Freelance Director Emma Bettridge tells A Younger Theatre what it takes to run a theatre festival when you’re juggling two jobs…
I am knackered! I blame PULSE festival – the one that happens at the New Wolsey, Ipswich at the end of the month with 52 shows ranging from work-in-progress early showings such as Ours Was the Fen Country by Dan Canham, to full blown productions such as Hannah Ringham’s The Free Show. It’s also the one I’m trying to run…
The main thing driving me is arriving at our get-in week on May 21: the week when you’ve essentially run out of time. There’s no room to stress and panic, just time to focus and work as a team to get the show up. I’m not going to harp on about this, but I think it’s important for context: I work as a freelance director for the New Wolsey Theatre and PULSE. I also run the artist development programme, Ferment, at the Bristol Old Vic. That’s right: the West Country. I am well travelled. By ‘well’ I mean I know the M5, the M4, the A303, the M25 and the A13 REALLY WELL.
Sounds greedy eh? Two jobs when there are no jobs. The frustrating thing about being self-employed is that you live pretty much hand-to-mouth and can never quite be sure where the rent money’s coming from. So when the Bristol job-of-amazingness came up and PULSE planning was already under way, I decided I could do both. And it does work, honest. The ethos of experimentation and having fun is shared by both projects. The only sacrifice is my lie-in. But like I said, I’m not harping on about it.
There’s always one show at a festival (one if you’re lucky, all of them if you’re not) that challenges the team in numerous ways. One of our festival commissions this year is The Campsite. It will be situated on a site down the road from the New Wolsey studio that is currently a messy car park (there’s a skip in it and everything). The car park will be cleared, bunting and lights will go in the trees, and a little convoy of VW camper vans will pitch up ready to be four self-contained venues. Perfect. What a lovely mission.
We’re dealing with some really wonderful and talented artists, who are very much artists and not festival managers. They have the dreams and we try to make it happen whilst shimmying around big bad health and safety regulations. You’d think organising a little cook up on the Sunday would be charming, right? Totally, if you were camping at an actual campsite. Our campsite is an event, so brings with it pages and pages of responsibility: food licensing, hygiene certificates and so on. This commission is the one I’m most apprehensive about, as we’re taking a random car park and trying to create a mini-Latitude. Where’s the power for the lights coming from? Will people even come? Will there be beer (the licence declares that there will)!
The other scary thing is making sure companies are fully briefed with what we can technically provide. When I worked for the Pleasance in Edinburgh I had two clangers happen at once. The first being that the company had designed their set for the wrong space; they had it in a 175-seater with a playing space of 10x10m rather than the 50-seater space with a playing space of 4x4m. Whoops. The other great one – that my friends like to remind me of – is when I scheduled a show that finished after the start time of the next show in that space. I thought: it’s fine, we can deal with it. Except if the set is largely gravel based. Ah, turned out the previous show’s set was largely gravel based. No point in panicking though – just find the answer. Chop the set down and explain to audiences that the theatre programmer is not very good with maths. Job done, most people are happy. So, I’m taking the no-panic ethos and running with PULSE. If it all goes terribly wrong, I’ll still be running with it all the way back to the West Country.
PULSE Fringe Festival will take place at the New Wolsey Theatre from 25 May – 9 June. For more information, see their website.