Under the sun

Simon Tait

Almost any city of any size now has its own summer festival and more likely than not it will have an unobtrusive educational content. Simon Tait finds out why this should be so

Education is more than ever a part of this summer's arts festival programmes with a new race of education officers at work, and you are likely to be less than ever aware of it. For in an increasing number of festivals, the whole programme is being perceived as educational.

There is a sound economic reason why education is a swelling part of festival directors' thinking, and why children's serious involvement is greater than ever: quite simply, it is the festivals' principal funders, the Arts Councils, regional arts boards, local authorities and sponsors, who want it, even insist on it; there is also increasingly good box office for children's presentations.

But the trend - which has no appearance of being ephemeral - is not simply a series of exercises to get festival events represented in the class room. Education, even in this sector, may start at three-and-a-half but festival organisers are now in the business of educating every age group in the community.

Gavin Henderson is not only chairman of the Arts Council's music panel, and therefore has a say in subsidy to some arts festivals, but he is principal of Trinity College of Music, chairman of the British Association of Arts Festivals and a former director of the Brighton Festival.

"It's getting to the point where the term 'education' is the wrong expression in festivals where the whole area is seen as one of growth, something much more extensive than a school visit," he says. "The difference is between a kind of interpretation of the work for education and the real work which is an educative process for all. There is also a sense of need to participate, a reaction to the take-away culture of buying CDs and taking them home, watching videos on your own television or sitting in your safe and defined concert seat. People want to sniff each other - in a way it's about mating."

At his old festival the word "education" is rarely, if ever, spoken, and the education brochure, the first, is deliberately called "Brighton Festival Reaches Out." It is co-ordinated by Lisa Wolfe, the marketing director, because so far there has not been funding for an education officer, but the emphasis is not so much on the classroom as the family. "We have had to rely on the generosity of visiting companies so far, but we hope to change that in future and have a separate but integrated strand for family participation co-ordinated by an education officer," she says.

Local authorities, so far as funding cuts still allow them to be involved, are enthusiastic about education in festival programmes, but, says Henderson, the attitude of sponsors has moved somewhat. "Their enthusiasm now is for community and youth work, which can still embrace education, but the major shift has been away from glitzy concerts and gorgeous entertaining to good citizenship. "

And this is the experience at Salisbury, where Helen Marriage has revived what had been a long-standing but rather staid festival with imaginative and often controversial programming.

Centred on the cathedral, the festival was founded in 1973 by Cecil Beaton and was first run by Elizabeth Jane Howard as an agreeable summer celebration of classical music for a largely middle-class community in late middle age. "The board knew it had to move the festival forward, but after my first in 1994 I'm not sure if they felt they'd made a brilliant appointment or a terrible mistake," Marriage says.

She has an education programme in association with Salisbury Playhouse's education department with its own brochure telling of workshops in primary schools on tuba playing, storytelling, dance with the Phoenix Dance Company and puppetcraft.

"But we don't think education exists only for children in schools. What we try not to do is make a distinction between the main programme and education, because the whole thing is a learning process for the kind of audiences we have here."

Last year she confronted the traditional audience with a new performance work, Mephistomania, in which the French Friches Theatre Urbain took Goethe's anti-Christ on a blazing stilt-mounted musical promenade of the city streets ending on the steps of the cathedral just as the inaugural concert audience was leaving. "Some walked round it, but quite a lot stayed and watched, and a little old lady whom I knew because she cycles around the town came up to me the following day and said 'We thought it wasn't really for us, but Helen it was!' That was a little triumph, and it was every bit an education as going into a school with a storyteller."

The biennial London International Festival of Theatre's (LIFT) education officer, Tony Fagan, has instituted a bridging of work with youngsters across the '95 festival, last year's Out of LIFT largely educational continuum, and this year's LIFT. Last year, for instance, Japanese director Saburo Teshigawara picked a group of youngsters to develop a work with, and the result will be Step Work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

For the Year of Opera and Musical Theatre which is being celebrated across seven eastern English counties this year, Sarah Gibbon, as education consultant, has had to devise features that will spread not only through the region but over a whole year. First there has been the Year of Opera Road Show, taking on tour snippets of live performance plus workshops in costume, make-up, wig-making and special effects. The region has more than 4,000 schools so that appearances in even a representative few would not have worked. Instead, in conjunction with the Norfolk-based record company Chandos, she has devised the Opera Disc, a CD of ten tracks with extracts from well-known operas which is accompanied with a "track pack" of information about the operas, their composers, famous performers and performances, and so on, which as been made accessible to children of all ages.

And still to come is a scheme to involve youngsters aged from 16 to 19 in song composition in workshops with professional singers and writers, working on songs of all kinds, with the aim of producing 120 new songs. Within the year's programme is the ancient but, under artistic director Marcus Davey, revivified Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which last year greeted visitors off the London train with school bands in the station foyer.

"Education itself is something that doesn't relate too well with the word festival," Davey says. "The last thing that most young people want to have done to them in a festival context is to be educated. So we have decided to call the education programme 'Creative Projects', and have developed a range of projects for young people - and for people of any age - who want to take part."

One project is Kemp's Jig based on a man who, in 1600, danced from London to Norwich for a bet and as a protest against theatres being closed for Lent. As well as 300 people, most of them children, the composer David Bedford and the Britten Sinfonia will be involved, giving three performances with different participants in London, Norwich, and half way between the two at Hingham.

While the queen of arts festivals, Edinburgh, will be engaged in more traditional education work, with a reminiscence project marking the festival's 50th birthday created through school workshops, there is also a stretching of the education quotient to adults.

Spitalfields Festival in the East End of London is centred on Nicholas Hawksmoor's architectural masterpiece, Christ Church, but has always been closely associated with the schools in the area - so much so that although the festival itself is in June, it has an all-year round education programme with residencies and workshops which explore not only all forms of music, but cross over into poetry and dance.

"We're trying to make a much more long-lasting involvement," says David Burles, education officer for the Spitalfields Festival. Three-year partnerships with 10 schools in the area have been set up, involving workshops, performance and practice - which can be built up into a portfolio. "This amounts to a great deal more for much longer than just nipping in and out of school halls, " he says.

But Gavin Henderson says that there are serious inherent dangers in education authorities allowing too much of the burden of arts education to fall on festivals, however well devised. "It would be easy for schools to leave their arts, and particularly music, to the festival education officer and simply liaise, and this would be dangerous. It is very encouraging that education is seen as an integral part of festival planning and not just an adjunct, but as far as arts education is concerned it must be seen as something extra to schools' commitment, not a replacement."

But perhaps the festive spreading of education by another name across traditional boundaries is manifesting itself elsewhere in Henderson's home town, whose council has just become a unitary authority. Brighton's education director is now director of life-long learning.

Festival choice: Brighton Festival, until May 25; Salisbury Festival, May 22-June 7; Spitalfields Festival, June 6-29; Covent Garden, London (opera, music theatre) May 26-June 7; Manchester, Streets Ahead (until May 26): Edinburgh International Festival, August 10-30; Norfolk and Norwich Festival, October 9-19; Rochester Dickens Festival, May 29-June 1; Canterbury and London Chaucer Festival, June 21-July 12; Crawley Festival (drama, music, dance) June 21-July 6; Lewes Artwave (visual arts) August-September; Aria, Essex opera, May 25- June 14; Winchester Hat Fair (street theatre) July 4-6

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