City of performers

Natalie Smith is a creative producer at Boomtown Fair, a massive music festival in the UK that programmes DJs, street theatre, circus and carnival acts. Taking place 10-13th August, each edition of the festival is presented in “Chapters” as part of a larger “Storybook” (see the story so far here), this year’s story is Behind the Mask.
Programming Boomtown Fair isn’t just about finding the best acts for the main stages, but creating a talent incubation system that encourages new acts to try their hands at creating immersive performance experiences by turning their venues and stages into destinations themselves. These mini worlds are all housed in myriad streets that make up districts in a dystopian metropolis. It’s a complex strategy that works; thousands of festivalgoers head to Winchester each year to absorb themselves in Boomtown’s weird and wonderful world. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Interview by Patrick Roberts
Wild West at Boomtown © Cal Tristan
Wild West at Boomtown © Cal Tristan

IAM: What does it take to make Boomtown Fair happen?
Natalie Smith: A very creative team, we’re all very open to different ideas, keeping up to date with new work coming out, listening to people’s ideas and exploring and following up on anything that we find exciting.

IAM: How do you fill the street venues with performers?
It has changed over the years. Initially a lot of applications come through our website but frequently, if we’re familiar with a particular collective, we help them adapt their usual format to a theatrical offering. Over the years it has been great to see these collectives evolve from little jungle nights or raves to fully-fledged immersive venues at Boomtown, equipped with the capacity to hold their own auditions.

This year we worked more closely with the individual venues that are part of Boomtown on their creative development. This approach has enabled them to take the lead on their own projects. It has been an incredible journey so far and we’re really looking to push that forward and find more people to work with for future festivals. It’s important to get new projects for each Chapter of Boomtown – even if we only get a few. So that may well be through an application on the website, or via a recommendation from one of our crew members, or even by taking collectives, splitting them apart and allowing them the opportunity to develop off-shoot projects.

The Old Town
The Old Town

IAM: How are you trying to move forward with the creative development of new artists?
We try and develop new artists via assistance with production, their budget or simply by giving tickets to Boomtown. For the creative directors at Boomtown, the devil is in the detail. What this means is that producers have had to adapt when they work with us. This means they open their venues during the day for the immersive programme and change at night to host live music.

The daytime programme allows us really engage well with the audience. Now that we’re on “Chapter Nine”, everyone involved in the creative output of the festival has really had to nail the story. Now all of the producers know exactly what they’re talking about, and within the format of a music festival we can work out ways of weaving a theatrical narrative into the event.

So for example within Boomtown we have districts like you might see in any major metropolis. The districts are all part of the story. Chapter Nine of Boomtown is Behind the Mask and brings out the story of Bang Hai Industries. The city has developed and the new shiny “Bang Hai Towers” replaces the “Palace” venue that was main focus in the previous chapters.

IAM: Who is ultimately in charge of the creative development: Boomtown or the venues that participate in the festival ­– and is there ever a risk that too much creative input could dilute the overall story?
We manage this by having an overarching story, which we direct, and then we have a district identity, which all of the venues feed into. So really the process for creating the festival kind of works from the top down and the bottom up (with all contributions organically feeding into one another). Artists and producers can come to us with ideas, we might agree or we might say, “That doesn’t work for that district, maybe you’d like to move to another district?” Or they may even change their ideas to fit in the storyline of that district.

It’s a really fine line, as obviously there has to be an essence of creative control, but you also want to give the venues creative autonomy so they feel ownership over what they produce – and the venues have some amazing ideas! However, we do ask that they try not to completely run away with these small threads, because if all the venues did that then the overarching storyline would become diluted and it would be really hard to understand exactly what is going on.

IAM: Does the story change to reflect the changes in society and current affairs?
Bang Hai Towers is now an icon of the media centre and broadcast stronghold for Boomtown. For this we are using digital content to bring it up to speed, it taps into that vibe of mass advertising. We’ll be unveiling the new venue at the festival, so I have to keep that secret for now.

IAM: Do the artists, venues and producers you work with grow with the festival?
NS: Everyone who contributes to the festival is amazing, but I have a few personal favourites. We have a venue called the Red Ration, based in District 5. In the five years I’ve been at Boomtown, I’ve seen them go from a venue with three small windows, to a fully-fledged two-floor event, with a massive frontage and a balcony frontage as well. It is now filled with performances all day and night and they even have a venue called “The Cadbury’s Tent” at the back. We plan to increase their performance space by adding an LGBT+ area. Another example is Alan’s venue in Chinatown, which has expanded from a small party tent to “Alan’s Bang Hai Studio”, which is open in the daytime to do various game shows. Likewise, Pirate Crew’s in the Old Town is a fantastic sideshow that will be rebranded as “Thomas Crook”.

To make the concept work seamlessly we ask venues to link up and chat to one another during the planning stages. At big artist meetings we create small threads to link the storyline with the venues and the audiences across the festival experience. For example, at previous chapters the Pirate Crew have sent people over to the central bank to exchange golden nuggets for real money.

IAM: How do you build the story? Is it preplanned years in advance or is each Chapter responsive to what is happening in the world?
NS: I’d like to say we have a plan but we don’t. Our story mirrors the real world, we never directly reference it, but obviously there’s a lot of links that comment on society. We make do our research so we know what we’re talking about and where we’re coming from. Also, the crew changes to some extent each year. Some threads fall and some grow. We prefer for it to evolve and keep it interesting, fun and exciting.

Jody Hartley_Bang Hai