Blog: Cathryn Peach

The manager of the Northern Festivals Network writes about her vision for family arts festivals

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Over the past three years I have been leading a group of individuals in a new collaborative venture. Its strange to think that three years ago we were celebrating a successful funding bid, and swiftly afterwards sitting nervously around a conference table talking about how we were going to achieve the things we had talked about, written about and dreamt about. So much has been achieved in that time, but most importantly relationships have transformed.

The Northern Festivals Network grew out of a deep desire for greater sharing within the festival sector as well as a thirst for higher quality family arts.

Wouldn’t it be amazing, we thought, if those incredible live goose-bump moments that you only really find with the highest quality theatre, circus, dance or storytelling were found more often in the woods and fields of the UK’s music festivals.What if audiences weren’t hanging on to hear who the headliner was going to be, but dreaming about incredible adventures they would have, surprises they would find round corners, breathless moments they couldn’t have predicted?

At the same time so often we found that conversations didn’t go far enough. We were always left wanting to ask more questions, wanting to hear other people’s stories, their journey, their aspirations.

We wanted to talk about the things that really drove us, how to transplant our audiences from the day to day into the incredible.

We wanted to talk about the challenges that we were facing, paying artists a fair wage, dismantling audience barriers and growing problems around climate change.

Festivals are so often built as a reflection of the world we want to live in, offering community through shared passions and shared experience. Surely the industry should reflect this?

As communities we work best when we talk to each other, when we collaborate, sharing our aspirations, which become grander and more ambitious through discussion.

These are the thoughts that underpinned the Northern Festivals Network, built in 2014 by Just So Festival, Ramsbottom Festival and Kendal Calling, enabled through support from the Arts Council Strategic Touring Fund.

Backed by a second round of successful Arts Council funding, £179,000, the network is six festivals strong – a diverse array of award-winning events.

We have partnered with Glastonbury to see the co-creation of a large-scale fire breathing puppet complete with stunning aerial, set to tour internationally – the kind of work we dreamt about being made specifically for families.

We are set on a second commission, this time partnering with the international Unlimited Impact to create a piece of work for families by a producer or director who identifies as deaf or disabled, hopefully widening access for disabled artists into greenfield festivals.

In this way we have seen a 270 per cent rise in our audience that identify as deaf or disabled through work with Attitude is Everything, from which we are set to become a best practice case study and pioneer a toolkit.

It has also made us more ambitious in terms of achievement, seeing a new audience strand commissioned this year, pledging to bring our carbon footprints down by 20 per cent, as well as fuelling more creativity in our approaches.

Collaborating as a network, and also drawing other organisations in, has brought a new dimension to the way we think. We look outwards more, bringing a new openness to the way we work and a renewed vigour.

The delight of collaboration has led to unprecedented successes, such as the large-scale immersive theatre show for families The Lost Carnival. Just So Festival and Ramsbottom partnered in 2015 and 2016 to bring spellbinding immersive theatre for audiences in Bury and Crewe, pairing their strengths to create a new stream to extend the live experience, engaging digital, visual and sensory practices.

Just So Festival has gone on to plant an international sister festival, Just So Brazil. Kendal Calling has begun an immersive arts area within its festival as well as the new Blue Dot Festival, an extension of its previous work with Jodrell Bank, full of incredible arts.

We could not have imagined when we began the network that 18 months later we would have developed such supportive relationships, not only supporting our current work on our own festivals but leading to new and exciting collaborations and events.

The bigger picture is that it has changed the shape and perception of our organisations, both externally and internally – we all have much grander ambitions as a result.

The Northern Festivals Network presents: Underneath The Stars, 22-24 July; Cloudspotting, 29-31 JulyKendal Calling, 28–31 July; Just So Festival, 19-21 August; Festival No6, 1-4 September; and Ramsbottom Festival, 16-19 September

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