As a reader of this article you probably know what Boomtown is or you have at least heard of it. Boomtown has become perhaps the fastest growing music festival in the history of the festival tradition since it emerged from the underground in 2009, and it is a long history.
The capacity is set to have grown by two thirds since 2014 and despite winning a successful bid to increase the capacity to 60,000, tickets are still running low.
But, where has this rapid expansion come from? In a country that offers more music festivals than viable housing options, such growth is remarkable. Something clearly sets Boomtown apart and that is the fact that it is not just a music festival. Over the last 8 years Boomtown has worked towards developing not just as weekend venue for music, but as a living, breathing pop-up town with a clear narrative.
In short, aside from being one of the most attractive UK festivals going, it is also one of the leading figures in immersive British theatre. Maybe even global theatre. Boomtown offers the opportunity of exploring a fantasy world riddled with culture, texture and life complete with cowboys, aliens and, rumour has it, a rave train… Recently we had the opportunity of chatting with one of the many people that make this incredible feat of performance. Martin wears the humble title of Director of Theatre at the Boomtown Fair and he is a pretty cool fellow.
We discussed his perspective as both a creator and a long-time fan of the Fair and festival culture as a whole or as he puts it: “a festival kid” on the state of festival culture, the performance industry and what it’s like to be one of the major players in developing one of the most unique festivals in the world.
Q: When did you start working for Boomtown?
A: I’ve been to every single boomtown and it was the one festival that I never wanted to work for because I enjoyed it so much. It was my little holiday, really. I run a theatre company called Dank Parish and we started off doing low scale immersive theatre projects at festivals. We came to Boomtown with our Church of the Sturdy Virgin where we create funerals for people. From that experience and creating that level of theatre in the festival field I was really starting to learn the importance of that form, how it engages new audiences and that you can maintain strong subject matter. It was chapter 4 that I joined the team properly. I really started to see the detail that was being added and that what I was doing, this microcosm, could spread out and become one big immersive world.
Q: If you could be involved in any other festival professionally, which one would it be?
A: I love Glastonbury to my core. I think it’s a very special place, no matter how it changes or doesn’t change. I think it has something, a real essence about it and you can soon tap into that and it does change people. It’s get a very important history that we should all really understand. Burning Man in Nevada is another, although I’ve only ever been once there is a massive ethos that I agree with. There is literally have no trace by the end of it. That whole festival comes down and there’s not a single ant out of place. You just wouldn’t know that that had been there. That is amazing. And do you know what? There are not bins about the place, people put things into their pockets, they make sure they take their stuff home and that is phenomenal. There are many, many, good festivals in the country and the world I think one I particularly have my eye on is the Afrika Burn. That’s something I would like to look into.
Q: So you started with small scale walkabout and theatre installations?
A: I’ve been a Festival kid for my whole life and to begin with we started off just getting a little collection of us and said: “Well, how do we get into festivals? What’s our in?” and walkabout performance made the most sense with our skill set. Then when we came out of theatre school we were quite disillusioned with the idea of the industry but still had a burning artistic drive.
Q: Our audience is largely Students so do you have a piece of advice for people that will soon be in a similar position to you leaving University?
A: My one biggest philosophy in life is to always give. That really was the key for we with Boomtown was seeing that it wasn’t just about me with my theatre company creating what I want but what the a the actual festival needed and working on that. It is a little bit awkward, that fine balance of an artist of knowing your own work and making sure you don’t give away your talents and your soul for nothing. There has to be a passion for what you do.
Q: Like being a smaller cog in a larger machine? Exactly, man. Every project should be led by a clear vision at the top, and every rung of the ladder, no matter what anybody’s doing is an artist feeding into that one larger vision. Like many other festivals Boomtown is reliant upon a massive amount of volunteering which in the context of something annual and so massive is pretty cool. But how do you feel about the attitude that seems to have been established that artists ought to perform and create for free in exchange for experience or exposure? It’s a difficult thing and it’s something that I am very passionate about. It is always a fine balance. For us, we try to avoid pushing people to do stuff for free and let the artists manage their own ambition. There’s no other festival that has all of the artists on board creating one big project like ours, but it’s not an endless pool of money and we try to spread that out fairly. Some people will take their share and they will want to push the boundaries and go beyond. Of course, you always have to be aware to never steal someone else’s artistry and I can assure everybody that there are no fat cats at the top of our project. We are all in it together. When I first came on board. I learned so much about the kind of art that I wanted to make and from that it gave me a direction. We are very loyal to the people that are with us and we try to help them grow with us, year on year, as the festival grows. It’s an art form quite like no other, the audience you’re dealing with, the level of immersion you can go to and you have to have a training ground for it.
Q: Why do you think boomtown has seen this seemingly exponential growth what do you think sets it apart from other festivals that are declining or perhaps aren’t seeing a similar boom?
A: I think our ambition is crucial and, I mean, the music has always been really good! Boomtown’s always firmly had its finger on the pulse of the underground music scene. I’ve always come to Boomtown and had an education, something will pull me in somewhere and then I will discover some new band that will just blow me away. The other thing I think that we pride ourselves on is that we take feedback extremely seriously. I know that every Facebook comment that is laid down is read. After the festival we send out as many surveys as possible and we make sure that every department gets that feedback and we go through absolutely everything. So, we listen. It is not our festival, it is everybody’s festival.
Q: Sounds like you guys really have the community attitude in mind.
A: That’s exactly what it is, and that is the nail on the head of what a festival really should be. And that’s what a festival always was; it’s a coming together of everybody. No matter what’s going on in society and everything else, it’s us all being able to come together as one. Especially in immersive theatre where nothing is actually created until the festival goer is there and starts to play the game with us. We all own it, and we’ve all got to take care of it.
Q: Do you think that this community attitude is what led Boomtown to being so dominated by other elements of aesthetic and performance than just simply music?
A: I think it’s important to us that we create something that includes everybody. Obviously you won’t find anything commercial at Boomtown, very proudly so and we’d like to think we know what we’re doing to that front. As you know I’m the theatre guy, and when I came out of drama school and came into London it was just at a time when Immersive theatre was really kind of bubbling there. Companies like Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Training or Differencengine creating the heist show and here down in Bristol we’re very much influenced by The Invisible Circus and Carnyville. I think that for me, as a theatre maker, the most important part of immersive theatre is that I felt it was in some ways the future of British Theatre. As I said it engages new audiences, truly making the audience member as important as the storyteller and creating something together and at Boomtown we have the perfect situation to do that within the frame of a clear narrative.
Q: How would you say since you’ve been working on Boomtown you guys have adjusted yourselves and move the creative process to deal with that kind of extreme growth?
A: The growth is really created through the artistic ambition. Each and every year we have new and bigger ideas and we never want to just stand still we want to constantly evolve. So it has to grow to accommodate all of our wacky ideas that we have.
Q: So the flair and the passion is already there to meet the rising demand? Yeah and touch wood, I hope we’ve got it right! A lot of people don’t like the idea of change and I think luckily every year that we have grown we’ve still got we’ve still got our philosophy and the heart of what we do.
Q: What is your opinion of festival culture as a whole, why do they have this enduring popularity and what is that makes them socially important?
A: Festival culture has always been a big part of this country and they were certainly an important part of my life. From its origins - Stone Henge or Elephant Fair to Glastonbury. However, we have become saturated with festivals. I wouldn’t want to knock a single festival because it is still the bringing together of people, but I think the culture has changed somewhat. I think they’ve become a bit of an 18-30s kind of gathering, a lot of them.
Having said that, just coming back from Glastonbury at a time when we’re kicking ourselves out of Europe, we’ve got a political reality that doesn’t make any sense, but there’s this community of thousands of people that united and quite often sharing vastly different beliefs and lifestyles with each other. I think that’s a very important thing. The world is a very disillusioned place at the moment I think these festivals are a great way for us to at least challenge that.
What I would say though is that I’m quite passionate about where the culture is going. Some things really worry me. It blows my mind the amount of waste that is left by audience members and to be honest it will be the death of the festival in the end. After you put in so much work, and you create something, and you have this moment you see what’s left and the disregard. It’s really hard. You just think “Well, what am I doing it for if you can’t even pick up your own stuff?” Everyone owns the festival and everyone has a real responsibility. I like to think that we hold up our end pretty well. The simple stuff is; take your shit home. You’ve got refugees in Calais crying out for tents and it’s just a waste. It baffles me. I want to get through and educate further, but I tell you what, I don’t know how.
Q: What do you think the future is?
A: I think there are changes that have to be made in the mind-sets of some festival goers and literally only some. We have to start realising what a festival actually is and recognising the power that it has to change you for good.
Boomtown, I think, is in a very healthy state and will hopefully just continue. We will keep listening to our audience and keep being ambitious. I don’t think those two things are ever going to change. Maybe we won’t keep expanding as much, but we’re at a beautiful place where now it’s about layering on the detail and really getting the detail right.
Q: Finally: is there anything that I should keep my eye out for at Boomtown this year in terms of theatre?
A: We’ve really seen the expansion of our narrative so hopefully that should become a lot more apparent to more festival goers. My piece of advice to anyone going to the festival is to explore the city. It’s not just that one thing that you like, it’s a trek. You’ve got to get yourself up and down the hill. You’ve got to go and knock on a door because it’s all there. The more you explore the more you will find.