Mark Ball, the Artistic Director of LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), established Birmingham’s Fierce Festival and worked for several years as the Head of Events and Exhibitions for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here he shares his advice on setting up your own theatre festival…
I think the starting point has to be a burning passion.
Festivals are fantastic vehicles for presenting a body of work in an intense way. Over a week or a fortnight you can focus all your energy on bringing all this work to an audience. You can get a lot of press attention for it, build partners around it and get audiences to take risks with what they go to see. That might not happen if the work was on over a year.
When you’re starting out it’s also quite an economical way to do things because you don’t have year-round overheads.
Find a gap in the market
When I moved to Birmingham, I encountered a dynamic city, but with a pretty conservative arts scene. I felt it was important that the city was invigorated by different and contemporary culture. Instead of going to Manchester, London or Bristol to see new work, I wanted to bring younger, more radical work to the city.
Once you’ve found an artist or a piece of work you want to put on, you’ve got to think about what partners can help make that happen.
Look for different-sized partners for different things – don’t just aim for the household names. And approach all sorts of arts organisations – not just theatres. From arts centres to galleries, to photography agents: they can all be useful.
It’s almost impossible to start this kind of thing on your own. But once you get one institution on board as a partner, the easier it is to get another and another and another.
Once you’ve got your partners, you need to start putting together a budget. You need really accurate costs and then you can start fundraising. You can’t fundraise until you have fixed anchor points in your content.
Don’t give up
I got a lot of knockbacks. When I first approached the Arts Council they basically said, this is interesting but there isn’t the audience. Lots and lots of people said no, but I was just very persistent. I kept applying to the Arts Council and the city council until, in 1998, I finally managed to raise about £5,000 for the first festival. Ten years later the budget was £10million.
Be prepared for things to take longer than you expect.
Operationally, it is quite a significant thing to pull off. One of the things I’ve learned is that much of success relies on detailed planning and doing things in advance.
You also have to announce your programme further in advance than other organisations. You’ve got to allow it to build and gather momentum. We’ve had everything out in the public arena and on sale four months before the festival actually opens.
Go to other festivals
There are lots of great emerging theatre festivals, led by really passionate individuals, like Fierce in Birmingham, Inbetween Time and Mayfest in Bristol, Brighton Fringe and Greenwich+Docklands International Festival. But it doesn’t have to be individuals: one of the biggest success stories in the arts in the last few years has been Manchester International Festival, which was set up by a visionary local authority.
Know what you’re looking for
Travel around, see work, meet artists and decide what you want to put on.
With LIFT, I want work that tells me something new and refreshing about the world, something innovative in terms of form, and something that will connect with an audience in London. So, for instance, we have a lot of work that originates in the Middle East in this year’s festival.
Have a really clear vision for what you want to do. Be intensely passionate about it. Don’t take no for an answer and build partnerships.
LIFT 2012 sweeps across London from 12 June - 15 July in venues and found spaces across the city.
Would you like to report on LIFT 2012? Then visit the brief.