With little over a week until the 12th Heads Up Festival, producer Dave Windass shares what’s on his mind.
My advice to wannabe producers, event organisers and promoters is fairly consistent: “Never organise anything, ever.”
For, as much fun as pulling events together might look when you attend, say, four days of theatre, performance and live art, and as much kudos as can be attached to being part of the team behind these things, the reality is that the whole venture is one brimming with pain, suffering, arguments and piss-poor remuneration.
I’ve known this for some time. I ran a monthly night in a warehouse venue for three years that provided theatremakers with an opportunity to scratch their work, and for writers to make the essential development journey from page to stage. We had no budget, the venue was very understanding re the door split, and, despite it being only one night a month, a lot of hours, and several days, went in to pulling everything together. And mostly, I’d be there, and be thinking, before doing some haphazard compering, this night is shit (albeit well-supported and valued by the people that used it for what it was). And at the end of the night, having paid essential overheads out of the meagre net box office takings, I’d be lucky if, on the long, miserable walk home, there was enough loose change remaining to buy a small kebab. And often, there wasn’t, so I’d find a crumb on the kitchen worktop when I got back to the house before crawling into bed and sobbing into my dramatic pillow.
Naturally, after every one of these nights I vowed “never again”. All that energy, that went into that one night a month, could have been used more wisely. I could, for instance, have hit several deadlines, or written something. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t. There’s a simple reason for this – nobody else was doing it, nor seemed prepared to do it. And this is Hull, and, back then, some of us, those of us that could, needed to do something in order that the arts eco-system could improve and not rely on the handful of NPOs that the city has to do it for us.
So, there’s some context. The story of how and why Heads Up Festival came to be has echoes of the above. In the not-too distant past (2011 or thereabouts), Battersea Arts Centre hatched a plan to create a touring circuit for the work that’s produced out of that wonderful place by developing a network of producers in towns and cities deemed ‘cultural cold spots’. And, yes, despite all the fireworks, large-scale spectacles and people painted blue we’ve enjoyed more recently, Hull was very much one of these cultural cold spots eight years ago. So BAC had a chat with Hull’s leading producing theatre but they were too busy sorting out the aftermath of being devoid of an artistic director, money and the means of production that someone there seemed enthusiastic to dismantle, having being appointed in a role akin to Ian MacGregor and his “savage rationalisation” of the British steel industry, to get involved. And somehow, we (E52, as we’re now known, but back then the bafflingly, for some, difficult to pronounce Ensemble 52) were approached to move things forward. And we did, because nobody else was doing it, nor seemed prepared to do it, and if we didn’t, then this opportunity for Hull would have gone elsewhere. And that, my friends, is how we came to be ‘accidental producers’.
We’re now almost at the eve of our 12th festival in six years. Yes, you read that right. 12 festivals. In six years. Only stupid people would organise, produce and promote 12 festivals in six years. And we are stupid. Although we have grown, along with the rest of our Collaborative Touring Network partners, as people, as producers, and as a festival.
It’s fair to say, with confidence, that we knew what we were doing, even from the first festival. None of this fazed us. None of it took us by surprise. It’s just that we forgot, I think, that ventures such as Heads Up brim with pain, suffering, arguments and piss-poor remuneration. And either way we were doing this.
At our first festival, in 2013, having applied for permission to take something into public spaces in the city centre, things majestically and instantly unravelled when the artist at the heart of what was something quite bloody brilliant, as it happens, opted to perform elsewhere in Hull. Sans permission. And I have a lovely recollection of a big spat I had with my co-producer in a lift, when we were both attempting to out-stupid each other, as neither of us are blessed with the high levels of testosterone required to just have a bloody fight and get it over with. And things have pretty much gone on in a similar vein. We’ll let things brew in the run-up, have a row, realise during the festival that what we do, and bring to Hull, is damn good, then forgive each other and, given that two festivals a year is an ever-spinning hamster wheel, prepare to do it all again.
At this point, however, this 12th Heads Up is the last in its current format. Although something, of some sort, will be back, at some point. So after this round of brewing, arguing, and well-earned back-slapping, we can actually draw breath, sit back, and consider what we’ve achieved in those six years. Which I won’t list here, because we’re not there yet, although I can say, in all honesty, we’re incredibly proud of everything that’s been included in the Heads Up artistic programme to date, and this swansong is right up there with our finest moments.
Right now, we’re not quite vowing “never again”. We’re looking at the options, and attempting to raise some much needed funding. And considering the impact that the energy that has been spent on pulling those six years together has had, and whether we might have been better investing our time hitting deadlines, and writing something, or creating something else, or even getting a paper round. Yet we did it, we are proud, and we did it because nobody else was, or did, nor were they prepared to give it a go.
When the history of Hull in this decade is documented, I doubt that Heads Up will get much more than a footnote, at best, but more likely not even a mention. Which is fine, we’re cool with that, because history, as we know, is written by the victors. And in most cases, of course, this is right and just: For example, the history of Hull Truck will not be written by the hatchet man who was appointed by a then very troubled board of directors but by his predecessors, Bradwell, Godber and Tudor Price, and his successor, who’s now writing the next chapter. Yet in the run up to 2017, and the progress that made the artistic and cultural eco-system of this city so buoyant, spare a thought for the many (how do you think those gigs, spoken word nights, comedy nights, other festivals and the like appeared?) that did it because nobody else was doing it. Not for recognition (producers and promoters should be unseen and invisible; it should be about the artists), a large salary and healthy remuneration reflective of the blood, sweat and tears, or for a notch on the CV, or a CBE, but because they were in the right place, at the right time, to do some of the essential legwork that nobody in their right mind should ever contemplate. Never organise anything, ever. Unless, that is, you want to make a difference to and for the place and the people you love.
Hopefully, you’ll come along and join us at the 12th Heads Up Festival to help us go out in style. More information and tickets are available at www.headsuphull.co.uk