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The Wye Valley River Festival is an ambitious biennial arts and environment festival run by the Wye Valley AONB Partnership. The Festivals in 2014, 2016 and 2018 were co-created with local communities and professional artists. The Festival creates the opportunity to engage the public with key messages about conserving and enhancing the landscape in a fresh and innovative way. Over the 3 Festivals we have engaged over 80,000 people with inspiring art focused on the special qualities of the landscape. The Festival is multi-sited with events spread around the Wye Valley AONB, between Hereford and Chepstow, over 16 days in early May (over the first May Bank Holiday week-end and the following 2 weeks). Through the Festival the AONB Partnership has built new relationships linking outdoor arts with our more familiar partners from built and natural heritage, landowners, local communities, tourism and recreation, deepening their appreciation of the Wye Valley.
Each Festival has focused on a different theme, based on some of the Special Qualities in the AONB Management Plan. In 2014 the theme was ‘nature and culture’. 2016 was ‘Water’ and our relationship to it locally and globally. ‘Woods & Trees’ was the 2018 theme. Every Festival aims to engage new partners and inspire the community and artists in new ways. For each Festival the delivery team has comprised of the Wye Valley AONB Unit supported by artistic partners, Desperate Men, one of the UK’s leading outdoor theatre companies, and Phillipa Haynes – Festival Director and Netty Miles – Production Manager. A full Festival team is built up for each event.
In 2012 a six year Business Plan and Marketing Strategy was devised for the 3 Festivals, which has now been implemented. Each Festival had an 18 month lead in, including a Research & Development (R&D) phase where the environmental themes are explored with a gathering of artists, conservationists & local communities and the artistic responses initiated. These then feed into the main funding bids to Arts Council (England and Wales) and the AONB Sustainable Development Fund (SDF). Networks are put in place to bring the ambitious plans to fruition. The artistic work created is bespoke to reflect the landscape and themes explored during the R&D phase.
At the heart of each Festival has been a theatrical narrative that brings to life the issues highlighted around the theme and through the R&D. An Ensemble of 6-8 actors perform this theatrical piece at a variety of open air sites, some literally in the woods or on the riverbank, some part of village fetes or pub gardens, some bespoke Festival events, but all in and of the landscape. The performances tell a story and create dramatic tension that lead audiences to identify with the characters and the issues. These are complimented by other artistic commissions, community co-creations (eg. with local brass bands, youth circus, youth theatre, walking groups, etc.) and celebrations and processions.
In the build up to each Festival there is also an outreach programme of activity in schools and local communities. We have worked with choirs, community groups, playgroups, schools, youth groups and community workshops to create work or props for display or performance at the various Festivals. These support the overall narrative or Festival theme and also draw in the local audience through association.
The Festival flows through the AONB, meandering across the landscape like the River Wye and visits upwards of 20 separate locations with about 30 events, over the 16 days. Some locations or festival sites are large attracting an audience of 2000+ and others are smaller and more intimate, allowing work to be showcased in a way appropriate to each location.
The three Wye Valley River Festivals have been hugely successful. With each Festival we have learned lessons and been able to build on contacts and networks to produce a highly memorable series of events focused on the landscape of the Wye Valley AONB.
WVRF2014 attracted audiences of nearly 20,000 over 8 main sites, engaged over 1,500 artists and participants, plus over 150 people attended training or workshop sessions. The estimate of net contribution to the local economy was £275,000. The ‘Overall quality of the event’ was rated as Good or Excellent by 98% of respondents to feedback surveys. 65% learned something more about the area because of the event and 99% thought the River Festival was a good idea.
WVRF2016 encompassed 28 events, at 28 venues on sites from Hereford to Chepstow. We exceeded all our targets: Achieving 29,800+ people attending events. 1,200 school children were involved in our workshop programme.
WVRF 2018 There were about 30,000 visits or acts of engagement in 30 events at 25 different venues and only one outdoor event had any rain. 2 world premieres were performed on the first day of the Festival: the ‘Heart to Hart’ Ensemble performance celebrated the unique woodlands of the Wye Valley both exploring ash die back, traditional woodland management and deer management while creating wonder and charming audiences. Jony Easterby’s ‘Tree & Wood’ was a enthralling night time promenade installation creating a raphsody of traditional woodland skills set to song, sound and light. Other events included a woodland conference; a night time procession followed tree projections onto Monmouth’s Shire Hall; a festival finale with day long celebration of landscape and art culminating in a phenomenal deer-head fire sculpture and pyrotechnic display. Over 150 singers, musicians and amateur actors came together from riverside communities to perform at the events alongside seasoned professionals. Festival goers were entertained by local youth theatre and circus groups, choirs and bands and a range of professional and local artists. Over 300 torchbearers from the local communities joined together to celebrate their place, in Monmouth and Llandogo.
WVRF has created great opportunities for learning within the AONB team, the wider partnership and the community as a whole, in festival and event management at a variety of levels. It was one of the aims of the Festival to provide opportunities for skills development, growing people alongside the success of the Festival. Partnerships are key to the co-production and creative success: these take time to establish and require compromise and empathy from each partner, clear boundaries and expectations discussed and shared. Flexible planning and clear communications are critical. Roles and responsibilities need to be established early, SMART objectives set, budgets and milestones monitored. The core team have needed to be flexible and prepared to work day and night to implement a festival of this nature, which is only possible when everyone is committed. A robust marketing plan and budget is also essential – without it you have no audience.
The collaboration between artists, environmentalists and local communities has been at times a steep learning curve form each perspective. But over the 3 Festivals support and respect has been built up through the demonstration of dedication, professionalism and delivery.
Films created about 2014 and 2016 Wye Valley River Festivals can be viewed through the links below
Quote from partner
“What is outstanding about the festival – the seriousness with which the integrity of the artistic quality is paralleled by the importance given to conveying environmental messages and engaging people with the environment.” Annie Grundy, Articulture
Quote from participant
“The fact that extraordinary, high quality arts/performances were taking place in, what are usually, quiet, rural locations is a hugely successful aspect of the WVRF. The events generated a sense of community cohesion – people could not quite believe what was happening on their doorstep!” Hayley Elton-Wall, Artspace Cinderford
Key search words:
Outdoor /Arts, Environment, Festival, Arts Council, Sustainable Development Fund
Photo Credits: http://www.mywye.co.uk/festival-18-photos.html