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  • Writer's pictureSteph Weller

Reading Fringe - reflections on an award-winning Festival!

Usually a significant portion of my year from January onwards is given over to the programming and production of Reading Fringe Festival - a 10 day festival of over 100 events, delivered across a dozen venues or more. I know that, come June, although each day will involve the usual producer's life of emails, schedules, spreadsheets and so on, the majority of each day I will be on my feet, dividing my time between site visits, team meetings, steward briefings, production meetings, and so on. I will be hot and I will be exhausted - we all will be - but there'll be a big shiny festival to show for it.


We were - like so many others - in full festival planning mode when Covid hit. And as lockdown loomed, we knew we had to make a decision - take a year off, or find a way to (quickly!) move our festival online. Like so many festivals, we wanted to find a way to support as many artists as possible, whilst also continuing to support our small but hugely dedicated team of freelancers. So in consultation with our artists, the team took the decision to go digital and applied for emergency funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. And whilst we waited to hear, we set about planning.

Now I'll admit - I'm not (or I wasn't!) a great fan of watching stuff online. I don't spend hours trawling YouTube, and although I'll watch NT Live at the cinema, the thought of watching it on my laptop did NOT appeal. But I had to assume not everyone was as old-fashioned as me...

As one of the first festivals in the country to go digital, we had to grapple with the now commonly asked questions about taking art online: How do we reach, attract and engage an online audience? How do we support our artists to deliver their work digitally? How do we create a programme that is more accessible than any we've delivered previously? And how do we keep that festival spirit alive, so it feels like a festival not just a bunch of recorded programmes?

Although we knew that pre-recorded events would be a key feature of the festival, enabling audiences to access work for longer and at a time convenient to them, we also knew that a live element was critical for keeping that Festival feeling alive. So we settled on a 6 week festival that would kick off with a 10 day programme of live and "as live" events. Thanks to the ACE funding, we were able to create a platform that supported live streaming directly from our site, and offered a secure option for ticketed events so that artists could decide whether to charge for access or request donations.

Although as a team we hadn't had to deliver a digital programme of this scale before, a couple of us were able to draw on our experience working with the team behind the frankly amazing All the Web's a Stage charity fundraiser, instigated by the brilliant Paul Virides, of Iris Theatre. This hugely ambitious undertaking saw a whole host of freelancers and artists donate their time to curate and deliver a 12 hour live stream of performances in aid of three charities raising funds for our covid-hit industry. Launched in March and delivered in April, it must have been one of the UK's very first live stream fundraising initiatives of this scale. We learnt a lot in a short space of time and we were able to transfer some of these learnings to the Festival.

We knew this wasn't just a steep learning curve for us - we wanted to make sure our artists were prevented from participating by their own inexperience or nervousness. A detailed written briefing was sent to all our artists, so they knew what to expect, and providing tips for filming, uploading and accessibility. In addition, each live artist had a tech session via Zoom with myself, our artist liaison manger Sarah Stuffins and our tech manager Liam O'Brien of AV Events. This not only ensured we were well-prepared for what would be needed, it also allowed us to provide reassurance to the artists and managed expectations on both sides. A digital event manager was crucial for the smooth running of each event.

Reading Fringe Digital kicked off with a 10-day programme of live events to create that festival buzz, inviting audiences and artists to visit together and connect each day. Our live line-up included all female queer improv troupe Hell Yeah!, storytelling comedy with Tales of Whatever, and a daily roster of panels exploring topics such as Creating work from Real Life, Digital and Dance, and Adapting Work in Lockdown. A collaboration with LIVR, provided a roster of films in 360 degrees, allowing audiences to experience theatre as if from the front row. This included Koko Brown’s White and Oncomm Award Winner Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with the man that used to hit her).

Our commissioned events included international collaboration Love, Sex and Zombies; Pip and Pearl: Planet Protectors an interactive family adventure with an environmental message (that was a total pivot from the children's show originally planned!); Natalie Barney’s Last Salon, a digital adaptation of a piece originally performed at The Globe; and Crayola’s Rainbow, a digital drag show for children and families. In addition, pre and post Festival programming of free content such as Creative Coffee and gardening series The Potting Shed (delivered in collaboration with BCA: Berkshire College of Agriculture) allowed us to build and retain an audience for our digital offering.

Working with access advisor and captioner Vicky Berry and audio describer Roz Chalmers enabled us to deliver a more accessible programme than we've achieved previously. Over 60% of our content was live or closed-captioned. We also had three audio described photography exhibitions - the descriptions not only improving access but providing another layer of beauty to the artists' work.

The festival reached over 12,000 households, across six continents. We partnered with SceneSaver and Reading Culture Live to provide further platforms and visibility for our artists and their work. The icing on the cake was being awarded the inaugural OffWestEnd (Offie) ONEOFF award.

Although nothing beats the experience of being in a room with live performers and a live audience, the nature of being online met the team were able to meet many more of the artists in person via Zoom - a luxury we don't often get. It meant that myself and the production team felt connected to the artists in a way we don't usually experience. I loved this and wish that it were possible each year.

Looking ahead who knows what the future of festivals is - but I'm hopeful that we'll retain the learnings and benefits from this year (particularly around access), and I'm confident a blended approach to programming and delivery will be a key feature of many festivals going forward.

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