For me, some things appear to have come full circle. I’m from a part of the UK, Northern Ireland, which has always sat physically separate from the ‘mainland’. It does feel different and yet the same as Britain. Many people from my part of the world strongly identify as ‘British’, despite the province not technically being part of ‘Great Britain’ and a growing section of the population there identify as ‘Irish’ and look forward to a reunification of the island. I grew up during that time known as – rather quaintly given the reality – the ‘Troubles’ - as if it were a slight medical complaint to be whispered under one’s breath for fear of social embarrassment.
During that time, borders were very real, impeding travel, trade and cultural exchange between two parts of a small island. I remember as a young child, on an attempted family day trip, being stopped by the military at a border check and having to turn back in our car. This sort of restriction on movement was common. Outdoor space in Northern Ireland was often, at the time, claimed by one or other community – and the nearest we got to ‘Outdoor Arts’ was various band marches or huge bonfire stacks – spectacular, but all about territorial grandstanding.
I often ponder what drew me, as a theatre-maker, into the Outdoor Arts and site-responsive world. Don’t get me wrong, I also love making work for indoor venues and all the tricks they bring to the table with detailed lighting designs and soundscapes etc. But I’ve always, right from the start of my career, been drawn to making outdoor work - despite the vagaries the weather throws at us - and often for environments and audiences not used to this type of performance. I think I trace this ultimately back at some level to my upbringing, a desire to bring people together in public spaces, not through tribal confrontation, but through shared experience and joy. The recent edition of the Winchester Hat Fair 2021 – remodelled to be Covid-safe – was a successful example of bringing people of all ages together in celebration.
A big part of this work, throughout my adult life and career, has been being a part of the European Union. I identify as European (amongst my other ‘identities’) and have delighted over the years in freedom to collaborate with artistic colleagues across Europe to create opportunities for, particularly, young emerging artists to take their first steps on the international stage, expand horizons and reach new audiences.
My life, personal and professional, has been hugely enriched by the ease of work and movement across the EU and this has become second nature to our industry. In recent years as Director of Hat Fair for Play to the Crowd, I have continued this journey, deepening our relationship with various Cultural Institutes such as Catalan Arts and the Finnish Institute in UK and Ireland. Without fail, I have found our European partners to be open and generous in their time and support and I have sought always to reciprocate – as if I was hosting someone in my home.
This year I was one of the relatively few festival directors to attempt to invite EU artists to the UK. I did this with the full approval of my colleagues, knowing that Covid restrictions on travel may eventually make this impossible. And so it has proven. However, what this experience has shown up in practice is the lack of clarity around procedures to enable EU artists to work at festivals in the UK. I have collated a list of real-life obstacles, confusion and complications encountered by EU artists when attempting to undertake work in the UK to which they have been invited. I will be sharing this information with our MP in due course by way of concrete evidence as to why a considered visa-waiver system for artists working between the EU and the UK is much needed moving forward.
To a certain extent, I feel once again, as I did as a child, that people are being turned away from their closest borders, diminishing quality of life and the UK’s impact and soft-power dialogue with the EU – and world – stage. It saddens me deeply to think that our EU partners are much less likely to want to work with us due to barriers that have been put in place.
I’m personally lucky, as a dual citizen I retain my EU citizenship. I know that those of us in the Outdoor Arts sector will continue to robustly campaign on behalf of our international communities of artists to enable a continued rich exchange of dialogue, art forms and joy to enrich our audiences’ experiences in the future. And festivals such as Hat Fair will continue to find new ways to champion diverse voices, peoples and inclusivity – whatever challenges are thrown our way.
Hat Fair and Playmakers Director, Play to the Crowd
Photo credit Adrienne Photography.
The acts depicted are:
Andrew with DRAGONS - An Act Above (UK) - Hat Fair preview, May 2021
ESQUERDES - Cia Hotel Iocandi (Spain) - Hat Fair 2019
IN THE CITY STILL - Feathers Ensemble (Ireland) - Hat Fair 2019