A few years ago, I came across a professional development opportunity called Atelier for Young Festival Managers, a 7-day intensive gathering of peers and mentors, always embedded within a different festival. Back then, as an independent producer living in the UK, there was just no way I could hope to take part – partly for the cost, which, at this point in my career, would not have been covered by an employer or grant, and partly because I didn’t believe enough in myself to take the plunge and invest in my own professional development.
Fast-forward a few years and I now have my very own Atelier experience just behind me, thanks to funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. I came to present Art of Festivals, my platform for thinking, doing and creating with festivals and their ecology: what better opportunity than a gathering of 40+ international peers and mentors to gain contacts and knowledge, test my concept and positioning, survey emergent needs and co-create innovative solutions?
In my work as a Creative Producer, a key element for quality is to get inside: inside a festival and its context, inside a process, a community, a relation. This is how I grew my career, starting with the Manchester Jazz Festival, then branching out in concentric circles to other Northern arts institutions, contemporary jazz initiatives and projects with improvising artists. When I moved to Canada, starting out with Jane’s Walk, a festival of citizens, enabled me to expand my work to questions of public space, participation, ethics.
At the Atelier, I met organisers working with a wide range of disciplines and concepts (from a multidisciplinary celebration of Little Mermaid’s author H. C. Andersen to chef-choreographer collaborations, a gathering of “young visionaries” devising their own festival programme, a video / dance / heritage immersive experience…) and in contexts new to me (Lebanon, Australia, Egypt, Brazil, rural Austria…). We didn’t just present the marketing fluff at each other; we got deep into our issues, successes, motivation, moments of doubt. As well as expanding my factual knowledge and gaining key contacts, I got to practise building trust and intimacy, in a fast and intense way, a precious skill to be able to reach this “insider” position that is so important to my work ethos. Of course, sharing experiences – eating, drinking, walking, watching performances, singing and dancing – is how we bonded, and how we were able to negotiate differences of position and opinion. This is what us festival people do, this is why we do what we do, and we know there is no shortcut to building community – this is our work.
However gruelling the pre-festival planning period may be, however painful festival production can get (and don’t we love to swap those horror stories…), the joy, for me, is always in the people we meet and bond with, an extra-ordinary bond forged in a suspended time. A festival runs on trust – within the team, and with and amongst the artists, volunteers, audiences, suppliers, funders and everyone that makes it happen. Festival Atelier NEXT turned out to be an exercise in bridging cultures, generations, hierarchical positions, guests and hosts, managers and artists. We flexed our participation muscles; critically considered our position, power and privilege; acknowledged that learning and growing require as much giving as taking – and we had tons of fun. I am deeply grateful to the Festival Academy team for their thoughtful and dedicated work in creating a framework where relationships can root and bloom, where festival managers can breathe and grow, where the world can meet and celebrate. I’m now ready to work better, deeper, and for longer.