Festivals of the Future
28.07.20 Thoughts from Rome.

Hello reader.

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Sian Baxter and I work with Take Me Somewhere Festival in Glasgow as a producer placement, supported by the Federation of Scottish Theatre Producer Placement Bursary with funding from Creative Scotland. Take Me Somewhere is an annual Glasgow wide festival of cutting-edge contemporary performance. We programme provocative and political works made by incredible artists (both local and international), support local artists year round with schemes such as our artist constellation and throw epic parties which are not to be missed!

I love festivals. I’ve worked and volunteered at a bunch of them in the UK and I just can’t get enough. I love that each festival has its own unique personality and I’ve met some of my closest collaborators and friends at festivals over the years. I love the provocative performances bringing underrepresented voices and stories to the forefront, the parties, the artists, visiting new places, the buzz, the temporary communities that are formed and did I mention the parties?

The idea behind my FST bursary was to experience, for the first time, a full cycle of producing a festival from programming to evaluation and everything in between. I’ve always come into a festival team from the midpoint or just before it opens where the balls are already rolling and I have jumped in full steam ahead. This opportunity to encounter what goes on behind the scenes has been a significant learning experience and, even though the festival has been cancelled this year due to COVID-19 I have still gained valuable insight into the process of running a festival from day one.

My first day on the job coincided with the first Festivals of the Future meeting marking the beginning of two years of activity with the Festivals of the Future network, so I hopped on a plane to Rome (pre coronavirus) to sit around the table with all five partners to hear more about the project. In short, Festivals of the Future asks – what is the festival model of tomorrow? It brings together five festivals and its founders for a deep period of research, exchange and exploration with the goal of creating a festival blueprint for the future. The five festivals are: Transform (England), Take Me Somewhere (Scotland), Short Theatre (Italy), MIR (Greece) and Parallèle (France).

We met at La Pelanda, Short Theatre’s festival hub, in mid September 2019 during their annual festival. I’d never been to Rome before and so made sure a quick walk to the Colosseum between activities was on the cards. Classic tourist move, I know.

We were only in Rome for 24 hours so I didn’t get to experience the festival as much as I would have liked to but I did manage to catch a few performances and get a sense of the festival’s personality. I was fortunate enough to see Chroma Keys by Motus who I have been keen to see for a long time. It was a pure futuristic and dystopian green screen frenzy. At one point whilst hanging out in the courtyard I was mid conversation when I heard some delicious music thumping out of OHT_Little Fun Palace. It sounded too irresistible to miss and so I immediately ran over to Shazam and dance with the rest of the people there. This was the track, I recommend you put it on loud. I was gutted to miss out on house-music artist Kiddy Smile’s DJ set the following evening, but I’m sure it was a belter.

The first meeting was all about coming together for the first time for official introductions, going over the practicalities of the project step by step, asking loads of questions and introducing our festivals and our visions and aims for the future. What felt particularly poignant to me about this cohort of partners is that it was 90% female and founder led. I was sitting around a table of inspiring, talented women and it felt great.

In a nutshell the 2 years of activity looks like this:

5 Core Partners. 4 Associate Partners. 250 Cultural Professionals from 101 Dissemination Partners. 30 Artists. 3,000 Audiences. 8 Consultants and 2 Experts. 50 Emerging Professionals. 5 Artistic Outcomes. 5 Audience Development Outcomes. 5 Satellite Projects. 5 Talks. 5 Workshops. 1 Festival Blueprint for the future.

So yeah, it’s HUGE and exciting and intimidating!

A main take away I got from the meeting was the fragility of the festival circuit across Europe and our specific festivals. Existing in a constant state of precarity is not the most productive of situations to be in. My experience from working in many different roles across the UK festival circuit is that there is never enough time or resource to fully interrogate the structures they are running from. Burnout is too common and in some cases totally normal: we work, we burn out, we recover and get right back on the horse again and repeat. Teams are too small, we are unable to provide as much resource as we would like to support artists’ ambitions and visions, we have to fundraise from scratch each festival cycle and this means we have a lack of ability to forward plan.

Festivals of the Future is looking for much more than just an organisational shift, it is looking for a sector shift. What I found really exciting to hear during the meeting is that this project actually affords the fundamental resources to think much deeper as a collaboration of partners and also as individual festivals about vital infrastructure changes and exploring how artists, audiences and experts can be integral voices while developing new festival models.

Being a small part of the Festivals of the Future activity has been a highlight during my FST bursary. I have no doubt in this project’s ability to influence positive changes within the European festival circuit, whilst also inspiring and equipping the next generation of future festival leaders. Watch this space!

Sian Baxter
Take Me Somewhere