pulse, it was not always easy to see where the eastern ‘up and coming’ were,” she explains. “Collecting them together through Pulse brought many out of the woodwork.”
Some of those up and coming artists have now become well established theatrical names, with acts such as Luke Wright and Blind Summit being highlighted by Whitehead as early success stories “The joy for me is seeing performers such as those, making a name for themselves – it’s a great feeling.”
It’s all about taking risks – you can’t play safe all the time – Lynn Whitehead
For Whitehead, programming brings back some conflicting memories. “Of course, I miss it,” she tells me. “I just don’t miss the Post-It notes! We spent a lot of time scheduling by Post-It notes to the wall,” she recalls.
It was that programming and scheduling challenge that Stephen Freeman, Pulse Festival Director, 2008-2010, relished. “Pulse was, for me at the time, a small festival but with massive potential.” He explains further: “An opportunity to programme a wide range of work, in various stages of developmentand cross-artform, into a theatre ecology that already existed in the east, in Suffolk and in Ipswich.”
While the theatre ecology was there, for Freeman the opportunity also existed to broaden the type of work that wasn’t then being shown locally. “It was very much about using the opportunity of Pulse festival to bring in work that doesn’t necessarily already exist in the region.” Though for Freeman, it is more than just a showcase opportunity. “There are anumber of drivers,” he explains. “Bringing some exciting new work in development to audiences in Ipswich, inspiring what may be a local artists population with cutting edge practice and an influx of great and exciting artists.”
Pulse, though, also serves a pastoral role. “Contributing to the development of those artists is really important,” Freeman explains. He also shares predecessor Swan’s view that a nurturing environment is key to Pulse’s success. “That’s where these festivals have an impact, by finding a safe space, a controlled environment, to allow artists to test out new work.”
The festival, however, can’t work in isolation and Freeman believes the core team at host venue has much to do with Pulse’s ongoing success. “There is already a body of expertise that exists at the theatre that can help contribute to an artist’s development. The New Wolsey has a really good black book of people they can pull in to put this work in front of, and to connect those artists to potential producers and venues.”
For Freeman, about to take up the post of Chief Executive of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the running of any festival isn’t purely an altruistic endeavour, however. “The New Wolsey benefits from all these different artistic influences coming into the town, maybe inspiring a programme of work or influencing and shaping work that is produced on the main stage.”
Of course, a festival environment needs always to be trying something new. Something Swann, Whitehead and Freeman all agree on.
“It’s all about taking risks,” Whitehead explains. “You can’t play safe all the time – you just end up with the same old thing and people get bored and stop coming.”
For Freeman, those risks involved moving into more unusual locations. “That was something I was really interested in during my time at Pulse,” he confesses, citing a list of unconventional places he staged shows, “In carparks, in the park, in a shipping container, a caravan, or in an office.” The flexibility of locations, Freeman believes helps grow new audiences. “They can be a really accessible point of entry
for people who may not ordinarily consider crossing the threshold of a theatre.”
When it comes to risk taking, Swan believes the theatre industry often underestimates its audience: “I think generally we do audiences a great disservice by assuming they’re not interested in experimental or ‘difficult’ theatre,” she explains. “People want different, people want new, and we patronise audiences a lot I think, around what they want and what they will stand for. As long as the ticket price is right – and that’s key – then people are really interested in coming out and trying new.”
While Pulse continues to evolve, there is one common thread running through these three previous festival directors, and that’s the regional focus, both for performers and audiences. While for many the festival scene is focused on Edinburgh or London, all are passionate about Pulse’s role in championing new artists locally.
“It was really important for us to have a strong regional influence in what we programmed,” explains Whitehead. “It’s what Pulse was created for. It would be a real shame if that stopped being the case.”
“There are so many myths about only metropolitan audiences will understand such and such. It’s all rubbish,” suggests Swan. “I’ve created rural touring work all my working life and some of the most difficult work I’ve made over the years has found its most intellectually engaged audiences in village halls.”
Freeman isn’t dismissing the work carried out in cities but believes it is part of a wider mix. “There are, of course, some great festivals in the cities areas but we’re talking about artists who want to present their work across the country, that want to engage with audiences in more than just those metropolitan communities,” he concludes.
It may have undergone several changes of itslogo, evolved its focus and changed direction but, with Pulse now entering its 16th year, and this season seeing the 600th show performed under the festival banner, the Pulse heartbeat seems as strong as ever.