With a history stretching back over 240 years, the annual Norfolk &Norwich Festival has a robust pedigree. The festival, though, isn’t one to rely on past glories and is constantly looking for the best music, cabaret, literature, comedy, dance and theatre to fill its 17-day programme.
As the 2016 line up is launched this evening [24 February 2016] at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre, Glen Pearce spoke to Norfolk and Norwich Festival Artistic Director, William Galinsky, on the programme and the direction of the festival.
The mix of city and county has always been an vital aspect of the Norfolk &Norwich Festival. How important is that mix to you?
It’s one of the things that really attracted me to the job when I applied for it, half a decade ago now. I love this idea that you have the city but you also have the landscape around the city. I think over the last five years we’ve done some really amazing interventions in the landscape; in my first year Artichoke’s Dining With Alice and then in 2012 we did Robert Wilson’s big installation Walking up on the Holkham Estate, and last year we did we did WildWorks’ new production Wolf Child at Felbrigg Hall. It’s an important part of our identity that we’re both a city festival but we work a lot of work in the landscape as well. I think that’s something that’s really exciting and seems to excite the audience and makes the festival and the region a bit unique.
Do you find it a challenge, though, to programme for both city and countryside?
We don’t have a remit like some festivals to programme across a whole county, and a lot of the smaller towns, and even villages, in Norfolk have a lot of very good festivals of their own. So it’s more about what grabs us, it often very much depends on a response to a location or a certain partner. We’ve got a great partner in the National Trust up at Felbrigg Hall, where we worked with WildWorks last year and you’ll see from the brochure we are doing a new project with them this year, Walk With Me, which if WildWorks is possibly the biggest intervention you could have in a landscape, Walk With Me is the exact opposite, because it’s a virtual work and it’s experienced through an iPad with headphones on!
The festival is renowned for staging a wide range of work in a wide range of locations
Up and down the country, at a lot of festivals I go to, I see audiences have a great hunger for unusual work in unusual locations. I think one of the advantages of Norwich not having a producing theatre is, in some senses, the audiences are a lot more open about what they think art can be.
Festivals also attract artists who are refugees from different art forms, so you have Strijbes and Van Rijswick, who are co-creating Walk With Me.They are originally rock musicians and music producers who started creating a digital app for their soundscape compositions. We’re working with a wonderful Polish artist called Janek Turkowski who is creating a film performance called It’s Happening in Norwich, where he’s working with the East Anglian Film Archives and a group of volunteers who’ve been filming changes in the city centre over the last six months.
We’ve got a wonderful artist Joshua Sofaer, who started life as a theatre director, then started making visual and conceptual art pieces. The piece he’s presenting with us this year,Opera Helps, is a kind of opera meets counselling and psychotherapy. We’ve got a lot of freedom to do that, we don’t have a building to feed, there isn’t a particular audience expectation and it’s 17 days. We’re very lucky from that point of view, that the audience trust us and will follow us and they like something new, which is maybe challenging or just a bit unusual.
Talking of unusual locations, you are directing The Tempest at Great Yarmouth’s Hippodrome, the country’s last operating Victorian Circus, what made you chose to stage the play there?
We’ve been taking work to Great Yarmouth Hippodrome since I arrived. Mainly it’s been a bit of circus and some gigs but I’ve always wanted to do a production of The Tempest there. It was something that at the time just felt right this year, to do Shakespeare in a Victorian circus.
It is a play I really, really love and the Hippodrome has an amazing atmosphere and you’ve got four feet of water under the stage that you can access! It’s about site-specific Shakespeare and it’s about working with a fantastic group of artists. The Lepage [and Father Ted]actor Tony Guilfoyle is my Prospero, which is really exciting. Laura Hopkins is just an amazing designer who comes originally from Norwich and it’s being lit by Mike Brooks, who’s done a lot of great shows. We’re also working with a very interesting international circus company called Lost in Translation, who are based in Norwich. Hopefully, there will be a few more surprises as well in there but you know, for me it’s such a remarkable play in which a war is fought and won and no one dies and there’s sort of a peace made at the end but, like a lot of Shakespeare, there are many unanswered questions and it feels as valid now as ever.
The Norfolk &Norwich is very much a multi-disciplinary festival. Is it an important aspect for you that the audience can see a range of things from art forms they may not usually see?
Yes, we like that a lot and we also try and mix it up a bit. When you look at our audience you will see a lot of the same people who go to classical music concerts will also come to see Cabaret at the Spiegeltent or the big international theatre pieces. Another thing that’s very interesting for us is work that puts ordinary people at the centre of the process.
One of the things I’m really proud of this year it is a world premiere that we’ve made with the Belgian Theatre Company Campo, which is called Wild Life, directed by Pol Heyvaert who did a couple of big shows the National Theatre Scotland. He made a show for me in Cork called F*ck My Life, which was about the Irish teen suicide epidemic, which was made with a bunch of real cork teenagers and, when I came to Norwich, I wanted to make another show with Pol and hit upon this idea that we should make an anti-High School Musical. Pol’s been working with 10 Norfolk teenagers for the last year and working with a great music director called Jake Ampeand with the comedian and performer Kim Noble, and that’s going to be a world premiere during the festival.
Wild Life is one of seven commissions. Is it important that the festival commissions new work and not just be a receiving festival?
Absolutely! For me, it’s the heart of the festival and is what makes us unique. Artists we like, and who we have built a rapport with, we can ask them to come respond to something that’s unique about Norfolk – whether it’s a community or a landscape or a piece of architecture.
It’s a very broad church, the Norfolk &Norwich Festival and it is huge. There’s a classical music festival, there’s a contemporary music festival and there’s a whole theatre festival so we do the jobs of three different organisations in London. We have a very broad audience but it’s a very educated audience. This is a city with two universities, a teaching hospital, a science research park, there are a lot of people who are moving here because there are opportunities and a good quality of life and it’s an interesting place to live to work to raise a family and I think we’ve very much ridden that wave over the last few years.
I think it’s fair to say it’s been a tough year for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, with Norfolk County Council cutting your funding by 90%. How has the team responded and what is the future looking like?
We’ve got a really amazing team and it’s a very robust organisation. Even though the Norfolk County Council funding cut was a blow, it is also the way, unfortunately, local authority funding is going in a lot of places around the country.
Part of our response has been about doing more of our own new work and making sure that we really solidify that identity. We were very pleased last year with the WildWorks project, a company a lot of our audience hadn’t heard a lot about. There were no stars in the cast, they didn’t know the play and it was a 45-minute drive from Norwich, yet the show sold out. That gave us a lot of confidence that we were chasing the right rabbit and, if anything, we need to try and do more longer runs of original productions and original commissions.
The funding change has maybe sped up the move to a different sort of artistic plan, where we have more original commissions. The experience I have from both Cork and Norwich is that you can present work by a great Belgian company and get an audience for it, but actually, it’s much more interesting to have that a great Belgian theatre company make a piece of work here, that’s about here, with 10 Norwich teenagers and then you’ll get really good audience and you’ll have something unique
I think that’s been a change of festivals. A decade ago we were will probably presenting a lot more international work and now we’re making more of our own work. But it’s multidisciplinary, has got an international flavour to it and that’s been the journey that’s been parallel to the changes to local funding.
It may be a bit like asking a parent to name their favourite child but what are your festival highlights?
That is a really hard question because I love the original work that we’re making.
For me if you’re going to come up for a weekend and see a few things I would say you’ve got to see Wild Life, our anti-High School Musical, you should come experiences It’s Happening in Norwich,our film archive presentation, which will take place in a beautiful medieval merchant’s house, and get up to Felbrigg and experience Walk With Me.
We’ve got a great opening show called Flat that’s a mix of 3D animation and a wonderful aerialist, and we’ve got a community architecture project called Dennis Design Centre who are going to be building a big installation in the festival gardens. Oh, and the UK premiere of a band from Holland, The Analogues, who recreate The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album live on stage, with a bunch of musicians and technicians as well as a lot of the original gear from the Abbey Road studio. It’s going to be a fun 17 days!
The Norfolk &Norwich Festival runs 13-29 May 2016
For more information visit www.nnfestival.org.uk