After getting through the ‘speed-date’ style interview process to select who will volunteer at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, it is then a complete pleasure to have the opportunity to interview the Artistic Director, William Gallinsky. The Norfolk and Norwich festival takes over Norfolk for two weeks, holding events in the city streets, colleges and theatres across the county. NNF topped astonishing numbers in 2009 with a recipe of 1,000 artists, 13 venues, 70 crew members, 125 volunteers, 250,000 ticket buyers, 34,000 festival-goers at free and outdoor events, making a cocktail of a world-class, international arts festival. So what is it about this festival that attracts thousands of people from all over the globe to the far east of the country and more than two hours away from the country’s theatrical hub – London?

NNF is a “multi-art-form festival” bursting with acts ranging from classical music to contemporary music such as the Britten Sinfonia and AfroCubism. Not to mention circus acts in the Spiegeltent, and acts for the more adventurous, such as AirHotel and the Dinosaur Petting Zoo. There are a number of visual art forms such as Submerged-Spaces and theatre by youth companies such as Little Bulb’s Operation Greenfield. Gallinsky and his team search for “hybrid collaborations between artists and different art forms” to create a festival where the audience are as much a part of the theatrical experience as the performers.

So where did the dream start for Gallinsky? He was an “am-dram baby” with his parents meeting at an amateur dramatics company in Leeds, where he grew up. He studied Russian and Czech at Oxford University, and was an avid theatre goer during his university life. He used to see shows “four nights a week” and believes that seeing shows and travelling is one of the most important things he did in his career.

Gallinsky has had an enviable career in the arts, studying at Drama Centre in London, working with the National Theatre, West End musicals and the RSC. He dipped in and out of teaching at drama schools such as RADA, and then became a freelance director. He worked with the Arcola in Dalston, and directed some of his first shows there. However, it was when Gallinsky saw “great international theatre” at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) that his love for festivals began: especially how they “attract refugees from different art forms”. He admits to getting “very stuck in a theatre bubble, or contemporary art or music bubble”. At LIFT he experienced “audiences respond to exciting, original projects and those involving collaborations between artists who are willing to take risks.” But there is a quesetion of why should we all flock to the big L to see great shows?

Gallinsky first came to Norwich in 2000 with The Seagull, performing at Norwich Theatre Royal, and found there was a great opportunity to create a festival about community and great work. He was keen to work with more artists based in the area. Festivals have a real beauty where no one is restricted to one art form and this is true for a lot of the headline acts at NNF. Walking by Robert Wilson is NNF’s landmark contribution to the London 2012 Olympics. It is a stunning, three-mile sculpture across the coastline, with a series of visual and sound installations that are thought-provoking and contrast with the landscape. Audience members can walk along the path, encountering and reacting to different sculptural forms and spaces that intersperse the route on their own terms. Here, the audience become the performers, with nature as their stage.

Gallinsky is keen on “getting a local scene going” in the city centre of Norwich. He has founded a “young persons’ focus group” with 15/16-year-olds who help with marketing to a younger audience and their peers. Gallinsky and his team hope to work more with the teenager strand,  starting with BETA, a pop-up venue for the younger generation in the city. It is a work-in-progress venue giving an artistic twist to a night out on the town. Gallinsky says, “It’s pay-what-you-can to enter, and we’ve invited some artists based in east of England, Bristol, London.” NNF is foregrounding Norfolk as an arts hotspot, a festival with a different ethos, functioning like a production company and reaching out to all ages.

A lot of shows selected for this year’s programme are companies and collaborative work, for example Little Bulb Theatre‘s show about children growing up in a village in England, juggling dreams of a rock band and being members of a Christian Youth Club. Another, The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, by the National Theatre Of Scotland, is set in the Student Union bar at Norwich University College of the Arts, hoping to reach out to younger audiences. Gallinsky describes it as “outsider art, YouTube art.” Gallinsky is keen for students at UEA and from the arts school to be rubbing shoulders and talking about what interests them and why. When starting out as a young theatre enthusiast, it is “good to have a collective around you”. He comments that the “more old-fashioned model of writer, director, actor is becoming more of an endangered species, the future is in companies with a shared vision”.

NNF is not only a multi-art form festival but also an international festival. It has attracted the German company Rimini Protokoll, founded by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel who are recognised as leaders of the theatre movement known as ‘Reality Trend’. Rimini Protokoll asks “valid questions about theatre”, says Gallisnky, and “share a common ethos which is making theatre with real people who represent themselves and no one else”. 100% Norfolk has no professional actors, all recruited from Norfolk. The cast of non-actors had to include: 92 % British, 5 %EU, 3 % Outside EU. And within these percentages: 15 % must be from Breckland, 14 % from Broadland, 11 % from Great Yarmouth, 12 % from North Norfolk, 17%  from Norwich.

And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, 39 % of people onstage have to be single,  7% divorced, 7% widowed and 47 % married. The cast onstage will be asked questions, for example: “Do you think the world has become a worse place in the last ten years?” The cast choose either yes or no and move to opposite ends of the space. This is filmed and projected on the back wall and appears as a pie chart. Gallinsky comments that it is “like a gameshow… a pot-noodle of instant theatre… more and more I was asking myself questions about who do you make theatre with – they say you can make theatre with anyone, even actors.”

Gallinsky’s future vision for the festival is to cater to more local artists in the Norfolk and Norwich region, now NNF has established an international reputation. For him, “It is all about what are we going to do about the next generation of artists and audiences because theatre has to be a group activity, it is better when it is.” With a fusion of international and local talent, NNF releases the pressures of work-hungry artists to be in London to find success in such a competitive industry. Success and great experiences can be found in the collaborative, in companies and in sharing a vision. Starting local, starting small and dreaming big seems to be the key to success, and it can begin in Norfolk.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival runs from 1126 May 2012. Follow NNF on twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/NNFestTickets for NNF 2012 can be purchased at http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/ 

Image credit: Bombino, Norfolk and Norwich Festival