Words Vaneesha Ritchie
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
Kate Anderson isn’t simply engaged in her role as Director of the Bloomsbury Festival, she’s totally immersed in it. Facts and thoughts and ideas and their interconnections come tripping off her tongue, thick and fast and relevant. There’s a lot of information, but it’s all part of the process: focus, not whimsy. So by the time we part – hell, barely half way through the interview – I really, really want to go to the Bloomsbury festival this year.
Kate was born and went to school in Hastings, East Sussex, where “drama was the only thing [she was] any good at,” so she went on to study it full-time and gain her Equity card. Her first job was working ‘front of house’ in a local theatre. Having been brought up in a hotel, running around front and backstage felt like coming home. Having found an environment she was happy in, Kate swiftly progressed through the ranks, gaining experience in different roles in the theatre and finding each one more exciting and challenging than the last. As administrative director at the Nuffield Theatre her job included the ambitious organising, scheduling and logistics of an EU-funded four-year programme of street arts involving groups from France and the UK. Now, all these threads have come together in her role as Festival Director.
The aim of the Bloomsbury Festival this year is to go one better than the previous one. Last time, it was about showcasing the locale – the work that goes on in the area, the diversity of its inhabitants – and this year they want to amplify it, scale it up, write it large and make it a unique and cutting-edge event. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘language’, so a ‘creative lab’ has been set up, bringing together individuals in the area from disparate disciplines and seeing what happens. The cast of one of these creative labs sounds like a madcap production in itself. From the world of theatre – tumbling in from stage left in a riot of colour – we have a choreographer, a digital curator, someone from the Bureau of Silly ideas and a performance poet. From stage right – ponderously swaying, wrapped in the mists of time – we have the contingent from the British Museum: a keeper of ancient Mesopotamian script, the head of learning, a Babylonian writing specialist and a Rosetta stone expert. Finally, from SOAS (the School of African Studies) – nimbly tiptoeing amongst them all, looking and listening with exaggerated movements – come an epidemiologist, a specialist in computer language, a researcher into the sexual language of teenagers and an archivist of endangered languages. Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on that wall? Well, in a way you can – the results, whatever on earth they might turn out to be, will be on show at this year’s festival – organic, avant garde, exciting and unpredictable.
Another developing idea is the Coram song cycle, responding to the stories of 12 people from the community and retelling them in music. It will take place in Coram’s fields to celebrate it’s 80th anniversary, with choirs, orchestras and local people performing, all tutored by professionals. Audience members will be able to move off and physically follow whichever story takes their fancy.
Bloomsbury’s demographics make it a perfect spot in London to mine for fresh ideas. Only 48 per cent of the area’s residents were born in the UK – the London Borough average is 63 per cent. You can practically hear the organisers rubbing their hands in glee – they have virtually the whole world to play with! One particular aspect that has influenced this year’s theme – along with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary and the SOAS centenary – is the fact that Bloomsbury is more linguistically diverse than average, with 12 languages besides English spoken by at least 100 residents. It’s worth noting that, even with all these diverse small communities, only two per cent of area’s residents speak no English whatsoever, which means they tend to be willing and able to join in and become part of the wider Bloomsbury community.
Kate herself admits that by calling something a ‘community festival’ the assumption is that aspirations are low. That assumption, though, would be wrong, and disproving it is partly why Kate Anderson is at the helm: her knowledge of all aspects of theatre, her contacts in that world, and her own reputation mean that she can call out the big guns and they will come, allowing the festival to take place on the scale it deserves, with professionals, artists and communities all at the vanguard. Bill Gee, a highly experienced producer, programmer and arts consultant with expertise in large scale, walkabout, street-based and visual productions, and Orit Azaz, an artistic director and creative thinker with an international reputation for working in cultural and community settings, are both artistic associates of the festival this year.
Of course, ambition and large-scale thinking alone are not enough: there has to be money. The Bedford Estates, the largest private landowner in the area, has not only given financial backing but has been instrumental in garnering support for the festival from other local business by quickly grasping and communicating the essential concept of supporting and embracing the communities it is designed to serve. Further core funding comes from Camden Council, the University of London and a number of other Bloomsbury-based institutions, while project funding comes from the Wellcome Trust and other foundations and sponsorship from local businesses and individuals.
Hearteningly, the lessons learnt from last time around were that the hackneyed clichés of other festivals – loud, with bad music, and half-hearted stalls selling things you don’t want – simply don’t work here. The things that did go well were all original and inclusive without being po-faced and patronising. Indeed last year’s Light Up Store Street event was a case in point. Inspired by the design of the ‘Karachi bowl’ used in traditional Bangladeshi cookery, fire sculptures were lit, mime artists and musicians took up residence in local shop windows, and street food and mulled wine were on offer. It was so successful and enjoyable that the Store Street shops want to do the same again – but Kate has convinced them that they can do even better. We’ll see what they come up with. I get a sense that this is what Kate and the Bloomsbury Festival are aiming for all the time: learning from the past and taking creative risks while harnessing the skills and talents of people who can deliver a great experience for everyone. Hopefully, the result will see Bloomsbury as a whole is represented, with its diverse residents helping write a new page in the area’s rich cultural heritage.