Earlier this year Warwick Arts Centre advertised a touring triple bill of European shows, so being an unrepentant theatre nerd and also an EU citizen living in the UK I immediately booked a ticket (you don’t get to see international acts in the U.K. all that often, especially outside of London!). It was an amazing night: the quality of the performances was excellent and it was a much needed breath of fresh air in a performing arts scene which can often feel pretty insular. When I discovered that the programme originated with a week-long festival which takes place in Birmingham each summer and then tours its three best shows in the U.K. and Spain, I decided that I absolutely wanted to get involved – time and other commitments permitting. Flash forward to May: I have decided to * take the summer off to focus on my art * (read: have recently become unemployed), so when I see BE Festival’s call for volunteers I jump at the chance to * lend my skills to the project * (read: see lots of shows for free). The fact that I have some experience in marketing meant that I spent lots of time working with Cat Butler, the festival’s amazing Marketing and Communications Producer, and learnt some really interesting tidbits about how to organise an ambitious, international festival in the U.K. Cat also runs her own theatre company with Jess Barber, the festival’s Volunteer Cordinator, and she works as a freelance producer on other projects on top of that. I was super curious about Cat’s career and artistic practice and about the festival in general, and she kindly agreed to have a chat about it which you can read below!
Hello and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! First of all, could you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about what you do?
Hi! My name is Catherine and I am the Marketing and Communications Producer at BE Festival. I moved to Birmingham in 2013 to study Drama at the University of Birmingham and in 2016, while I was studying, I got an internship at BE Festival through my university. I really loved it – I had loads of fun and got stuck in lots of projects! I then interned for Birmingham Hippodrome and afterwards got a call from Sadie, BE Festival’s General Manager, asking me to join the team again as a Marketing and Comms Producer; I told her that I really wanted to accept but had to clarify that I had no marketing experience whatsoever! But Sadie assured me that I would learn on the job and had nothing to worry about so I accepted and have worked in this role ever since!
Amazing! So you’ve been involved in the festival for about three years – what does a typical BE year looks like?
The work really comes in waves – since all the team are freelance, for half the year everyone’s on a different timeline so you really have to motivate yourself to work independently and set your own deadlines. Starting from the beginning of July, we have the festival – that’s the peak of activity, everyone’s around from morning till night to make sure everything runs smoothly and also trying to have a bit of fun! After the festival we have about two weeks of evaluation where we come in and chat together as a team and work out what went well and what didn’t; all of that goes into the report for the Arts Council, one of our main sponsors. And then everyone disappears! For a while people work remotely or maybe come in just one day a week to work through emails. But then things start to pick up again because the U.K. tour and later the Spanish tour start so we have to make sure we have all the materials for that – posters, flyers, marketing copy – and send it out to the venues. We often make more content as well; for example, we might ask the artists to make a video for us in which they introduce their show. That part can get quite busy for me – the October-December period is generally pretty relaxed but as soon as December hits it gets really frantic; we tour about 13 venues in the U.K. and they all have different deadlines so I have to organise myself and stay on top of that.
Do you generally tour to the same venues every year?
It depends! We do tend to have some regulars: Jacksons Lane, a fantastic venue in Highgate (North London) which programmes mainly circus, usually have us every year; the same goes for Warwick Arts Centre and Harrogate Theatre. We actually tend to have a lot of northern and Midlands venues. Porl, our tour manager, usually sends out emails a few weeks before the festival asking programmers to come see the shows and consider programming Best of BE at their venues. We collaborate on that – he gets in contact with the venues and once that’s sorted he puts me in contact with their marketing departments so I can liaise with them about promotion.
By the time we hit January the pace really starts to pick up – that’s when we start designing the festival for that year so we work on getting a brief together and working out the look of the festival. After that we collaborate with our designers to create flyers and posters and start working on the brochure. Then we have to wait for the programme to be confirmed – as artists confirm their participation I have to contact them, get copy and images for their show, write the brochure… there’s a lot of to and fro and frantic emails! Once I have all of that information I also make sure that it goes up on the website so I hand it over to Alex, the Social Producer, and the Rep. We try to go on sale as soon as possible and to make sure people know what the programme is going to look like. Once the flyers and the posters arrive we hand them over to a distribution company which then completely plasters the West Midlands and we also send brochures out to our subscribers.
Another aspect of my job is PR – I really have to go into a different mode for this because it requires a lot of longform writing whereas marketing is more about short, accessible copy. As soon as I have all the information I start thinking about the angle of the story, the theme of the festival, and what is going to convince people to come! Once I have put a press release together I start sending it out and see who decides to pick it up. It’s really great to see journalists become interested in the festival and write articles about it – and of course the best part of it is seeing readers engaging with us and telling us they’ve discovered something new! But ultimately in both marketing and PR I get to convey my passion for experimental work and theatre in general and the community that gets built around BE – it’s a really amazing feeling that I can never tire of! You get to meet so many interesting people and everyone is open and friendly and you also get to see work that you wouldn’t normally get to for a really cheap price. And the dinner as well – I’m a big lover of food! I think the social aspect of the festival (including the gigs and DJ sets after the shows!) is one of my favourite parts – I really love talking to everyone and conversations naturally transition into topics like art and theatre and society and so much more. It’s a great way to learn about the city and the people who live in it but also about people who come from quite far away.
I can’t wait to experience that! But I happen to know that BE Festival is not the only project you work on – can you tell me what else you’re involved in?
I usually end up working for BE for about six months spread out over the year. A significant part of the time I have left goes into my own company – it’s called L Y N N E B E C and has been going for about two years. We just got accepted for the FORWARD! ARTS scheme so we’ll be making work for them at the end of this year. Working for BE has been really integral in how I and my colleague Jess run the company because we’ve gained an understanding of marketing, budgeting, setting up a business, approaching and phrasing things and in general being a procuder. I think if I’d come straight out of university and tried to do that immediately I would have really struggled – I really did need to build up the skills to become a businessperson as well as an artist, so in that respect BE has been an invaluable experience.
So are you and Jess the performers as well or do you have people that work for or with you?
Because we are such a young company we basically do everything ourselves! We are the makers, the performers, the artistic directors, the promoters… it’s great that there’s two of us because we can divide the jobs between us but we also share them very equally so we can both have a good overview of the overall project. The company is now really starting to pick up – we have begun to hold workshops for various organisations and we’ve also been commissioned to create work for MoonFest. The work for the company will usually take up about two days of my week, longer if we have a project coming up: in that case we need to get our heads together and come up with some ideas as well as communicate with stage managers and performers if required – we have a bank of performers that we can call upon for different projects so we do sometimes collaborate with other people. But the projects that we work on come in many different shapes and sizes so it really does depend on the individual piece. Most of our works take place in non-traditional theatre spaces like museums – we did a performance at the Lapworth Museum amongst rocks and fossils which was great because they were really open to our ideas and we got to move stuff around and experiment with it. We created a piece for The Arches in Bristol and one for the Barber Institute as well, using the spaces as an inspiration and a starting point each time. Now we’re working on creating a longer show that we can take on tour – I think both of us will slow down on the freelance jobs this year so we can focus on this and also on funding applications – another hat we have to wear!
That’s like five different hats at the same time!
Yeah, and that’s just what the arts are like at the moment – it’s such an interesting and dynamic industryto work in at the moment because you acquire many different skills. That said, it is very liberating to be able to hand some aspects over to another person sometimes because it’s one less thing to worry about!
Aside from L Y N N E B E C I do other freelance producing work – this year I’ll be producing an emerging playwright/director for a show called Martha which started as a BBC4 radio play and will now be presented at the Camden People’s Theatre in London and maybe go on tour. I work on lots of short projects which are still really interesting because I learn a lot from each of them and meet lots of fantastic people. For example, I have recently worked with a company called Fantabulosa! on their drag storytime show for kids – I helped them put the different parts of the show together and also acted as stage manager. That whole project was about spreading love and acceptance and glitter which was just amazing.
We all love a bit of glitter.
Yeah, as long as it’s biodegradable!
No, but in all seriousness this is all really interesting – it’s great to hear how different people ended up doing what they’re doing and actually really reassuring that not everyone who works in the arts started by getting a super cool producing job at the National Theatre straight after university or something terrifying like that.
Yeah, and as we were saying the other day it’s the small projects and the small interactions that then lead you to bigger projects. And also to be honest going straight to the super cool producing job at the National Theatre could be very tricky – you really do need to build the foundation and the skills for something like that rather than jumping into it immediately. Some people will say that you need to immediately hone in on what you want to do but I completely disagree – people are multifaceted and have different interests and especially in the arts you can do something for a while but then decide that you’d rather try something else for a bit. Being hyperfocused might mean that you shut down an avenue that you might like better – it would really suck to break your back trying to become a National Theatre producer and then realizing that actually you’d much rather be a stage manager!
That makes a lot of sense – I never know whether I will enjoy something until I try it so I really can’t wrap my head around focusing on only one thing without trying anything else. At one point I thought I might do a PhD and try the whole academia thing but eventually I realised it wouldn’t work for me – university taught me a lot but I realise that it wouldn’t have been the right path for me long-term.
And that’s a great thing to find out before you commit four more years of your life to it!
Absolutely! Okay, I will let you get back to your super interesting but super busy job very soon but I have two short final questions for you – first of all, what is your favourite BE memory so far?
My favourite BE show was in 2016 – it was a dance piece called Piccole Donne by Italian company TiDA which totally blew my mind. But then there was also Mufti Games – it was a show that I produced in 2016 which was essentially a massive outdoor battleship game for kids. It was not only super fun but it was also the first big project that I managed for BE which was a really great feeling. It was also how I got Jess involved in the festival – she came in and supported me with it. So overall 2016 was a really great year!
And lastly – what are you most looking forward to this year? It can be a show, a music performance, a workshop…
Ooh, that’s difficult – can I give you a couple of things?
Of course, I’m not a monster!
Okay, so I’m really excited to see PUNK‽ by Paula Rosolen – she’s a German choreographer who’s been here before and this year she’s presenting a piece which mixes contemporary dance with punk music and aesthetics. She’s going to wear a really amazing jumpsuit that I really want and there are going to be pogo sticks and live music on stage and overall just a fantastic energy. I’m also looking forward to Light Years Away by Edurne Rubio – she is a Spanish artist who will be creating an immersive experience that will turn audience members into cave explorers. I really love theatre that activates all the senses and transports you into another world so I’m super excited about this show! In terms of music I’m really looking forward to Glyn Phillips – he’s an amazing DJ who will guide us through the closing party. But all of the music programme is brilliant – Sam Redmore, Kiriki Club, Gathering Tides… all of it! I’m really looking forward to dancing a lot and I really hope you will join me!
Of course – see you on the dancefloor!
If you want to catch the last performances of BE Festival you can book tickets here – there’s a special matinee show at 12 and the last four shows, awards ceremony, dinner and afterparty start at 7 pm. Or you can catch the Best of BE 2019 show coming soon(ish) to a venue near you! I have really enjoyed working on the festival this year and have been taking sneaky behind the scenes pictures throughout – I’ll post them as soon as I have them developed alongside a top three/five shows from the festival type thing. Thank you to Cat for taking the time to chat to me, go follow her and L Y N N E B E C to learn more about the amazing work they’re making!