Last weekend I had the thrill of seeing my play go on at Latitude Festival. The play, At First Sight, had been produced on tour in the new year by Up In Arms, the theatre company of which I’m Co-Artistic Director, and revived by another company in the spring, but getting it on at Latitude felt like a real coup because the festival has a unique and attractive personality.
A number of people I knew who had previously taken work to the festival talked about it as a highlight of their year, and I was interested to find out why it attracted such affection. Was it just the chance to let your hair down in a field with all your friends that made it such an eagerly-anticipated weekend? Or was there something else about the atmosphere that made people speak so warmly of it?
The first thing that struck me when I arrived at Latitude was what a great idea the festival is. To walk through the site, or leaf through the festival programme, is invigorating. The range of work you can discover across the weekend means Latitude offers a genuine immersion in new ideas and experiences. As a punter, it’s exciting to plan a weekend of wandering over the site, constantly stimulated by what’s on offer, enjoying the artistic equivalent of pick and mix. As an artist, it’s a chance to refresh and challenge your thinking, to expose yourself to ways of seeing you haven’t come across before, and work you would never normally go to. I find it all-too-easy in my day-to-day life only to go to shows, or read books, or listen to musicians I strongly suspect I’m going to like before they start: anyone who lives on a budget does it, we only have so much money to spend, why would we spend it on something we don’t like the sound of? But at Latitude, where the programme was strikingly eclectic, you find yourself watching work outside your artistic comfort zone, outside your taste. And, as is almost always the case when you expose yourself to new ideas, you get something from it.
Like going to Edinburgh or the National Student Drama Festival, then, Latitude is a potent mind-expander. I wondered, looking round at the crowds of parents and children, the school kids who actually whooped when Simon Armitage read ‘Kid’ (“Iis this my lighters-in-the-air poem?” he asked, and the boy in front of me dutifully got out his Zippo), and everyone else who made up Latitude’s impressively broad audience demographic, how many of us were bingeing on anything else while we were out here? I don’t think it was as many as I had expected. The drugs of choice were ideas and art, and around the site it was easier to buy a vegan falafel wrap than a beer. It was interesting: by removing, at least a little, of the debauchery I associate with Edinburgh from the experience of being in the middle of hundreds of shows all happening at once, the organisers of Latitude demonstrated much more clearly what it is people are actually doing when they go to events like these. Without the complications of also being on a weekend-long bender, the only thing you can see everyone doing around you is removing themselves from their ordinary situation, getting away from the complexities and distractions of their lives, not to escape as you do on a beach holiday, but to plunge into something else. Out of their own contexts, people reeled from band to poet to play, getting drenched in art. I don’t know what it does to us all when we come back. Wakes up the nerve endings, probably, and makes us want a holiday on a beach. But it’s interesting, when we all feel so busy all the time, that there’s such a huge and eager audience wanting to go away and exhaust themselves with thinking and listening and seeing for a weekend.
It was fascinating to discover how different presenting theatre in a festival environment is from producing anywhere else. Before I got to Suffolk, I thought the difference I would find would be in the actual work staged. The plays I was going to see would be loud, bold, and filled with hooks in order to stand out alongside Bellowhead and Suede. But the difference wasn’t actually in the work, it was in the audience. Watching different acts around the site, it was clear that theatre at a festival plays to an audience who react uniquely to what they’re seeing. People stop to watch a performance, and then, when they’ve had enough, move on to something else. It’s a far cry from being reminded to turn your phone off before the show starts. I wouldn’t claim it was the perfect environment to make theatre in, because I think some trains of thought need to be given time and a lot of acting needs silence, but the atmosphere was brilliant at stripping away pretension and pretense, reminding me that theatre is in a market like everything else, competing for ears and eyes to play to.
I loved this. It seemed to me like a beautiful demonstration of the fact that all theatre is always about its audience. The suggestion that the passive theatregoer sits in the dark and does nothing while the play goes on doesn’t wash when they can walk away – you’re forced to accept that the play, as it existed in their head, finished when they left, no matter where you’d got to in the text. This is true when you present work in a purpose-built, dedicated theatre space as well, and it’s important to remember it: the only difference is that rather than going to look at something else, the bored theatre-goer in row J starts thinking of the shopping, or The Wire. So it’s even worse in a theatre – they can’t easily relieve the tedium by leaving. In that light, I suppose the unique selling point of theatre at Latitude is that the audience are liberated from the tyranny of established custom, of the house lights going down being the signal that they must now shut up and pay attention, as if theatre were a kind of school.
But while the onus was therefore on the different companies presenting work to be as riveting as possible, this challenge was met in very different ways. The most completely arresting piece of theatre I saw was Anthony Weigh’s Flooded Grave, which consisted of little more than the brilliant Mark Hadfield delivering a monologue by the light of a single torch. I’d half expected the most successful shows to be made up of people in bright face paint doing star jumps. But of course, that would never have washed with an audience who had come all this way to be entertained. I think people go to the theatre to engage creatively with ideas and think thoughts that don’t normally occur to them. If you take the thoughts and ideas away, and replace them with the theatrical equivalent of 3D HD red-button exhibitionism, then your audience will go to the cabaret tent. People want a good story, and nothing compensates for the lack of one. Star jumps can be brilliant when they help tell the story, but that’s the only reason they ever are. It doesn’t matter how good a performer is at doing them if they’re not leading us further into the maze.
I found my own show’s audience fascinating. Over the course of its tech (which became a run because it wasn’t going wrong, and a crowd gathered to watch it) and performance, my play was seen by as many people as saw it in the three weeks we toured it in the new year. It was incredibly inspiring to come across an audience so hungry for theatre that they were willing to sit and watch the work of a theatre company and a writer they didn’t know, just to see whether it was any good. No reviews, no recommendations or marketing, just human interest. I found it very moving to see all these people giving my work a try, their faces lit up by the reflected stage lights. Our performance happened on the Outdoor Stage in the middle of the night, and we contended with the sound of Paines Plough, the Bush and any number of DJ sets nearby, but people sat and watched the play, or dropped in for a couple of minutes and gave it their time and attention despite the distractions. It was inspiring to see that audiences like the two brilliant crowds we had are out there waiting and interested to see your work, if you can get it on the right stage to expose it to them. This is the opportunity that getting on at a major venue or event offers. I know the director of my play, Alice Hamilton, is an incredible talent, and that her work on this play left a real impression on people who saw it; that the two actors, Charles Reston and Roseanna Frascona, gave my play such vivid life, as did the composer Will Stuart; that the designers we have worked with over the course of the show – Jake Anders, Matt Ward, Alex Dickens, Will Measham, Fly Davis and Chris Withers – made a visually beautiful piece; and that my brilliant producer, Liz Eddy, who made this transfer to Latitude happen, has marshalled an incredibly successful company and production. Thanks to Latitude, a ‘general public’ was now interested in finding that out as well.
But the clearest hint I got as to why the people who had been before got so excited when they talked about Latitude was found among the tents, not the stages. I felt very fortunate to be allowed to camp among the other performers at Latitude. It was as if I had been allowed to join, for a weekend at least, a very wonderful club. It’s a commonplace for people who get the chance to work in the arts to say they feel like they’re getting away with something, but from my tent, looking around at the banners of the different theatre companies around me, I felt I was getting away with things much more than the staff of the Lyric, or the National Theatre of Scotland, or the Bush. These were names I Googled, seasons I looked out for – and now I was being allowed to literally pitch my tent alongside them. It has to be an ambition of any playwright or theatre company to see their work presented alongside the great work of these companies, and to have achieved this with my first play is exhilirating.
What so interested me about looking at the performer’s campsite at Latitude was seeing all these different theatre companies brought physically together for a short time. It made me realise this isn’t the exception – when we make work and present it to the public, we’re always working in this larger context, joining the listings from every other theatre to offer up our way of interpreting the world. At Latitude, where the shows didn’t all open at 7:30, the sense of collective endeavour was enhanced because it was possible to see more of everyone else’s work; but the weekend served as a reminder to me that this is how things always work. Across every town in the country, there’s a gig vying for a crowd with a Noel Coward revival or an edgy piece of agit-prop in an empty shop. Latitude takes away all the buildings in between, so it’s easier to see how close everyone is to each other, but it’s only an illustration of what’s already the case. I wondered if that’s why people get so excited about taking work to Latitude. Camping a hundred metres from a theatre company that’s normally hundreds of miles away, you’re reminded that you’re involved in a collective endeavour, re-integrated into this larger society of people all wanting the same things, and renewed in your determination to be a part of this big artistic family.
Barney Norris is a playwright, currently under commission at the Bush and developing work at the Finborough Theatre. His play At First Sight is published by the Drama Association of Wales.
You can read more about Up In Arms at www.upinarms.org.uk, or follow them on Twitter: @upinarmstheatre.