Norfolk and Norwich Festival will go ahead says director

Artwork of hospital bedsheets hoisted onto flag poles in England garden

Luke Jerram's In Memoriam (2020) from last year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival created a kind of a memorial space for people who've lost loved ones due to Covid-19 - Credit: Andi Sapey

There’s only one thing that Norfolk & Norwich Festival director Daniel Brine can say for certain about 2021’s event: it’s happening.

Man standing on Elm Hill in Norwich

Norfolk & Norwich Festival director Daniel Brine says the event will go ahead this year in one form or another - Credit: Hugo Glendinning

It is still unclear whether government rules will permit public gatherings during the Norfolk & Norwich Festival’s planned dates of 14 May to 30 May 2021, and questions remain about what form public gatherings will be allowed to take. But that hasn’t deterred festival director Daniel Brine from going ahead. 

“Come what may, we want to say to people: we are still a community and we are still having an arts festival,” he says. 

This year’s festival is as flexible as a circus contortionist – ready to adapt to changing restrictions by holding events either outdoors or socially-distanced indoors or online.

Still, Mr Brine’s main priority is trying to bring art to Norwich’s streets and public spaces safely. “Some festivals are doing a brilliant job of taking all their work online but we decided that, for us, the key thing is to make the experience in the city as important and as good as possible.”

This means reimagining some of the festival’s traditional high points. “We're trying to find ways to safely and practically deliver things that people will be expecting, like the Garden Party – two days of family outdoor arts that takes place on the middle weekend of the festival,” Mr Brine explains. 

The festival also includes plenty of events that audiences can take part in from home. These performances will all be creative, alternative ways of responding to Mr Brine’s feeling about why we need arts festivals.

Dance group in wheelchairs performing at arts festival outside

Performers from the Stopgap Dance Company during Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2019 - Credit: Mary Doggett

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“What is so special about a festival?" he asks. "There's something about the moment when a city or region comes alive, and that expectant feeling of gathering and experiencing something different together.”

Mr Brine took his post as Norfolk & Norwich Festival director in 2018, which means that much of his time in charge has been dominated by pandemic planning. This year’s flexible festival builds on his experiences from last May, as he was forced to rapidly reimagine the programme.

With its scheduled performances unable to go ahead during lockdown, the festival quickly adapted one of its 2020 shows: Hunt and Darton’s Radio Local. The duo of artists turned what was originally going to be a day-long project in the streets of Norwich into something totally different – a daily broadcast throughout the usual festival period, chatting to the performers whose shows had been cancelled, and bringing together local people who were isolated.

Luke Jerram’s outdoor installation In Memoriam (2020), made from hospital bedsheets hoisted on flag poles, was a festival artwork erected in Chapelfield Gardens that found a new resonance, says Mr Brine.

“It turned into a memorial ground for people who've lost loved ones due to Covid-19, or who just generally have that sense of loss and want to be able to meditate on that.”

Woman delivering creative packs to children on doorstep

The Let’s Create Packs project involved delivering materials to young people including booklets of creative challenges and bundles of craft materials - Credit: Wayne Pilgrim

The festival also responded to the crisis by cementing its commitment to local artists and communities. During lockdown, the whole team was involved in Let’s Create Packs, a project that involved sending materials to entertainment-starved young people, including booklets of creative challenges and bundles of craft materials. Mr Brine explains that, at a time when it was easy to feel isolated and powerless, “to be popping stickers into bags and then literally getting in a car and driving them around felt like a really good thing to do”.

He adds: "With many events not able to go ahead, we put our resources into supporting individual artists who were working with their community in some way.”

These ranged from Laura Hopkins’ series of one-to-one cello performances to Lewis Buxton’s poetry workshops to Sascha Goslin’s network for Black and POC artists.

Still, although pandemic-era editions of the festival have been necessarily local, Mr Brine doesn’t want the future of the festival to be insular.

“Running the festival is always a balance between responsibilities to local artists and communities, and bringing in international work to expand their horizons and introduce them to artists they otherwise wouldn’t get to see.”

Brexit has made that international element tougher than ever, as the festival no longer has access to shows touring through the EU’s Creative Europe programme. There are also complex new visa rules for European artists to abide by, but Mr Brine is confident that looking outwards will be “super important” to the festival’s future.

Young girl with face paint at arts festival outside

A festival-goer enjoys the vibes at Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2019 - Credit: JMA Photography

Next year, Norfolk & Norwich Festival will celebrate its 250th anniversary, making it one of the UK’s oldest cultural events.

“The original 1772 event was a fundraiser for the local hospital,” says Mr Brine, “which is now Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital, and it's becoming increasingly interesting to me that the time of our 250th anniversary is also the time when the hospital has been so important in all of our lives. I hope that's something that we will be able to draw on.”

The festival has changed almost beyond recognition from its origins as an 18th-century fundraising concert in Norwich Cathedral, attended by the periwigged and corseted gentry of Norfolk. And in response to the massive challenges posed by Covid-19 and Brexit, it’s still got some changing to do.

As Mr Brine concludes: “A lot of our work is going on behind the scenes right now, whether it's about the challenges of diversifying our workforce or improving the accessibility of the office that we're in. I suspect I will look back in 10 years and say: OK, Covid-19 meant that we didn’t make the huge whizzbang festival in 2021 that we would have wanted. But we laid the groundwork for a really positive future.”

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