Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Getting OutThere with Seachange Arts in Great Yarmouth - A Volunteer's Perspective

Great Yarmouth is a resort with a history of circus that goes right back to 1903, when showman George Gilbert built The Hippodrome on the seafront. It still stands today, although now partly obscured from the road by an amusement arcade. In its day it saw performances from Houdini and Charlie Chaplin, and whilst most others have either disappeared or changed use (the famous London Palladium was originally built as a circus), only The Hippodrome remains to this day as a continuing indoor circus in the UK.

Seachange Arts, established in 1996, is now the UK's leading organisation for the development of European partnership projects in circus and street arts. Put simply, when they put on their free annual festival in the town it attracts the some of the best circus acts in the world, as well as its own home-grown talent. It also is committed to education, and encouraging local young people to become involved with Great Yarmouth's proud circus tradition.

This is the second year that I have volunteered to help out with the OutThere festival, and whilst I was not able to offer as much of my time as I did last year (not least because of my son's impending nuptuals next month), it is simply too big an event and too much fun to miss out on completely. Being involved with a festival is always so much more rewarding than simply turning up as part of the audience, and OutThere prides itself on creating an atmosphere whereby staff, performers and volunteers all exist as one, all based at The Drill Hall in York Road, and all sitting down to eat together, sharing experiences and forming friendships.

Much of the volunteer work involves publicity in the lead up to the festival, and this year saw me handing out festival brochures in Norwich market place accompanied by Cyril the Giant Snail, and mail-dropping to businesses in the city centre. Once over in Great Yarmouth I helped out with the filming of a circus seminar in St George's Theatre, assisted with the coning off the artists' parking area in The Beach Car Park, and laminated rota sheets in the Drill Hall offices.

The first of my proper stewarding roles came on the Friday once the festival programme was under way. The weather is always a huge concern with any outdoor event, and once you get into late September you can either be extremely lucky or unlucky. At our volunteer briefing on the Monday it was explained that there is no indoor option if it rains, and that the artists' safety has to be the paramount concern. With weather forecasts changing almost on an hourly basis, there was a real possibility that the weekend's timetable could be drastically amended, or even cancelled, if the rain became persistent or heavy.

Ironically, one of the first events on the Friday was a performance called 'Bring Me Sunshine' by local company 'Stuff & Things'. Starting from five different locations around the town dancers made their way through the streets and rows carrying portable PA systems concealed within rucksacks and suitcases. Synchronised to arrive simultaneously at the same secret location in the town centre (it was the Market Place), two more suitcases would be transformed into loudspeakers, and the dancers would break into a 'spontaneous' flashmob routine that would hopefully also involve volunteers and members of the public.

My role was to wait in the Market Square, with the loudspeakers, awaiting the arrival of the flashmob. Fortunately the rain eased once we left the Drill Hall, and whilst the town centre was not as busy as it might otherwise have been, the show was successfully climaxed with a rousing performance in front of the chip stalls.

Later that evening was an experimental show 'The Money' in The Tollhouse Museum, in which the audience had to debate, and unanimously agree within a given time limit, how to spend a specific sum of money based on the box office receipts (If they agreed the money was theirs, if they failed to agree the 'pot' rolled over to the next show). This was followed by a spectacular outdoor show by Italian company Ondadurto Theatre on Marine Parade. 'C'era Una Volta' (Once Upon a Time) was a spectacular multimedia performance drawing on favourite fairy tales as well as real life and fantasy. I missed both of these shows due to previous commitments in Norwich, but know that they were both hugely successful.

St George's Park was set up and ready for the off by noon on the Saturday, when a rolling programme of circus acts took place on the seven different pitches. In addition there was a street performance of 'The 'Oss and The Ox', a fusion of English and Brazilian culture represented by The Hobby Horse (featured in many traditional Morris dances) and the 'Bumba Meu Boi' (a bull that dies and comes back to life). Choreographed and performed by the Kate Flatt Company, some of you may have seen this last year as part of Norwich's Lord Mayor's Celebrations. There was also a variety of roaming street entertainment to stumble across, and a variety of food and drink stalls at the ever-popular 'Frog and Herring' at the far end of St George's Park.

By the time I arrived from Norwich to start my shift the weather was glorious, and was able to get a ringside view of the UK premier of 'Kermiz', performed by the Dutch company 'Le Cirque du Platzak', whilst stewarding. As it was one of the last shows of the afternoon there was a huge crowd, and everyone was jostling to get a good view. And not without good reason. This, for me was one of the highlights of the weekend, a glorious combination of traditional circus skills - balancing, wire walking, juggling, acrobatics and trapeze, mixed with comedy, music and glamour. The twelve performers were totally engaging, and the show was fast-paced and entertaining from start to finish.

Almost as soon as the afternoon programme was finishing, the anticipation for the evening's outdoor spectacular 'Les Tambours de la Muerte' (The Drums of Death) started to build, in part helped by a rousing Salsa-Afro-Balkan brass band performance on the green from the wonderful Kumpania Algazarra from Portugal. It certainly set the scene and the atmosphere for the start of a spectacular parade that, at 8pm, made it's way down Trafalgar Road to Marine Parade, before continuing along the seafront to a point by the SeaLife Centre. Accompanied by a masked band, billowing smoke, and lit with an eerie red glow from the fire flares, two larger-than-life ghostly skeletons danced their way through the crowds in a re-enactment of the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. Pausing along the way to allow the crowds to keep up, and diverting unpredictably into the melée itself, this was a real stewarding challenge as we tried to clear a path for the dancers and drummers, only for them to suddenly veer off in a completely different direction! At one point we found ourselves at the back of the parade instead of the front, and had to run through the back entrance of an amusement arcade in order to re-emerge on Marine Parade and re-take our places at the front.

Once safely escorted to the stage, the show continued with a spectacular musical backdrop and a stunning aerial acrobatic display, before ending with a huge firework display, The drummers and band then retraced their steps back up Marine Parade before disappearing into The Barking Smack for a well-deserve drink and to change. We continued back to the Frog and Herring, where Kumpania Algazarra entertained us again until last orders.

Sunday saw me placed on the seafront green by Amazonia to steward two shows. If anything, the weather was even finer than the Saturday, and whilst the acts on St George's Park performed to a fresh crowd of visitors I was able to watch the outdoor dance show '(I)Land', performed by Marc Brew Company from the UK, followed by Fullstop Acrobatic Theatre's performance of 'Outside The Box'. Both these companies produce entertaining, yet thought-provoking work that certainly benefited from being given performance space away from the hustle-bustle of the pitches of St George's Park.

To a mysterious and beguiling musical soundtrack the three performers of (I)Land explore a deserted island on which they find themselves abandoned. Through a series of beautiful and complex movements they have to share the space, as well as plan and attempt an escape from the island. Through working together they manage to build a sail-powered contraption from items buried in the sand, only to find that it will only transport two of the castaways, meaning that one has to be left behind. Performed on a set featuring a mast and a huge mound of sand, this show can be performed in city centres, but seemed particularly pertinent to the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth, as it explored themes of identity, isolation and independence. Totally mesmerising, and beautifully performed, and I am ashamed to admit that I did not realise choreographer and dancer Marc Brew is himself physically disabled, until he returned to his wheelchair at the end of the performance. Awesome.

Wibbe and Vicki Pompe from Belgium's Fullstop Acrobatic Theatre also provide a thought-provoking show with 'Outside The Box', an acrobatic display of strength, balance and agility that also serves to question, challenge and educate perceptions over gender stereotyping and expectations. Whilst performing a variety of acrobatic routines and stunts, including a death-defying balancing act on a white plastic chair, Vicki and Wibbe narrate a series of prejudiced and overtly generalised statements often made by one sex about the other, highlighting and mocking our own contemporary clichés. Later, in a three-part segment, consisting of The Beginning, The Middle and The End, Vicki takes us through a fact-filled timeline of the female birth, reproductive years, and menopause, pausing to highlight the importance of routine breast scanning and sometime need to amputate, contrasted with the increasing non-sensical clamour for elected breast enlargement. And all of this is performed by Vicki as she hangs upside down from a rope! The show ends with a beautifully performed aerial routine that touchingly reinforces the importance of shared love.

Although intended for audiences of ten years and over, the whole show was so thought-provoking that I do not believe that anyone would not want their younger children to watch it. Entertaining, yet at the same time incredibly valid.

And that was basically it for my involvement with this year's festival. I ended up back at St George's Park, carrying my collecting bucket as I had been all weekend. I caught parts of the performances from Dizzy O'Dare's 'Body of Wires'; had another chance to see part of the hilarious Wet Picnic's 'The Lift', an eccentric and surreal comdy act that had the whole audience in stitches; and a second peek at the final show from the wonderful Le Cirque du Platzak.

Will I be back next year? Who knows. I would certainly like to come back and spend a day just watching the amazing array of talent on display, but then I miss out on the cameraderie and sense of involvement from being part of the event. It would certainly be nice to see a few more people become involved as volunteers next year. Those who did make up this year's small but dedicated team did end up working incredibly long shifts. I only did a fraction of the hours that some of them put in, and I felt tired at the end of the weekend.

The truth is that the more of us that are in the team the more sociable it becomes. There simply were not always enough bodies to pair up for all shifts, meaning that some of us worked alone for several hours at a time. We were also doubling up as fund-raisers and 'friendly-smiley-hosts', yet the truth of the matter is that it is much harder to make eye-contact and engage with the public once they see you carrying a collecting bucket. It's a reflex response to 'Chugger's Syndrome', yet in the cases I saw where the performers assisted in the requests for donations the money flooded in. Just a thought, and an observation. Either way, the harsh reality is that the OutThere Festival costs a lot of money to put on, yet its ethos and primary aim is to remain free at the point of delivery (a bit like the NHS).

 Donations make a huge difference, although it would still require a gift of £20 from each and every visitor before the festival covered all of its costs. Thank you to each and every one of you that threw all the coins and banknotes into my bucket, and those of my fellow volunteers, over the weekend. Thanks to you, we will be back!

PS It is not too early to register your interest in volunteering for OutThere 2016. Send an e-mail to volunteering@seachangearts.org.uk , or call in at The Drill Hall in York Road. Bring along a friend, or just make new ones once you arrive!

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