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INTERVIEW: HighTide’s Steven Atkinson

It’s a busy time for Steven Atkinson, he has just returned from directingChickenfor Eastern Angles and Liverpool’s Unity Theatre in Edinburgh, is auditioning for aForget Me Notat The Bush Theatre later this year and as HighTide’s Artistic Director is rehearsing a world premiere for next month’s ninth outing for the Suffolk based new writing festival.

In a break from rehearsals for So Here We Are, he spoke to Glen Pearce about nine years of HighTide, new writing and the festival’s move to a new location for 2015.


This is the ninth year of the HighTide Festival.How has it changed over those years?

I guess if anything changed, it is simply that the people have found it harder to produce new plays or certainly to get new playwrights on, they’ve looked for new avenues and I think our festival has become a really good avenue for that. If HighTide has improved over the nine years it’s because we’ve become better at finding really good plays and new writers, and we’ve become good at starting them in Suffolk then taking them on a journey so that audiences around the country or internationally get a chance to see them. In the early days, it would have been three days of activity in the festival and then the plays disappeared, but now they can go on for hundreds of performances over the year, which is really gratifying.

You mention the difficulty in finding avenues for new work. How do you persuade an audience to take a risk on an unknown proposition?

It’s two-fold really. If you do a festival you have to do it in the right place for that festival. It’s not an ambition of mine for the festival to get any bigger; I just think the festival should get better. And what the festival getting better means, is trying every year to raise the artistic standards. So that could be a play getting better or the capabilities of the directors improving, the actors who perform it getting better and therefore delivering a better experience for the audience who come to the festival and then growing that audience. So it is kind of a self-fulfilling cycle, where the better the audiences, the more creative people want to be involved in the festival and the better the festival is. So every year as it has become a bit more successful both of those things develop; the artistry is better but the audiences have grown and I think that’s the right direction for it really.

Is that growing the audience desire part of the reason you have a new home this year, moving from Halesworth to Aldeburgh?

It’s the main reason behind the shift to Aldeburgh. The shift gives us two capabilities. One is there is more of a tourist infrastructure in Aldeburgh so that, for audiences who want to come, there are more places to stay, eat, shop, camp – that kind of pastoral side of the festival. The otheradvantage of Aldeburgh is there are more venues for performances and those venues are very different from those we’ve been in before. This year the festival is running eleven different sites and in Halesworth we only ever ran a maximum of three different sites and that means is that we have been able to do different artistic things. In this initial phase we’ve got funding to do this year and then two more festivals in Aldeburgh and the hope is to keep on developing things over the next three years and hopefully the festival will go on indefinitely in Aldeburgh and keep on getting better as time goes by.

I was going to ask that, you say you’ve got funding for three more years in Aldeburgh, is the long term artistic goal to keep in Suffolk?

The case study to give us confidence in Aldeburgh is Aldeburgh Music and, while that is a different type of organisation, we share an ethos which is the belief that artists having the space to experiment and audiences having a space to really focus on supporting new talent means that you get the best out of everyone involved. I’ve always felt personally that these plays are always at their best when they’re together in the festival among everything else. While the strongest plays stand up on tour by themselves, the festival as a whole allows us to be a lot more experimental than we would be otherwise you would be just doing one play at a time, touring around the country.

You talk about staging more than one play at a time and, this year, you’ve got multiple world premieres, is that a challenge?

Every year there’s always pressure to try and find the best new playwright and the best new plays and do them in the right way. The four plays we have this year are all really different and I’m pretty sure that some people won’t like them all but there’s always going to be something in there that is your type of play, because we always, on purpose, look to get four really different playwrights having their world premiere productions in order for the festival to be as broad as it possibly can be.

You mention the breadth of the writing, being based in Suffolk is your aim eventually to see more local writers included?

This year we’ve got a good local writer called Jon Canter whose play,A Short Gentleman, is one of the readings.

There have been years where we’ve done works that in their narrative are about Suffolk or they’ve been by a writer from, or living in, Suffolk and they might be writing about a different experience, but they have a historical link to the area. I think that is always part of the aspiration of the festival because I do think people enjoy seeing worlds that they recognise appear through an artistic prism.

This year, in terms of the main productions, they’re not specifically related to Suffolk. In terms of what’s the most important thing that leads the festival, it is a sense of artistic excellence. So I’d rather four brilliant plays than four plays that are less good but about Suffolk. Ultimately audiences want as good a programme as possible because that’s what they deserve and actually that’s what they come to the festival for.

It might be like asking a parent to pick their favourite child but what is your highlight of this year’s festival.

I’m very excited aboutSo Here We Are, which is the play that I am currently in rehearsal for. It’s written by an actor called Luke Norris and, because he’s an actor, he’s written six brilliant parts. And we’ve managed to cast six younger actors, who audiences might not know yet but they’re all undoubtedly going on to be big stars. Because we’re doing it with The Royal Exchange in Manchester, the production standards are really high and we are able to deliver a really big exciting show in the festival.

The other thing that I’m excited about is E V Crowe’s Brenda. She has written a play about the place in which the play actually takes place. So, in this example, the play is set in Aldeburgh Parish Church but, if it goes on around the world, it’s set in whatever room it is taking place and that informs how the entire play takes place. It’s really exciting to do a new play that can be local to wherever it happens to go on. That initial idea for a play is something I was really excited about supporting and make happen.

The ninth HighTide Festival runs in Aldeburgh from 10-20th September
For more information visitwww.hightide.org.uk

You can read our interviews with Luke Norris here and with E V Crowe here

About The Reviews Hub - South East

The Reviews Hub - South East
The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.