Every summer, in remote fields up and down the country, people gather to gorge themselves on cider, overpriced burgers and live performances of every artistic hue. The festival industry is a big deal in the UK, entertaining hundreds of thousands of people each weekend and providing a platform for performers to reach countless new fans. Yet, when you think of these festivals your first thought will inevitably be of the music – the headline acts, that song of the summer – and not of the theatre, comedy, spoken word and other performing arts that are also on offer.
Glastonbury is the earth-mother of all festivals and sells out months before the line-up is even announced, for the simple reason that people know that no matter what they think of the music, there will always be something else to entertain them. Tucked away in a corner, far from the iconic Pyramid Stage, the festival’s theatre, circus and cabaret fields provide a huge range of performing arts, from acrobatics to improvisation, and 4 Poofs and a Piano to the YouTube ‘Gap, Yah!’ legends. With walkabout performers terrorising unsuspecting punters and inviting people to participate in their snippets of the absurd, the spirit is one of collective creativity, embodied perfectly by the long-haired, half-naked flower children who created their own playful dance moves on carpets laid out in front of the stage as Neon Productions presented their haunting physical theatre piece Falling From Trees this year.
Glastonbury has absolutely nothing on the smaller, slightly more civilised Latitude Festival, which is home to both multi-coloured sheep and an enviable theatre line-up. This year alone, Latitude will host a huge range of companies and genres, including a specially commissioned performance and interactive workshops run by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a collaboration between the Lyric and the London Snorkelling Team (yes, really!) and the cast of Hair spreading peace, love and harmony to all. The picturesque surroundings provide a beautiful back-drop and leave the impression that some plays were written precisely for this kind of staging. Never have I witnessed a performance that captured the disconcerting magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream more perfectly than when it was performed within a quiet, wooded area in the heart of the festival site, where the audience perched on fallen logs and snakes darted out of the undergrowth and around their feet.
It’s a shame that most festival-goers don’t know about what’s on offer or take advantage of the opportunity to see big comedy names and up-and-coming theatre companies. At Glastonbury the theatre listings are hidden away in the back of the programme, while most people stumble on the theatre fields by accident. Likewise, with the exception of Latitude, few festivals are booking big name comedy or theatre acts, who could themselves use the festival season as an opportunity to test-run their shows ahead of Edinburgh.
There is definite value in encouraging young people to come and see theatre; however, perhaps the industry should be doing more to take theatre directly to young people. Music festivals are an easy way to expose younger audiences to the magic of live performance, and I hope that more festivals and companies follow Latitude’s lead in bringing innovative, inspiring performances out of the confines of the theatre and into the freedom of a field.
Taking Notes is a new weekly blog on AYT by Lois Jeary – read every Friday and even view more videos by Lois over the next few months. Watch out for our new weekly blogs on Mondays and Wednesdays too.