Curated by Nickolas Boom, BoomTown Fair takes an innovative approach to the UK’s festival scene by mixing up culture and musical craziness. Patrick Roberts on how the programming team is using theatrical experiences to stand out from the crowd
In the public eye BoomTown Fair carries a reputation for craziness: embracing huge acts across an expansive list of genres, ranging from bass music to ska, reggae to folk, and electro swing to drum and bass. This musical diversity leads to a misguided concept of BoomTown Fair as being something of a bonkers music festival, but this is only a façade: BoomTownFair lives and breathes creativity across the spectrum.
Launched in 2009, and hosting around 50,000 visitors, BoomTown Fair’s aim is to bring escapism and diversity to the masses: international acts join the home-grown UK scene, and this year there is an especially good selection of groups from the Balkans. Some 24 main stages lead the action, with names like The Old Mines, Bang Hai Palace and Robotika, through individually themed districts with names like Mayfair Avenue, Wild West, Sector 6 and Trenchtown, which you navigate via uniquely designed streets.
Once you peel back the outer layers of BoomTown’s programming, there’s a massive choice of arts and culture on offer within the fictional city’s walls. In fact, the entire festival takes place within an immersive theatrical context spanning all nine city districts and four BoomTown Fair zones.
Says Martin Booth, director of immersive theatre: ‘ The unique way we are use arts at BoomTown Fair is by organising it to push one message or story. Music festivals are a perfect place to play in immersive settings, as the world within a real world is set up for you. To this end, the arts and festivals work hand in hand.
‘BoomTown offers a journey into the immersive imagined world, giving audience members the chance to be something different. Art and culture have always been present in our old school festivals from the days of previous festivals such as Stonehenge and Elephant Fair etc, but now it is what differentiates us from other festivals.
‘This kind of festival narrative is not present in some of the more commercial offerings, and in some ways it would be unfortunate if this did becomes the case. Art is powerful, but when is it just eye candy and when is it inspirational?’
Boomtown’s libertarian attitude spreads throughout the fields. Festivalgoers are free to camp in pretty much any spot they choose (In 2015, I went for around 30 metres away from the main reggae stage where I caught Stephen Marley (Bob Marley’s son), Protoje and David Rodigan). Throughout the festival experience you’re constantly aware of the in depth storyline running through the city: you become a resident and your experiences within the festival will vary depending on your choice of district.
Adds Booth: ‘Each of our theatrical districts have strong detailed identities and storylines which a range of artists with various skill sets are in charge of. However, a big part of the BoomTown experience comes from the fact that we let performers loose in their assigned areas. The beautiful thing about this process is that art is made in the moment. Of course, we have structure and a strong narrative to guide us but ultimately nothing happens until the audience member starts the game. How his or her experience then develops is just as important as anything that we have pre-planned.’
Actors, performers and staff embody this attitude to such an extent that festivalgoers soon begin to feel like fictional citizens roaming fictional streets – with their explorations rewarded with musical or artistic surprises. For those wanting to really make the most of the immersive experience, they can swot up on the storyline on the website beforehand and make the most of literature lying around the districts to guide them through the experience.
For example you can take a trip to Madame Wrong’s Chinese Take-Away in ChinaTown with ‘several health and safety violations, manic wenches cackling on the floor outside, sickly mayhem and food fights.’ Or you might take a trip to Barrio Loco District community where the fictional Job Centre will put you to work all day followed by a sneaky underground party at night.
So how do they go about recruiting so many performers to place in every corner of ‘BoomTown’ from food vendors, to bands, to natives? ‘Every performer and artist involved serves the larger picture,’ says Booth. ‘At the heart of what we are doing is creating a fictional society in which everybody, including the festivalgoer, has a part to play, feed and ultimately change.
‘We work hard to help develop the existing crews that are with us. Many of our collectives begin as small-scale ventures and as we move forward each year they evolve with us: everyone that comes on board is creating something bespoke for the city. You will be hard pushed to find our one-off experiences played out elsewhere.
Chapter 8 takes place 11-14 August in Hampshire, UK