Brighton Festival: why unveiling the line-up was such a wonderful feeling

Andrew Comben, chief executive of the Brighton Festival, admits there is still a long way for us all to go, physically, mentally and financially, as we continue to navigate the pandemic.

Monday, 5th April 2021, 7:05 am
Andrew Comben, chief executive of the Brighton Festival

But in a way, that makes the unveiling of this year’s festival programme all the sweeter.

“The whole experience has certainly tested and strengthened our collective resilience, and I certainly do think that we have to be wary about complacency in the future,” Andrew said.

“All of us in society have a long way to go before we fully come out the other side of all this.

“But collectively this festival has survived an enormous ordeal and it is wonderful to be in this position at the moment.”

Curated under the theme of care by guest director Lemn Sissay the festival will offer more than 90 events – outdoors and online from May 1 and then safely back on stage from May 17 to 31.

Andrew is thrilled with the programme which has come together under the toughest of circumstances.

Brighton Festival 2021 will feature ten world and UK premieres and commissions; new work by the actress Jane Horrocks; theatre directors Neil Bartlett, Tim Crouch and Peter Sellars; performances from classical artists Roderick Williams, Paul Lewis, Jessie Montgomery and Isata Kanneh-Mason; musicians Le Gateau Chocolat, Eliza Carthy and Gwenno; visual artist Olafur Eliasson; comedians Josie Long and Mark Watson; and author Jacqueline Wilson and poet Michael Rosen.

The fact that it is happening at all comes down to some of the tough decisions Andrew and the festival team took last year – not least the realisation that restrictions would still be in place even if festival 2021 was able to happen. It proved exactly the right decision to make.

“This past year has been so hard for so many, many people that it is hard really just to give an impression of it. It has been very difficult for this organisation, but it has also been a time when we have had enormous support, amazingly both funding support and also moral support from our audiences, from donors, from funders, just an incredible sense of valuing the whole organisation and particularly the festival, this great sense that everyone was wanting us to survive.

“In the very initial stages we knew that without significant investment, which we subsequently saw, that all arts organisations were under threat.

“From the moment we closed the Dome on March 17 and cancelled the festival on March 18, 67 per cent of our income disappeared – a huge part of our income that we would normally get from all our ticketing. It was all very stark in those very early days. But we were determined to find a way through, and we took some very early decisions that have stood us in very good stead.

“All our staff came together and said they would rather negotiate terms and conditions across the year than see any colleagues made redundant. It was an amazing solidarity from the staff that we saw.

“We also took the decision to think that the virus and social distancing and the impact of it all would be with us far longer than was initially thought. We developed a plan that was going to sustain us for 18 months of closure in effect if need be… a plan that meant we should be able to survive.”

And it is this plan which has fed into this year’s festival. The restrictions have been built into it right from the outset: “When we started to plan, we planned for the restrictions still to be with us, which they are.

“I think we have all had to become accustomed to making tough decisions. We have just had to live with the uncertainty. That’s a muscle that we have had to practise.

“But straight away we cancelled the festival last year we spoke to Lemn and asked would he be our guest director for 2021, and he immediately said yes, not having been able to realise the festival he had planned last year. And that immediately gave us a brilliant platform to start thinking about the festival.

“We were also thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful if a large number of artists that were going to be coming last year should come back for this year’s festival in 2021, and that’s what is happening.”

But clearly times had changed.

“We didn’t want to just lift the festival we would have had in 2020 and plonk it into 2021. There were all sorts of reasons why that would not have been feasible or desirable.

“During the year we kept talking to our artists. Many of them were wanting to reflect on the year that everybody had experienced and they were thinking that what they had intended to do was no longer appropriate or maybe no longer spoke to the moment.”

And so events changed.

Inevitably the shape of the festival will be slightly different. In long-distant normal times, the festival would have had something like 150 events across three weeks; this year it will be 94 events spread across slightly longer, the whole of May.

As it happens, it is a significant month in terms of lockdown easing, with indoor performance – if all goes according to plan – becoming possible mid-festival, from May 17.

Andrew has been able to plan for that. And no, he wasn’t tempted in the least to uproot the festival and find new dates later in the year when, again in theory (post June 21), no restrictions would be in place at all.

“The festival is really rooted in May and has been for 54 years. May is part of our connection with other festivals, with other international festivals particularly, so no, for all sorts of reasons, we couldn’t have just plonked the festival into another month.

“So let’s just hope that the roadmap continues as planned and that May 17 holds, though we have all sorts of contingency plans in place should we need them. But I do think that part of our role as a funded festival and one that is so well supported is that we have a duty to signal the way back and to try to bring some confidence back to everybody that it is possible to come back and to plan performances so that we can all start to feel really inspired again.”

Care is the theme of this year’s festival – and it is crucial: “Care is very broad and it has got a number of aspects. It is not just something specific to Covid-19 and to the NHS, but it does also speak to that. We felt that we didn’t want a festival that was only about a reflection on the pandemic but we felt that we didn’t want a festival that was completely escapism and completely ignored the pandemic. We have got something that hopefully is a mix of both. We felt it would be wrong to ignore it but equally a festival needs to lift and to entertain.”

And as Andrew says, the festival organisation goes into it all on the back of proof positive of its own resilience – though again, Andrew is quick to stress we aren’t out of it yet.

“I slightly worry about the arts in the future. This has been a period of massive disruption and extraordinary impact which has brought a phenomenal response from audiences and from donors and from government. And I don’t want to labour the point, but what does concern me for the future is what if that support is not there to the same extent. We all need to have solid plans in place for the future, in place for everyone.”

But again, with 2020-21 behind them, with a scintillating festival programme for everyone to savour, whether in person or at home online, as Andrew stresses: “This is a wonderful position to be in.”