On a hot sticky Thursday night in June 2010, in the upstairs room at the Golden Lion Tap, I was po-going to an XTC track to introduce The Smoking Show. This was my first performance at Barnstaple TheatreFest, my first performance of the show and a very nervous sweaty experience. I needn’t have been nervous but I was certainly going to be sweaty for the rest of the baking hot three days that June. The welcome from everyone at TheatreFest has always made performing a very comfortable experience.
I realised with this show one of the secrets of TheatreFest was the audience when a great old chap at the bar (I later found out his name was “Cider Paul”) offered me a joke to include in the show (I can’t remember if I put it in or not). He was an indication of the kind of audiences that were at the festival.
On the Friday, sitting in the fish and shop across from the Queen’s Theatre, I overheard a teenager in the next booth explaining something to his mum on the phone. “Nah mum, I’m going to see some theatre! I’ll be back once I’ve seen it! It’s only four quid and lasts for an hour.” And he put on his baseball cap and left. What he was going to see I don’t know but he summed up the attitude of the festival.
Barnstaple is a celebration of theatre in all its forms. Being not curated means there is something for everyone and there’s not the “this is theatre because we tell you it is” attitude which some other festivals have. I still talk about shows I’ve seen at the festival, amongst them the Japanese clown, mime, one-man performance of Richard the Third; White Hippos explaining the banking crisis with a bag of Revels; Autojeu with their rather bizarre mime of a photocopier in How To Climb Mount Everest; the simplicity of the storytelling in The Only Punk Rocker In The Village; the curious walking tour Together with a headset filled with unusual thoughts and an actress guide and the claustrophobic seven minute long performance For Jimmy.
Barnstaple TheatreFest is an inspiration and it’s for this reason that I took the model and used it to set up the Stroud Theatre Festival, eight years ago. Every time I go to Barnstaple I see another new idea which we could or will use for our festival and steal it – “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
With my company Spaniel in the Works I’ve been to Barnstaple 7 times over the last 10 years performing everything from family comedies to serious dramas and always found the festival to be welcoming from the volunteer front of house staff to the wonderful technicians to other performers to the very kind people who put up with a host of odd performers staying in their homes.
I’ve also made good friends – not just with other performers – but with technicians, front of house and of course Bill and Gill whose inspiration and drive carries TheatreFest forward and in new directions. It’s very sad that we won’t be performing this year and I hope that after things resettle we will be able to experience TheatreFest again under whatever the “new normal” is.