Why did you decide to set up GIFT?
At the time of setting up GIFT there was no other theatre festival in the area. This felt like a big gap to me, especially as I was fortunate enough to have opportunities to travel to other international festivals to perform my own work, and to accompany groups of students to participate in international student theatre festivals. I had a strong understanding of the possibilities of festivals as spaces for artists and audiences to come together, to take risks, and to have really intense but rewarding experiences.
In late 2010, I was part of a group discussion at a Devoted and Disgruntled North East event hosted by the theatre company Improbable, and someone posed the question: 'Do we need a theatre festival in the North East?' I found myself answering this question as part of a group discussion, and declaring that yes we did. Through the conversation I realised that I already had a very clear idea of the type of festival we needed, and that it should be called GIFT. Others who were in this discussion group encouraged me to make this happen, and this idea very quickly became a reality once I secured an initial grant of £10,000 from Arts Council England to run GIFT in 2011 as a pilot.
The cultural offer in the North East region was lacking in several ways; firstly, there was very limited opportunity for audiences to see experimental, contemporary theatre, or work that didn't easily fit into a category of theatre, dance, live art - but work that was interdisciplinary in its form. There were also really limited opportunities to see work created by international artists, and as a theatre maker myself, I knew there was limited opportunity for artists to showcase their work in the region in the main theatres beyond it being staged at a very early 'scratch' stage.
As someone working in Higher Education, and also as a theatre maker, I knew how important it was for emerging artists and students to watch work that might be challenging in form, or not conform to a preconception of what theatre might be or look like. I knew how much these experiences could really help to develop artistic practice, and this seemed really important to me.
GIFT was also set up very much in response to the specific area in which it takes place, which is Gateshead, not the other side of the river, Newcastle. When I founded GIFT, Gateshead town centre was going through a lot of change and redevelopment. Buildings were being bulldozed, and Gateshead High Street had been neglected. I had been allocated an office/studio space in an empty shop unit on the High Street as part of an initiative by Gateshead Council to embed creative individuals and organisations in the heart of Gateshead as part of their regeneration agenda. Here I was working alongside a community of artists from lots of other disciplines, all making brilliant things happen in Gateshead. I both lived and worked in Gateshead, and every day I would walk along a route that would connect the more economically deprived areas with the culturally regenerated Gateshead quayside, home to BALTIC and The Sage. I consciously made the decision to set up a festival that would connect these areas, bringing audiences into parts of Gateshead that they might not have previously encountered, and programming theatre, dance, installations in spaces and sites that you might least expect to find it. This gave GIFT a very specific feel and flavour from the outset.
What do you think are the benefits and/or challenges of having a festival to local areas?
There are many examples of festivals around the world that have served as catalysts for regeneration. Festivals have the potential to bring people together, both artists and audiences, in a way that is much harder to achieve for standalone events. By inviting people to engage with a particular location through a festival context, you are inviting them to explore the local area, as well as experience the artistic works on offer. GIFT was very much set up as a creative response to a town centre undergoing transition. It is designed to encourage people to move between spaces and sites that they might not already be familiar with. Participants walk together from one venue to the next, and these venues might include a pub, a gallery, a library, the local metro station, and all of these journeys bring about encounters, and conversations that would not normally happen outside of the festival context.
One of the biggest challenges for GIFT is attracting new audiences to the festival, and one of the strategies we have in place to try and meet this challenge head on, and to ensure the festival reaches as wide an audience as possible, is to programme free events and performances in spaces where you wouldn't normally expect to encounter art. This helps us to engage new audiences each year, and also offers artists experiences of presenting their work in contexts that they wouldn't normally work in.
Festivals are really unique spaces in which I always say 'anything can happen'. They offer a platform to engage with work in a way that is much harder to achieve through a season of programming at a venue. At well curated festivals, the art works begin to speak to each other in interesting ways, and spaces are opened up for dialogue between artists and audiences that can be really fruitful exchanges. Festivals are not just spaces for artists to take risks, but can also provide space for audiences to take more risks with the kinds of works they are willing to engage with. They are spaces of surprise, intrigue and celebration.
What is GIFT's biggest achievement so far?
Keeping going, persevering in a really tough economic climate is perhaps the biggest achievement. There have been years when funding applications were unsuccessful, and rather than just give up, there has been a spirit of determination to keep going and to make interesting things happen despite the difficult circumstances. Another great achievement I think has been developing a really brilliant relationship with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, where GIFT events have been taking place since 2017.
Will there be anything GIFT will do differently now that you've completed your Fellowship? What learning will you adopt?
Yes, definitely. Up until now, I have been delivering the bulk of GIFT on my own. I know that I can't continue to work in this way and I am excited about building a team around me to support the delivery and growth of GIFT. Some of the most significant learning from the Fellowship that I will adopt is around diversity, and how this is represented across both the team that I work with to deliver GIFT, and the performance work that I programme. I have also been doing lots of thinking around access at GIFT, and I am setting a number of new objectives, with accessibility at the top of my list. I am also thinking about models that GIFT can operate to, and am in the process of considering different financial models - potentially making it a completely free festival. Through my Fellowship I also did lots of exploring around the possibilities of festival networks, something that I am now really working towards building. So watch this space!
Kate is a 2018/19 Fellow and Founder and Festival Director of GIFT: Gateshead International Festival of Theatre, an annual artist-led festival celebrating contemporary theatre. She is also Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts at Northumbria University, Newcastle where she leads on the industry-focused MA Theatre and Performance programme.