Wade into Waterside

This summer, as other theatres go dark, Sale's Refract festival shines a light on the quirkier side of performance

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During the summer months, it’s traditional for many theatre venues to “go dark” – that is, have a holiday break from staging shows. The Waterside in Sale does things a little differently though. Its performance festival Refract, taking up ten days at the end of July, is returning for a fifth year, and once again it’s held in both the venue itself and its canal-side exterior, as implied by the festival’s name.

“When I came into post in 2016 we used to have a small, low-key festival of family events in the summer and we looked at how we could develop and expand that,” says Waterside venue manager Darren Adams. “We wanted to find work that really suited that time of year – so, lots of focus around outdoor activities. That’s grown to become something that’s really quite experiential. Refract is as much about what you’re watching as the experience of seeing that work.”

Over the years Refract has established a clear identity for itself. Adams says: “Getting that vision across to the team did take a while, but now everybody here knows what a Refract show is, what fits – if there’s a quirky element to it or something a little bit different.”

Sale itself is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, with a radical revamp of the town centre and further plans in the pipeline. The Waterside feels central to that and Refract seems central to Waterside’s identity and intentions.

“There’s a movement happening post-pandemic where people are spending a lot of time in their local area,” Adams says. “I think there’s a real opportunity for us there. For Refract last year, we saw record numbers for outdoor work. We did really, really well at a time when we thought it was going to be extremely difficult.”

This year’s Refract:22 line-up takes in shows on a whole range of subjects, including Woodstock, Julie Andrews, John Peel and Father Ted – but there is a thread of sorts running though it.

“It wasn’t planned, but we when we started the programming, we realised that there was a lot around celebrating women, women’s stories and female-identifying artists, giving them a showcase. We’ve always had that in mind. There’s lots of people that are under-represented – LGBTQ+, people of colour, and older people as well. We’ve tried to make sure that’s an integral part of the festival.”

Sure enough, the programme for Refract:22 includes Quite Unfit for Females by dance company About Time, detailing the tribulations of a real-life Preston ladies football team formed in 1917, one-woman show The Formidable Lizzie Boone, about a thoroughly modern woman undergoing therapy, and Lifted, an outdoor piece performed by an all-female acrobatic theatre company. There’s lots more besides – dance, music and family-friendly shows – the proverbial something for everyone

Adams says: “We’ve had some shows that are harder in terms of reaching audiences, but I think that’s part of the process, doing some work that maybe challenges audiences a bit. There’s a lot of free activity through the festival and all of the ticketing is really low cost.

“We don’t want to be some highbrow arts festival. We just want to be an accessible festival, really, for everyone to take part in – and take a bit of ownership of as well.”

Refract:22 is in and around Sale Waterside, 21-30 July (refract.org.uk)

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