At Latitude Festival, cabaret, comedy and theatre sit alongside music megastars like Damon Albarn and Two Door Cinema Club. Pioneering arts programmer Tania Harrison explains how she engineers the line-up
I’ve been programming the arts events at Latitude Festival in Suffolk, UK, since it started in 2006. At Latitude we pioneered the portmanteau approach of presenting dance, classical music, performance art and theatre alongside headline music.
From the beginning, we had a very particular audience in mind. We created Latitude for the people who had learned to love music festivals from going to them in their teens and 20s, those who had enjoyed the festival camping experience with friends, but now craved a broader offering. By mixing music with live arts, and cultural events with informed debate, we wanted Latitude to create a live equivalent of reading through the arts pages of the weekend papers.
The portmanteau format we’ve adopted is brilliant for attracting a culturally-engaged audience, but the fact that we book so many great bands means we can bring the arts to otherwise hard-to-target people. It’s critical at a festival like ours to create a trajectory and we do this by thinking about the various audiences we might expect to attend Latitude – the mums, the dads, the teenagers and so on – then we imagine how each of them might negotiate the weekend.
This is where programming can get a little tricky; it’s important to minimise clashes by thinking across both the music and the arts bills. For instance I have Mark Lamarr’s God’s Jukebox and Richard Wiseman’s Night School up against Two Door Cinema Club. And whilst Damon Albarn is on the main stage, we have Snakehips on elsewhere and a crazy game show in the Cabaret Arena. They each have a specific and unique audience.
Likewise, creating a programme that has the capacity to enthrall 35,000 people is always a huge challenge, both before and during the event. Alongside its increasing popularity, the vision at Latitude has changed and grown over the years. We started with just a few arenas – almost two decades on this has grown to 23; 15 of which are devoted entirely to the arts.
Logistically, planning for Latitude is a huge task as our 500-strong programme is so large that even just a few last-minute changes will mean I spend the whole weekend shuffling performances around like a pack of cards. As an event, it works terrifically. This coupling of a music festival with an arts festival is quite possibly one of the most exciting cultural innovations to have happened in the last 50 years. From fairly modest beginnings, as places where committed music fans could go to hear their favourite bands, hybrid festivals such as Latitude have established themselves as major events on the European cultural calendar.
Furthermore, the conversation has moved beyond the glamour of big music headliners and the stars that attend. My belief is that a broad approach to programming has opened up what once were solely music events to an incredibly wide demographic – and the popularity of such festivals is as much down to the wide array of arts they offer, as the big-name bands that play on the main stage.
How do we bring together such an eclectic mix? I spend a lot of my time in between festivals watching new work. I either book acts I’ve seen for myself, or will talk to other arts professionals about what they’re seeing and liking at the moment. I receive a lot of proposals every year, but what I look for most is work that’s really engaged with contemporary themes or that demonstrates a keen understanding of what works for our site. For most of the artists and companies there are many benefits to bringing a show to the large and varied audience we attract in Suffolk. Coming to Latitude is a great way to make inroads as our 35,000 attendees come armed with the intention of being introduced to something – or someone – new. Therefore, each artist has the potential to attract a significantly more multi-faceted crowd.
Furthermore, as we always take place in the third weekend of July, the festival is an excellent place to put on work that’s going up to Edinburgh. Companies get to put their shows through their paces in front of a festival audience. Latitude can influence careers too; many promoters, artistic directors, TV, radio, film and commercial bookers attend the festival to book artists for further shows.
For a festival like ours, it’s so very important to appreciate that the technical requirements of a theatre company are very different from those of an indie band. And because we do think carefully about how to produce and present different art forms, it means that major international companies like Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Shakespeare Company return to perform year after year.
Our arts arenas have been specially configured to meet the needs of the art forms they stage. For example, we present dance in the open air on The Waterfront Stage because the spectacle of a top-flight dance company in action against the lake setting is always breathtaking. Yet we also roof this area because we know how important it is for the dancers to have a dry stage – and you can never entirely rely on the British weather.
Another factor that affects how I programme the arts stages at Latitude is our theme. Each year we build a strand of our arts programming against a defining idea of our times. This year the theme is Secrets and Lies, which was inspired by the Edward Snowden leaks and has since grown into a wide-ranging exploration of the ideas of concealment and deception that permeate society at all levels.
Themes allow us to be very current, but also creative, and within these parameters we can juxtapose ideas and genres. For example, this year we’ll be exploring the idea of cyber security through an audiovisual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984 that will be followed by a Q&A with CERN scientists. We’re also working with the Wellcome Trust to bring leading neuroscientists to discuss deception and perspective and how we are affected by it biologically and psychologically. I tend to use the theme as an opportunity to build out an arts programme that’s topical and also the basis for commissioning new pieces.
It’s not all about established names; we work very closely with producing theatre companies to identify emerging artists and give them a platform at the festival. For example, this year Forest Fringe theatre company has its own tent where it will present new work throughout the weekend. We’ve also expanded the number of fringe spaces in The Faraway Forest arena so we can present a greater range of site-specific and intimate theatre, which again reflects the private and the public aspects inherent in this year’s theme.
The way we build on our format and programming from year- to-year is just as much about what contemporary audiences want, as fitting in the most exciting artists practising today. Every year we receive feedback from festival-goers that the best experiences of their weekend are the things they come across by accident while wandering through the site. And so we pay a lot of attention to presenting work that audiences can just happen across.
Site specific and durational performances do well, as does the openair presentation of dance on The Waterfront Stage. I like to think of Latitude as giving festival-goers a sort of cultural tasting menu. They can try a wide variety of things, take the odd risk and decide from there if there’s anything they want to investigate further.
At Latitude 2013 there was one such moment really that stood out to me. One afternoon I was standing behind two teenage boys in the queue to the Theatre arena, I listened to them debate whether to go in or not. One was reluctant to go inside because he’d never seen any theatre before and had only come to Latitude for the music, whilst his friend set his heart on persuading him to change his mind. The second boy said: ‘Yeah, I thought that last year, but I went to see a show in there and it turned out to be amazing.’ They both went in to see the theatre show and that made me very happy. It’s moments like these that make all the hard work thoroughly worthwhile.