THE best music and arts festivals are about more than the big name on the main stage; they have a way of democratising creativity. For many festival-goers, they are very much a participatory experience — a place where people get to dabble in performance for the first time. Many festivals have a fringe section or a busking stage where punters are encouraged to “have a go”. Some of these spaces have been a nurturing ground for many who have gone on to become established artists.
The Greenbelt festival similarly doesn’t want its audiences to be passive consumers. “We want to value our festival-goers by treating them as more than just an audience, but as festival-makers with us,” the festival’s creative director, Paul Northup, says. “We want each to bring their unique experiences and stories into the mix, helping us to make something which no one could quite have imagined before.”
This year, Greenbelt is pushing the boat out even further when it comes to getting the audience involved, pretty much handing over two of the festival’s big highlights to the public. First, there’s the Sunday communion service, which, this year, will be led by children. It will include a children’s scratch choir, and all the readers and leaders will be children. The Archbishop of Canterbury will preach, in the form of answering questions from children.
BUT nothing comes close to the participatory experience that is put on by the festival favourites Hope & Social, who have placed an open call for Greenbelters to join them on stage in A Band Anyone Can Join (ABACJ). Hope & Social first opened up their performances to the audience at the Grassington Festival in 2013, and have since done it 20 times, at events all over the country. The band’s guitarist, Rich Huxley, reckons that about 2500 people have played or sung their songs on stage with them.
”For us, A Band Anyone Can Join is an extension of our motto, ‘Make Art, Have Fun’, having previously invited fans to join us to sing on our records, as well as community choirs and brass bands. It’s great fun to do gigs — it feels awesome to make a good noise in the company of an adoring crowd — but it seems wholly unfair that only a tiny proportion of people get to have that feeling. So why don’t we invite them to join our band?
”The good things that come out of the A Band Anyone Can Join project are many and various. At the heart of it, there’s all the positivity that comes from engaging with the arts, and in this case, with music in particular: empowerment, community, a sense of being able to achieve the impossible. But mostly what we love is that this is an experience that’s unique, and with a significance that seems to grow over time in the memories of those who take part, and those who witness the shows.”
Many of those who’ve taken part in ABACJ have continued making music in one form or other. “In Grassington, there are music groups that formed out of the first ABACJ; they meet every Tuesday to play songs and drink in a pub,” Huxley says. “Across North Yorkshire, there are music communities who tell us that they’ve formed music co-ops, built community studios, formed bands, and made records on the back of this — it’s been a kick-start for them. In Leeds, there’s a music group for ‘lapsed musicians’ that grew out of people we’d worked with there. In short, we hope that we can reignite a spark and enthusiasm for doing stuff. That’s the long game for stuff like this.”
HOPE & SOCIAL is confident that ABACJ will go down well at this summer’s Greenbelt: “Greenbelters seem to be up for the party,” Huxley says. “The first year we played at Greenbelt, we were overwhelmed with the response. We were made to feel very welcome, completely selling out of each and every CD, badge, and poster at the front of the stage in just 15 minutes. The second time, we had a big party and a ‘disco-bomb’. Be warned: we might bring that back this time.”
The story of how ABACJ came to Greenbelt is a good example of how Greenbelt’s audience help to shape the festival, and also of how the festival inspires those who attend to start creative projects of their own. A die-hard fan of the band, Nicola Hambridge (a GP by profession), has been a Greenbelt volunteer since 1999, and she felt the participatory performance would fit in perfectly: “I’d always thought that A Band Anyone Can Join was so Greenbelt. What Greenbelt has tried to do — especially in the last few years — is have stuff that people can do.
”The reason I love Hope & Social so much isn’t just the music; it’s the way they welcome everybody in. With them, there’s none of that ‘I’m a musician’ thing that you sometimes get. It’s not about them playing music to other people; it’s them sharing and involving people. I like their community aspect, and also their acknowledgement of something bigger. They’re not all Christians; quite a few of them aren’t, but they’re really into people.”
Together with a few friends who are also regular Greenbelters, Nicola runs a music event in Leeds, Live at All Hallows. Many of the acts who’ve played there have also played at Greenbelt. “Half the acts we book have a link to the festival. We’re proud that it’s become a two-way street, and Greenbelt has also nicked ideas off us,” one of Nicola’s collaborators, Steve Thackray, says.
MR NORTHUP is equally proud of the collaborative nature of the Greenbelt project: “We love knowing that up and down the country, there are people hosting spaces and events in the image of Greenbelt because of their experience of the festival. The Live at All Hallows team in Leeds are one such creative community. But there are many more in cities round the UK and beyond. Part of Greenbelt’s raison d’être is to give itself away, seeding festivals such as Solas in Scotland, Bet Lahem
Live in Bethlehem, Wild Goose in the States, SLOT in Poland, and so on.
”You spend a year booking and planning a festival. You know what you’ve booked and why you’ve booked it. But you can never anticipate the way people will be affected ‘in the field’. After all of the sound and fury, when the festival is just a series of impressions that tents have made on grass, it’s the stories of people doing things differently — new things, creative, ambitious, and generous things — as a result of being at Greenbelt that motivate me most, like our Greenbelt company secretary ditching his job to go and study fine art after hearing Billy Childish speak at the festival.
“I count myself as being utterly changed by my early experiences of Greenbelt, too. And my prayer and hope is that others might have that expansive, transformational, life-changing experience this year.”
Other ways to get involved at Greenbelt
IF PLAYING with a band on the main stage isn’t for you, there are other opportunities across the festival programme that are open to input from punters.
The Village Hall is a venue being launched this year. Much of its programme has been set by the festival, but big chunks of time have been left unprogrammed for Greenbelters to set the agenda. There will be a board outside where people can book topics for discussion. “It’s theirs, to have their Village Hall meetings,” Paul Northup says.
The Old Plough Folk Club is another example of Greenbelters’ starting something that has be come aregular part of the festival. Nicky Coates and Chris Lawley have been leading the folk club for more than ten years now; both are experienced performers, but the folk club is open to anyone to come along and sing, or share some poetry.
The poet Paul Cookson will also be hosting his all-age “Family Twist” each day, as well as “Greenbelt Introducing”, an open-mic session for adults.
If you fancy storytelling, the Irish storytelling collective TenX9 are back at Greenbelt this year. They will be having two storytelling events, “Famous” and “Shut Up!”
The new children’s venue “Learn and Do” will be home to workshops all weekend long.
There is also the Greenbelt Art School, giving festival-goers the opportunity to sign up for lessons with professional arts practitioners.
For details on how to get involved in these and other events, visit www.greenbelt.org.uk/2016-lineup/be-part-of-the-programme.