Before you put up a tent you need to put down the groundsheet. That's the bit that goes down first and keeps everything dry. Before the tent pegs, before you build the frame, before you slot the frame into the outer, before you put the tent up – before everything, you need to put down the groundsheet. It's the foundation of the tent.
Tania Harrison is the groundsheet of Latitude. Long before anything begins being built in Suffolk, or areas are laid out, Tania Harrison is laying the foundations for the Festival and ensuring that the whole thing runs smoothly and successfully. For five years, Tania has been the Arts Curator for Latitude.
I thought it would be a great idea to put a theatre tent in the field, and authors, poets, film
“Latitude was an idea that I pitched to our board at Festival Republic,” Harrison explains. “I'd been at Reading Festival and I wanted something different; a festival with other genres represented there. I thought it would be a great idea to put a theatre tent in the field, and authors, poets, film and so on. Our Managing Director took up the project and we all joined forces to create Latitude.”
Latitude has quickly become one of the most important festival's in the UK, certainly for artistic/creative types. While it has sold out every year, this year tickets were gone in record time – with three months still to go, all weekend and day tickets had sold. “It's already increased in size this year,” Harrison tells me delighted with the success. “We have more people than ever attending this year, the site will look slightly different as well. We've added in lots of extra things, like the Faraway Forest area where there will be a masked ball, Les Enfants Terrible (pictured below), Johnny Blue Eyes and Duckie have all created different elements for that. The theatre will be in a new position, it holds about six hundred and is very popular.”
An extraordinary amount of work goes into preparing each festival “I'm already programming for 2011,” reveals Harrison, “certain shows, the bigger theatrical shows, you really have to look at in advance. I go to see shows almost every night. I'm constantly travelling round to find the shows. I receive hundreds and hundreds of applications into my inbox, and I start looking and creating my ideal bill of performances around about September and then I start confirming those in January.”
With the RSC, the National, the Bush, Paines Plough, Northern Stage, nabokov and the Lyric just some of the names regularly on the line up at Latitude, it's certainly representative of a vibrant theatrical zeitgeist. Contained within this beautiful Suffolk park, Harrison draws together an eclectic and vastly diverse range of styles and genres. Is there a ‘Latitude style'? It's a question that seems to take Harrison by surprise.
When I look back at the bill I sometimes go ‘Oh, yeah! I can see what I was doing there!
“Essentially I book all the arts stages, and Jon (Dunn) books all the music stages,” she notes, “so I suppose it's just what we like – if that's a ‘style' then maybe there is. I don't know. We always have a wish list of who we want to perform. I don't think Jon and I are ever conscious of there being a theme,” Harrison laughs. “It's just what we're liking and what is relevant and current. When I look back at the bill I sometimes go ‘Oh, yeah! I can see what I was doing there!’ ”
With Latitude now practically a brand name, how difficult is it for Harrison to persuade those on her wish list to make an appearance? “It depends on availability,” she sighs. “There are a few people that I'd like to get that I haven't yet, but hopefully 2011.”
I can't help but wonder whether attitudes have changed in the last five years – perhaps in 2006 the idea of a theatre festival may have seemed a little outré. To an extent, Harrison agrees: “There was a time when, if you'd said ‘festival', people would have assumed you meant a music festival, so there were lots of people who had never been to a festival. There is the perception that everybody is really drunk, or on drugs, and not capable of enjoying something cerebral. If you've been to Latitude, you'll know that this perception is very wrong.”
Very wrong, indeed. Latitude has been described as ‘the middle-class festival', or ‘the festival for people who don't like festivals'. Personally, I think both these rather glib descriptions miss the point somewhat. And I think the Latitude fans on these pages would agree with me. Latitude is, really, whatever you want it to be. There can be a riotous element, but this is married to a highbrow element. It is a music festival, but it is also a family festival. It does involve sleeping out in a tent, but it offers hot showers, excellent facilities, an incredible array of food stalls, plenty of security, a 24 hour supermarket, and this year, a new fine dining restaurant. It is as far from the typical media idea of a ‘festival' as you can get, while still remaining true to the festival spirit. You could enjoy Latitude with a bunch of mates, and spend the whole weekend at the front of the main music stage, or you could go with your whole family, every generation from toddler to grandparent and indulge your inner aesthete.
Photo: Paul W Griggs
“There's a place for hedonism in any festival,” agrees Harrison, “but there's certainly a place to enjoy the culture and be curious about what is on offer, because all of the arts tents are packed all weekend. The beauty of Latitude is you can go and try everything. You pay an individual ticket price and you don't have to pay anything extra to go and try ballet or opera for the first time. You can just wander into a tent and experience the RSC, or experience The Bush and their work.”
For the theatre polymath, Latitude offers not only the opportunity to sample the work of our leading companies, explore their style and see some of their main house productions, but also the chance to delve into some more experimental works – many companies now programme work, exclusively for Latitude, the audience there is among the most discerning in the country. “Joel Horwood has written a specific piece that is Latitude-centric,” reveals Harrison, talking about the nabokov musical, It's About Time, which will premier at Latitude this year – Joe Murphy, Artistic Director of nabokov talks about it in the summer issue of The Drama Student – “and there's a company called Remember We Care who have written quite a witty piece for us. Theatre 503 are producing Playlist, which is inspired by the music from the last five of Latitude. It happens all across the different arenas, not just the theatre arena.”
They will experience all of these different types of theatre and it will be interesting to know what they think about it
Looking back at previous line-ups, it strikes me that Harrison's choices offer a superb barometer of the theatrical climate of the time. “Really?” she smiles, “well, I suppose I'd like to think so. There's some interesting pieces this year, Jonathan Holloway is doing something which I think is very forward. He's doing a radio mic play called The Invisible Show which you can listen to, but you can't necessarily see the performers. Also, High Tide will be creating individual musicals which will appear spontaneously in front of members of the audience. There's a real range of theatre in the theatre arena, and in Pandora's Playground, and the Outdoor Theatre.”
The range of theatre available is extraordinary. I have remarked to many directors and producers that in my opinion, the tastes and opinions of the practitioners who present at Latitude are influencing theatre across the country, if not the globe. “There will be thirty thousand people at the festival,” says Harrison, “and they will experience all of these different types of theatre and it will be interesting to know what they think about it. I really like the idea that people at the festival experience different types.”
Of course, Harrison has an individual connection to all the performers at Latitude, and those companies cannot praise her highly enough. But what will be her highlights? What shouldn't we miss? “Oh gosh,” she exclaims before launching into an exhaustive list. “Dereveo because that's a one off,” she begins. “Daniel Kitson, either in the Theatre Arena or on the Waterfront Stage, The Masked Ball, that's got some very special surprises. I'd probably go with The Island, by the Lyric, I hope there's a lot of attention paid to Theatre 503. Riz MC in the Film & Music Arena – that's a whole new type of show, taking theatre into a whole new area. Sadler's Wells have got a surprise that we haven't announced yet. The Royal Opera House are doing Will Tuckett's new show. That's quite a lot isn't it?”
You'd never manage to see everything at Latitude, the programme is hundreds of pages long, but if Harrison's list was all you managed to see, you'd have an extraordinary few days.
– The Drama Student Magazine will continue its pre-festival features all of this week, as well as live coverage from the event.