Fierce Festival 2019 / Birmingham, UK / 15 – 20 October

Wunderbar Festival ignites the North East

Since the middle of 2008 I’ve got very used to the lengthy cross-country train journey between Birmingham and Newcastle, and also between London and the North East (which irritatingly, is significantly shorter – why do those cross-country trains go at the speed of a hackney cab in rush hour?). The reason – I’ve been working as Executive Director alongside Ilana Mitchell, delivering the inaugural Wunderbar Festival, the first of which took place from November 6th – 15th 2009.

Fierce won a tender from Arts Council England back in early 2008 to scope out the feasibility of a new Live Art Festival in the North East, so we spent the first six months or so in deep and rigorous consultation with local artists, organisations, agencies and regional authorities, together with masses of research and things like audience development plans. Result – yes, a festival could certainly work and make a real difference, and we got incredibly positive buy in from the amazingly rich and fertile artistic community in Newcastle and the wider North East. The challenge was to set something up that was unique not just to the North East, but anywhere in the UK, and that audiences and artists would want to be part of and truly get involved in.

The journey over the past 18 months has been nothing less than remarkable. Fun, knackering, joyful, enriching, a massive learning experience and absolutely bloody brilliant to be at the very beginning of something that you truly believe to be that good. Working with organisations as diverse as the Baltic, Sage, Theatre Royal and Royal Shakespeare Company, through to some of the brightest, most individual and inventive artists you could wish to meet was a joy. Here are some images of the events we had at Wunderbar, and as you can see there was everything from Big Green Lizards (well, one lizard actually), to beautiful gallery installations with hundreds of tiny lights and mirrors that you could walk on and make dance, to the opportunity to make work with real people in real houses and flats – and then open it up those same homes up to the public for a whole series of performances.

So what were the highlights for me? Well… The opening party for starters  – a ‘Vogue Ball’ (going to that Madonna concert, though ludicrously expensive, did help with my moves…) that took place in an NCP car park in the middle of the city that I’d seen looking exactly like a car park at 5 o’clock, but which by the time I went back to the party two hours later had been transformed into a magical, other worldly, techno place that made you feel you were in the newest avant garde club in The Bowery; there was The People Speak, where we had everybody debating for two highly charged hours – bankers, students, shop assistants, actors –to decide how the box office takings for that night would be spent (it’s actually going to build a water pump for a remote village in Zambia where one of the audience members had been working as a volunteer – a worthy cause; then there was sitting in peoples’ homes experiencing in all sorts of ways their remarkable stories.

Who Wants To Be…? The People Speak from Wunderbar Festival on Vimeo.

You might wonder how it can possibly work, but it totally did. Working with Ilana Mitchell, my co-director, was an inspiration, and the start of a journey that I know will see us working together on loads of things in the future. Fabulous woman! Oh, and how could I forget…? Ending up on a Sunday afternoon with a red Mohican, asymmetrically cut (I’m just the wrong side of 50, so you probably get the picture…) that was the result of a haircut by two delightful nine year olds – Megan and Kyle (who decided that my Mohican should henceforth be known as ‘The Kyle Style’ and clearly sees it having the success of ‘The Purdey’ or ‘The Farrah Fawcett’ of the 80s – well, I did say I was old enough to remember those days, sadly).

Other unforgettable moments included myself and a journalist from The Guardian  being dressed up in a pink tutu in homage to Mavis Cruett of Willo The Wisp as part of Pop Sandwich; attending a performance inside a wardrobe and seeing people of all ages from children through to pensioners in Eldon Square (Newcastle’s city centre shopping precinct)  getting totally involved in dialogue with Rajni Shah, and each other, in Give What You Can…

The marketing side of me is hugely proud that we got well over half a million pounds worth of press coverage, including things like BBC Newsround (which featured my Mohican) and most of the nationals, but also that our partners in the organisations across the North East, and the artists too, all gave Wunderbar a big thumbs up and want to be part of it again. As for audiences, some great feedback, and also with my marketing hat on – smashed targets with sellouts ahead of opening week and brilliant recall of our branding and promotional campaign. OK… I can see I’m starting to sound like someone from Marketing Week now, so I’ll shut up and save something for the next blog.