Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts; A New Chapter

Threw my cards on the table, and pitched being Father Christmas at Devizes Winter Festival, but was informed that was arranged by the Town Council…. so, that’s that idea well and truly quashed! It was great, though, to meet Annabel, one half of the new management team of Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts, to chat on changes and new visions for carnival and the various other annual town events they organise……

It’s been an autumn since I quizzed former DOCA artistic director, Loz, on whether she had a say on choosing people for the role. I was glad her reply confirmed this, through fear fond events like the street festival might get all ‘village fete.’ Make no mistake, keyboard warriors on social media were quick to sound negativity on decisions taken by DOCA recently, but I’d argue Loz justified these rightfully, did an outstanding job stamping her own mark on DOCA. This came to an apex at this year’s street festival, with the mind-blowing Ceres display telling the Ruth Pearce story, something I’d dub Loz’s farewell gift to Devizes. Annabel was due to be production manager on the project, but caught covid, though she praised Baseline Circus who staged it, explaining she’d worked with them before and would use them again for DOCA.

And that’s where we open said episode, continuing from Loz’s input. I’m partly aware of Annabel’s past experience on the festival circuit, I was as pleased as punch to hear she’s taken on the role, and I came away from our chat at New Society positive this opens a new chapter for DOCA. If one reaction to changes made, such as moving the dates of summer events to spread the workload and effort, not forgoing allowing time for schools to participate better, was this rather insular notion Loz was not from the area. Rather I liked this aspect, Loz bought in acts we otherwise may never have known. Put your pitchforks away, Annabel really is Devizes born and bred. The role though has been split into two, as Bristol-based Ashley takes the artistic side responsible for booking acts; best of both worlds.

“Ashley and I really love that she split the job between us,” Annabel began, “you’ve still got the element of someone who’s got their finger on the pulse of the artists, and I’m from Devizes. But though I’m based here, I’ve got the experience of twenty years of doing different festivals!”

I asked her what festivals, Boomtown, Glastonbury, I knew of. “All of them really,” she responded, “Secret Garden Party, Leeds Festival, and over winter I’ve been working in Edinburgh, so, Hogmanay and their street party. So, quite a lot of variety, but I always come back here.”

Not beating about the bush, my first question was on Street Festival, because personally it’s my favourite! I love that we get these colourful and lively carnival type bands full of brass and blend of gypsy ska-folk type shenanigans, but I’m also keen to suggest the event also highlights local musicians too. I’ve also heard criticism of lengthy changeovers on the stage, where Loz expressed it was to allow for the circus sideshows, of which the sound of would be drained out by bands on stage.

This idea was met in 2019 when Vinyl Realm funded and organised a fantastic second stage, my vision is now driven towards getting local acts on the main stage, rather than it being a ‘bolt-on.’ My pitch suggests if we host a number of acoustic acts between main bands, it wouldn’t drown out the circus acts, would satisfy bar loiterers, and it would highlight our local circuit to an audience who perhaps doesn’t make it out to our pub-venues. I’m pleased she made a note of this, though it was perhaps better put to Ashley, who wasn’t present. “Ashley’s got some great ideas on that,” Annabel replied, “about bringing in different types of acts from different places, and also keeping it accessible locally as well.

She toyed with this word, ‘accessible’ extending it to what’s important to her, “particularly in participation, whatever form that takes, whether it’s volunteering, attending, or performing, I want to make it accessible, finding out what will make it easier for people to enjoy it and in taking part as well.” Fire in the hole, golden opportunity for my summary on people’s, often passionate, feelings about the events, is it’s that delicate balance of pleasing everyone. “That’s the difficult bit,” Annabel confessed, “unfortunately you’re never going to please all the people all of the time, however I think by listening to people and communicating, would really help.”

And in fact, they’ve done precisely this, an online “carnival consultation” survey, which is still open, so too early to analyse results. Based solely on carnival, “because,” she explained, “I think there’s a particularly strong feeling DOCA wasn’t always listening to the people of Devizes, which they were to a certain extent, but maybe the communication wasn’t there, so we’re trying to make it as clear as possible, by opening it up and allowing people to have their say.” Annabel moved onto lower participation levels recently, due to difficulties of the pandemic era being “something we’d really like to address, and find out how we can make it easier for everyone.” A meeting about the results of the survey will follow, and really, you cannot ask for a better response than this, in my humble opinion!

There was one Facebook rant recently, comparing Devizes carnival with Pewsey’s, something I felt a tad unfair as Pewsey’s renowned reputation has taken decades to build, and a carnival is formed by people, Pewsey works because everyone comes out to play. “It takes an awful lot to get it to that level and keep it continuing,” Annabel mused, “it’s not a straight forward thing to do, and throwing in the spanner of a couple of years of nothing happening, and, yeah…” I trailed back to the tricky subject of satisfying everyone.

“The way we want to move forward is taking away the concept of us and them,” she expressed, “it’s all of us together, and that collates what you said as well, it needs to be something that everyone can feel they can get onboard with and get involved with, whether it’s something they’re already familiar with, or shared love of something new.”

If only those so quick to criticise could see, what I described as an iceberg, whereby it’s equal in size underwater as it is above, the inner-working of what it takes to stage these huge town events, they’d not, as dubious they do, take it somewhat for granted. Volunteering at this year’s street festival, which might’ve ended with me just clearing bins, opened my eyes to the mammoth task.

“Yes,” Annabel agreed, “and when you’re doing a good job, it’s when people don’t realise what’s going on behind the scenes, the amount of pre-planning, private funding, all of that sort of thing to bring it together, it’s a huge amount, especially these days when you’ve got all the red tape, but we trying to open it up, find out what’s going to make it easier for people to get involved, and do something about it. There’re a few different ideas we’ve outlined in the consolation, one idea was a ‘makers week,’ which could be weeks prior to carnival, where people who want to make something for carnival can come together and learn different skills.”

‘Together’ was becoming a word of the day, Annabel talking a lot on widening the volunteer spectrum to an almost ‘festival training core’ concept, and between this and her parenthood reasons for wishing to reduce her, what she described as “nomadic” festival life and be based here, “because I just love it,” is whyI came away positive from our chat.

The Winter Festival will be the proof in the pudding, Annabel and Ashley’s first DOCA event; had to wonder if this was possibly the most difficult of them to find a balance. “It’s all systems go,” she replied, “but I’m really excited about it already,” then told of the anticipation surrounding school’s lantern workshops, adding methods for creating similar enthusiasm for carnival.

For some unexplainable reasoning, I commenced waffling about Glastonbury festivals of yore, the different the weather makes, and we settled returning the conversation back to the beginning; changes, after Annabel spoke of Winter Festival’s indoor craft markets. “it’s difficult,” she responded, “but times do change. There’s a lot to be said for tradition, but a lot also to be said for new experiences; it’s about finding the right balance between the two, and making it work for as many people as possible, for the right reasons.”

As I said, I came away from our chat at New Society positive this opens a new chapter for DOCA, and I sincerely wish Ashly and Annabel the very best with their roles in our delightful carnival committee.


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