Blueprint for the Great Outdoors
There’s comedy on the beach at Brighton and in the bars of Brixton, opera with the ENO in the gardens at the Alexandra Palace and theatre in a circus tent in Norwich, all part of Without Walls, as Patrick Kelly reports
One of the few positive impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic been a new interest in the idea of arts in the outdoors. Since the scientific consensus has decreed that the virus is rarely transmitted in outdoor environments, many arts venues have been looking at the possibility of transferring at least some of their activity from the inside to the outside.
This is good news for the already thriving cultural sector devoted to the production of alfresco arts. Without Walls, the network of 34 arts festivals, says they and many of their members have been getting plenty of calls from venues anxious to try out ideas and asking for advice.
“Lots of people are dipping their toe in the water” says Maggie Clarke, director of Without Walls. “It’s been really healthy to see that venues are looking at spaces where great art can happen and where communities can more easily access that art.
“This recent period has allowed opportunities to reach new audiences who for one reason aor another find it hard to cross the threshold of an arts building. So of course, we are delighted to offer advice and support.”
Not that it’s been plain sailing for outdoors festivals either. When the lockdown hit earlier this year many of the festivals programmed for May to September had to be cancelled due to the regulations on outdoor gatherings. With the easing of restrictions, some, like the Greenwich and Docklands Festival which opens on August 28th, or the Bournemouth by the Sea Festival, opening on September 25th, have managed to reschedule with social distancing and other health and safety measures. Others have moved online or postponed events until 2021.
Clarke (above) is still hopeful that other summertime events can find slots later in the autumn, even if it’s just for individual shows, rather than the all-singing all-dancing panoply of arts that characterises a regular festival. The weather isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an issue she maintains.
“In Britain, you wouldn’t be able to do very much of anything if you were worried about the weather. Our creative artists are endlessly adaptable and can navigate the challenge of the weather”. Shorter shows, the distribution of umbrellas, rainwear or blankets, all these are part and parcel of UK outdoor arts scene. And audiences are tenacious too, says Clarke. “If the work is strong enough, people will come – dressed appropriately for the conditions!”
Quality is a key consideration, she adds. Historically, there’s been a “level of snobbery” about outdoor arts but that is now changing, not least because Without Walls can show a solid commitment to encouraging experimentation through Blueprint, now in its third year.
Blueprint is the network’s research and development programme which aims to allow artists to invest in new ideas and higher risk work. This year it’s highlighting socially relevant issues that have come under intensified scrutiny in recent times. Forty per cent of the programme is BAME-led with equal space for D/deaf and disabled artists to take risks and experiment with their craft.
“These are incredibly exciting times in terms of the debate about art – where it should and shouldn’t happen. Look at the arguments over the Colston statue and Marc Quinn’s replacement. Blueprint gives artists the opportunity to put issues like that or mental health to the forefront – issues that don’t normally get much of a profile” says Clarke. “It’s very timely. Outdoor arts is widely recognised for its ability to create value in place-making and for promoting community spirit.”
The artists chosen for the Blueprint programme will also be given the time and space to scale-up their ideas. For example, they will be able to take up residencies in purpose-built creation spaces like the Drill House in Great Yarmouth and 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Centre in Newbury – the UK’s largest purpose-built space for the development of outdoor art. And they will work alongside some of the UK’s top outdoor production and performance specialists, with a production manager whose role will be to look at the challenges of performing in the COVID-19 context.
“Blueprint seeks to expand the possibilities of what outdoor arts can be and sees many established companies looking to develop new approaches to their work come together alongside emerging artists who are making the move into the public realm for the first time” she says.
Since its inception in 2018 Blueprint has supported the creation of 33 shows, with many going on to become fully realised productions that have toured across the UK and internationally.
Among the artists featured this year is Jeanefer-Jean Charles whose dance performance Black Victorians (main picture, at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich) highlights and celebrates the diverse black presences in 19th and early 20th century Britain, established performance company Avanti’s Crow, Ling Tan’s Supermoments, an outdoor procession using wearable technology, and Kaleiders Robot Selfie, a drawing machine attached to the wall which compiles drawings of passers by into murals.
Josephine Burns, chair of Without Walls, says of Blueprint: “With support from Arts Council England we can use this investment to make sure that there is a future for outdoor arts, a form that uniquely reaches people in the places they call home and brings joy and comfort in an experienced shared”.