Earlier this year a friend from university who’d recently moved to Birmingham invited me to an event she was volunteering for – Poetry Jam, Beatfreeks’ monthly spoken word night. The atmosphere was fantastic and I got to hear lots of talented performers, so I started following Beatfreeks on social media, went to a couple more of their events, and gradually learned about their trademark mission to “use creativity for good”. In spring, they advertised their Southside Producers development programme, which enables a cohort of young producers to learn about the secrets of the trade from established professionals and to put on their own events. It sounded like exactly the kind of training I needed to take my career to the next level, but I thought there was no way in hell I would ever get in. I was wrong – after a short application and an interview with Eleni, who manages the programme, I was accepted into the 2019-2020 cohort, to my great delight.
Over the past few months we have been learning about everything we need to successfully produce an event, from research to risk assessment to marketing, and we’ve been working on the second edition of Beatfreeks’ Festival of Audacity, an annual showcase of activist art which will take place between 18 – 20 July. Eleni, our mentor, was in charge of leading the production of the festival, among many other things, but she still managed to take time out of her busy schedule to chat about her career as a producer, her work at Free Radical (one of the organisations within the wider Beatfreeks network), and how to take over Birmingham city centre with artivism for three days!
Hi! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview – first of all, how are you?
I’m very well, thank you! The festival hype is really starting to build up so I’m super busy but excited!
Awesome! Okay, let’s get started – could you maybe tell me a bit about yourself, your background and what you do?
Sure! My name is Eleni and while I was born and brought up in London both of my parents are Cypriots (although they met in the U.K.!). I lived in London for most of my life but moved to Birmingham about three years ago. I started my career doing theatre and costume design, then moved into production when I started collaborating with a company called Punchdrunk – this was in their early days before their big breakthrough with Faust at the National Theatre. I have always focused on immersive, alternative, off-site work, and after Punchdrunk I went on to work for several marketing companies which use experimental theatre tactics to activate people around brands – they call it “experiential marketing” but it’s really very similar to the artistic work I have done in other contexts. I carried on working in parallel in the marketing sector and with companies like Punchdrunk for quite a long time and then decided to do an M.A. in Producing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Although I’d been producing and delivering live events for a while I really wanted to take a year out and reflect on what the practice meant to me and why I wanted to do it as well as what it means to be a producer in today’s landscape. I think what came out of that was an understanding that I felt really deeply about the sensory landscape that audiences experience both during and before the event in the marketing phase, and I also found myself thinking about what it was that I wanted to communicate to audiences and why I wanted them to see the work I produced. Ultimately I realised that I really wanted to interweave the human features of a performance with the spectacle elements of it. After my M.A. I found myself in Birmingham – before coming to Beatfreeks I delivered the outdoor programme of the Birmingham International Dance Festival in 2018.
And now here we are! You are Lead Producer for Free Radical which is part of Beatfreeks – could you tell me about what your role entails and what projects you work on?
Free Radical have a wide remit which include platforming opportunities, events, training opportunities and more – I tend to focus on certain specific projects. First there’s Festival of Audacity – I’m in charge of producing it but also working out what its long-term impact and development will be: since it’s only in its second year we really have to think about how to make it sustainable. I also lead on the Southside Producers training programme which involves devising the actual structure of the sessions and inviting speakers that can share their expertise with the group. I also oversee the Birmingam Artivists In Training programme (BAIT) and support other members of the team on other Free Radical projects such as Change24, an artist development programme in Bromsgrove… So I have lots of smaller projects to work on in addition to the core programme.
Sounds really interesting! But I want to go back to Festival of Audacity for a moment – I’m really curious about what it takes to put on an event like this, so could you briefly go through the main phases of planning and what you need to do for each?
Of course! So the first phase requires a lot of research – it consists in working out the main ideas for the festival and ascertaining their feasibility as well as working out the timeline; many aspects of this phase will then be linked to the evaluation which happens later on. Then there’s the planning phase: plotting the timeline of when things will happen, who needs to be involved, when they will have to be hired. An essential aspect of this phase is fleshing out the core teams who will work on different aspects of the festival as well as deciding which artists will be involved. For Festival of Audacity we have open calls but we might also invite specific artists or companies; once we have worked out who we’d like to include we start to negotiate the terms and details of their involvement. We then draft contracts which set out payment agreements – this applies both to artists and to other potential external collaborators like marketing and PR freelancers. Then we have to start contacting and negotiating with potential venues and partners – our Head of Partnerships Amy has been amazing in getting organisations involved to support the programme in various ways: they might sponsor a specific performance or provide some support in kind or even help out on with the whole festival! We need to work out the details of these relationships and come up with a communication plan which essentially details how and when the partners will talk to each other. We will also work on designing each experience and getting a sense of the overall framework, taking the plans set out in the research phase as a starting point. For example, this year we have programmed a few pieces that will take place on buses, which obviously required a lot of work in terms of logistics and of the support we needed from our partners – all of these relationship come into focus and become more detailed as the programme takes shape.
Then there is the delivery phase, which doesn’t just involve the festival weekend itself but also the few weeks preceding it. A crucial aspect of this phase consists in finalizing the event management plans, which are essentially packs of documents that we provide to each venue, artist and partner and include risk assessments, liability insurance, schedules… it’s a very comprehensive resource which includes all the details relating to the delivery of the event. The marketing and communications plan runs in parallel: it involves social media, direct marketing, PR…
Throughout all the phases we’ll also be thinking about the evaluation – what do we need to record? How do we do that? For Beatfreeks specifically it’s really important to be driven by young people so we’ve been having conversations with them throughout the planning process and made sure that their voices are heard and some of the events are co-created with them; for example, the opening night will involve BLAB, a format which allows participants to share their thoughts on various important issues and break down the traditional barriers between speakers and audiences. But we have also involved professional critics of various ages to do some peer reviewing – we’ve invited three from each main area in Birmingham to make sure we’re not just living in our own bubble but are reaching out to a wide variety of people. And then there’s more traditional evaluation stuff concerning how we record the number of attendees, what forms we need to fill out…
Thank you, this is all really detailed and interesting! In terms of timings, when would the research phase need to start for a project like this? How long does it take to put the festival together?
For an annual festival you basically have to start again as soon as the last edition has finished! We’re going to take a little bit of time to do some evaluation and then start working on the next edition straight away.
Wow, so it really is a big project! Okay, we’re almost at the end of our interview but first I want to ask my classic final questions – first of all, could you share your favourite Beatfreeks memory so far?
In February I helped stage manage the sixth anniversary edition of Poetry Jam, Beatfreeks’ monthly spoken word night; it took place at Town Hall which was really special – it was obviously a culmination of many years of work and support from the community but I didn’t know exactly what the dynamics of the space were going to be like. About 500-600 people turned up and I remember thinking that the energy was amazing – everyone was really warm and connected and comfortable. Watching the poets walk up to this big stage and open up their heart and soul and being welcomed by an audience which obviously knew how to make an artist feel safe and supported was great, and it was also interesting to see the contrast between a big stage which could look quite intimidating and the welcoming, familiar atmosphere built by the artists and the audience.
I completely agree – I was there and funnily enough that was my first Poetry Jam! I’ve actually found myself in the big selfie we took that night and obviously I’m wearing the most horrible outfit I own. But jokes aside it was a great introduction to the Poetry Jam format and I remember really liking the atmosphere.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that, what a coincidence! Yeah, Poetry Jam always has really good vibes. Have you been to Waylands Yard [the usual Poetry Jam venue] as well?
I have, yes! It’s interesting how the dynamic changes a bit in a smaller space but it’s always really warm and familiar.
I’ve recently been to Zeddie’s last Poetry Jam as Head of Community for Beatfreeks – it was really emotional and everyone thanked her for everything she’s done to help young people feel confident and grow. That to me is really invaluable – of course it’s part of the job but it’s fantastic to see the wider effects of your efforts and how many people benefit from your work.
Absolutely. Okay, last question – what are you most looking forward to see at Festival of Audacity? Of course we’re all super excited about everything but is there a part of the programme that’s particularly close to your heart?
I’m going to give you three or four things because I can’t possibly choose just one! First of all there’s Two Women, a VR experience taking place on a bus in which audiences will become part of a moment of affection and intimacy between a couple. I’ve been talking to the artists about how they want to transport the audience into this setup and I’m intrigued to see what happens – there’s something about the spectator starting out as a voyeur but then becoming one of the women for a moment that I’m really curious about. I’m also interested in the sensory aspect of the experience – how the different elements of being on a bus but also having this VR experience as part of an audience interact.
I’m also really excited about another piece that will take place on a bus – Sonder, which will use silent disco headsets to allow audiences to tune into different stories of those who have come into contact with Bus 50. I find it really interesting to challenge audiences with pieces that they don’t expect to see in their everyday landscape and I believe we tend to underestimate what people can cope with so I think we’re going to see some great interactions.
I’m also really interested in the Bullring as a performance space in general – it’s usually a really busy shopping area which we’re going to fill with amazing artists who are going to perform thought-provoking (and free!) performances – we’re really going to flip the dynamics of the space and I’m excited to see how that will pan out!
Finally, I’m really looking forward to the closing event – Lowkey’s performance is going to be very raw and have a lot of vibrant political energy that we’re not going to try and edit in any way. I think it’s really important to give people space to explore political topics freely and audiences are going to be able to do that through the performances and other aspects of the event.
Festival of Audacity starts on Thursday 18th July with an excellent opening night, continues on Friday and Saturday afternoon with a FREE menu of pop-up performances in Birmingham city centre (but you can also book a ticket for the tour if you don’t want to miss any events!), and finishes with a ridiculously cool afterparty on Saturday 20th July featuring performances from Lowkey and Lady Sanity as well as a bunch of great workshops. Come check it out!