I love the annual Garden Party in Chapelfield Gardens. It is the BIG free event of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and if the weather is kind to us it provides two whole days of atmospheric entertainment in the middle weekend of festival fortnight. For the public it is a chance to chill out in the city centre's park, enjoy free world-class outdoor performances, and take advantage of the wide range of food and drink stalls (or just bring a picnic). For the event managers and the health and safety team it is the biggest single challenge of the fortnight, but for us, the volunteers, it is a chance to wear the blue t-shirts with pride, get involved with the shows and the public, and have a catch up with what we have all been up to since the festival started.
It is the weather that can make or break any outdoor summer event, and the Garden Party is no different. All week the forecasts have been changing on almost an hour by hour basis as frontal systems and showers spin their way almost randomly on their journey east, only to veer north or south at the last minute and so avoiding Norfolk. Saturday is actually warm, and although the cloud cover hangs overhead the strength of the sun can still be felt. Sunday promises even better.
I am here both days, with shifts that start at 10.00am and finish at 5.30pm. In addition, I am doing a one hour shift on Saturday at the Spiegeltent box office, which I am hoping will qualify me for admission for the sold-out White Nights show at 7.30pm, and possibly Broken Back as well later at 10.00pm. But first I need to muster with the rest of the Saturday crew for our morning briefing with the event managers.
There is always a large volunteer presence at the Garden Party, mainly it sometimes seems just to point out the nearest toilets (which is a challenge, seeing as the council have thoughfully locked the only public conveniences in Chapelfield Gardens), but also being a public point of contact for queries on event timings, lost children, and ticket availability for the rest of the Festival. We are normally paired up and allocated to a particular show pitch, sometimes rotated and sent to cover each others' lunch breaks. For the Saturday I spend the morning with GlassHouse Dance who perform their pop-up show 'Us' in front of the market on Gentleman's Walk before moving to Chapelfield Gardens. In the afternoon I am moved onto Bureau Detours' 'DENNIS Design Centre', where members of the public are being invited to help make items of furniture to help brighten up the park.
A GlassHouse love story
'Us' is a delightful show performed by Luke and KJ from Norfolk-based GlassHouse Dance, and which simply and effectively plots the time-line of a blossoming romance between two young people. It is comic and touching, and performed with a warmth and a feel-good factor that draws an audience in. Starting with a few simple placards and strategically placed bunches of flowers Luke and KJ have soon attracted a spellbound crowd of Saturday morning shoppers. They prove just as popular in Chapelfield Gardens, where every show stays spontaneous and works to each location and audience.
Bureau Detours have been present in Chapelfield Gardens all week working with discarded pallets to set up a construction site for their DENNIS Design Centre. Over these two days the remaining pallets will be crafted into benches, tables and chairs by the team of carpenters and artists, ably assisted by super-volunteer Richard, and involving Mums, Dads, children, and anyone else from the Garden Party guests that cannot resist the lure of a power-tool or the smell of sawdust in the morning. It is amazingly popular, and as stewards we are charged with managing expectations from those eager to participate. We can only allow a few participants onto the site at any one time and, once in, their enthusiasm and creativity often results in a slow turn-over. However, for the lucky few there is the pride and satisfaction in having built something that is functional, if not particularly easy to carry home on the bus.
B&B - DENNIS style
And, in between, we are expecting a performance from the Aurora Orchestra. Conducted by Nicholas Collon, members of the orchestra are due to perform, from memory, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This attracts a large crowd, and the timing of their performance requires some fine calculations to ensure that they do not get drowned by the amplified sound systems from any other shows. What we have not calculated for, though, is the emerging bright sunshine which now threatens to dazzle the performers or de-tune the sensitive instruments. There is a last minute switch to the shade of a nearby tree involving the re-locating of the already seated audience, accompanied by a degree of muttering and puttering from those in the front rows, but the performance is undoubtedly one of the most moving and picturesque moments of the whole festival. Quite magnificent for those lucky enough to regain pole positions, but the sound carried right the way across to even where I was standing guard over the discarded instrument cases and jackets of the orchestra members.
Aurora in the shade
'Urban Astronaut' is a street-theatre performance that is more about averting environmental disaster than it is space travel. The astronaut is propelled through the park attached via a harness to a large crane, representing his search for answers. It is a journey through Chapelfield Gardens that also has the potential for members of the public to be accidentally kicked by a revolving space boot, or hit on the head by an 80kg steel beam. After successfully negotiating a tree, a mini roundabout and a bandstand, our hero chances upon a young girl tending the plants in a post-apocolyptic space station. Fear and distrust makes way for mutual recognition and respect as the astronaut realises that the young girl holds the key to survival. It ends with a message of hope, and without the need for St Johns Ambulance. It's a great show with a relevant message to deliver, as well as providing a spectacle that seems to attract kamikaze photographers and one or two of the parks regular rough-sleepers, but we complete three shows without injury or incident.
Urban Astronaut - Mad Max Meets A Space Odyssey?
Far From The Norm - A Lack of Green and Yellow?
Motionhouse & NoFit State Circus performing 'Block'. There is no way you could ignore this show. Building a giant 'Jenga' tower out of pre-formed foam blocks that almost reached the top of the trees is impressive in itself, but when a troupe of acrobats climb, leap and hang from it at every stage of its construction against a thumping soundtrack is possibly one of the most dramatic things you will see. Especially when it all comes tumbling down at the end.
Block - Jenga with a difference
'The Fantastical Flying Exploratory Laboratory' from Les Enfants Terribles is a tale of exploration aboard Dr Latitude's enormous hot-air balloon flying machine. They are on a quest to collect the ingredients for the doctor's magic medicinal elixir. The set is impressive, if fairly static, although the tale is acted out with plenty of movement from a colourful cast. Kids will love it.
'Whalley Range All Stars' have a show based around a model town, complete with houses, factories and hospitals. The story of 'Ye Gods' is one of a chain of events that starts with a bird landing in a tree, and eventually ends with catastrophic consequences. It is a quaint performance, but the show I saw had on or two technical issues, and then ran late meaning the noise from a neighbouring show somewhat drowned their gentle sound effects. A pity. A little bit weird, and a little bit surreal.
'Elsie Dragon', the fire breathing steel sculpture from Paka resides inside the Spiegeltent garden. Not a show, as such, more a continuous installation, although control panels attached to the barrier fencing allow you to control the head, tail and wing movements of Elsie.
Elsie in the Spiegeltent's designated smoking area
The only show that I did not get to see was Corey Baker Dance's production, 'Phone Box', although I saw the red telephone booth, saw the artists limbering up, and heard the mobile phone ringtone repeatedly throughout the day. Memories of Trigger Happy TV.
One last surprise for me, before heading off at the end of my shift. I am asked if I can make up numbers for stewarding tonight's performance of 'Belonging(s)', a three act promenade piece performed by Tilted Productions, and also involving some of our volunteer team in participatory roles. I have to report to the Event Manager at Epic Studios in Magdalen Street, where the first act of the show is performed prior to departing to the outdoor locations. This is the final one of four performances to have been staged over the last two days, and an audience of about one hundred persons watches the first act before being led through Anglia Square shopping precinct, down some side streets, past a garden filled with old ladies knitting, and finally to the mural-laden location for the final scene. It is a story about memories, but uses analogies with the production of old gramophone recordings as it explores themes of migration and change. A nice touch at the end is the gift of a vinyl recording of the production's soundtrack for each and every audience member who provides a completed feedback form. If only it was always that easy to get those back in such numbers!
So that was my Garden Party for another year. There is just about time to find something to eat before returning to watch a performance of Lawrence Bradby's 'Pedal-Powered Car Chase' back in Chapelfield Gardens. No, it is not a Festival soap-box derby around the park's perimeter tracks, but a performance piece powered by eight bicycles linked to a generator that powers a film projector. A montaged selection of classic car chases from famous films like Bullitt and Ronin is preceded by an introductory ecological monologue via megaphone, then accompanied by a two-piece percussion ensemble's twilight soundtrack.
Twilight pedallers in Chapelfield
Meanwhile, over at the Spiegeltent, Elsie continues to spew forth her hydrocarbon emissions in her own inimitable steely way.
Rather than worrying about mixing my metaphors any further, I head for the bar and order a well-earned pint of Ghost Ship.