As part of our collaboration with Peak, we caught up with Adrian Lambert, Chief of Staff at Hay Festival and one of Peak’s artistic advisers, alongside Melissa Hinkin and Lisa Edgar. The group meets with Peak staff on a voluntary basis throughout the year to discuss and guide the organisation’s artistic programme.
Adrian, can you tell us a bit about your role as Chief of Staff at Hay Festival. What attracted you initially to work at Hay Festival and how would you describe your professional goals?
In my previous post as Artistic Director at Rural Media I premiered 4 large scale film/digital projects at the Festival – Crafta Webb, Dirty Bandages, Still Life and Five Years in the Fifties, which were all incredibly well received.
I had always admired and enjoyed the Festival (I first attended in 1989, when I came to Herefordshire) and when I screened the films I really enjoyed being around ‘live’ events again. My background is in theatre, and even though my work had moved into film and digital media there is still something about the ‘live’ event that I find incredibly appealing and enduring. I think it’s the connection you can make with an audience and the opportunity to be emotionally engaged with others in the same room. Whilst I was at Rural Media I found myself creating new digital projects that encompassed more live elements, for example Life Loves to Change, a large scale film and poetry project in Ledbury that placed 32 films in 16 businesses across the town and culminated in a live performance of the poem with film projection and Five Years in the Fifties, an archive, poetry and music project, which encompassed performance, digital media, poetry and a new score. Hay seemed a natural step back into the ‘live’ event world, an opportunity to explore new ideas and be involved with a Festival that had a significant national and global reach.
My initial focus at Hay, and one I continue to have, is on the digital outputs of the Festival. We film and audio record over 1000 events a year globally. Over the four years I have been at the Festival we have developed the Hay Player platform and begun to use our media assets more creatively, which has been very exciting to see. We now have over 7000 pieces of audio and 2000 films on the Hay Player platform dating back to 1992, with some incredible speakers from Harold Pinter to Margaret Attwood. The digital world is continually changing so keeping up to speed with new developments is a challenge, but there are some fascinating possibilities for all arts companies and as a global organisation we find ourselves in a very interesting position.
As Chief of Staff I work closely with the Director, Board of Directors and colleagues across the organisation to deliver Hay Festival’s strategic, creative, corporate and charitable objectives. I very much enjoy the detail of organisations; the diverse portfolio, budgets and finance, human resources, the ‘total production’. As an artist, or manager I have always enjoyed making things happen, to ensure that the organisation (or project) delivers for everyone involved, whether they are artists, audience or funders.
Could you say something about your studies at Dartington College of Arts and your previous involvement as Artistic Director at Rural Media Company, Hereford – how do these experiences inform your work now?
I studied Theatre at Dartington (1985-89) and I think most students who attended the college will testify on how it influenced their lives, careers and creative thinking. The arts education at Dartington was rooted in social context and creative experimentation, which equipped you with the most extraordinary range of skills, enabling you to create challenging pieces of work, whilst engaging and working with communities in both rural and urban settings. I left Dartington as a theatre practitioner dedicated to making innovative performance work for new audiences. My career initially led me both into experimental performance with a group of friends from college in a company we created called Pants Performance Association, and more traditional theatre, working with Annie Castledine at Derby Playhouse. Our first Pants show was a final assessment piece which was selected for the (now sadly missed) National Review of Live Art. We went on to receive commissions from the Third Eye Centre and CCA, Glasgow, Arnolfini, LIFT and a Barclays New Stages Award amongst others and toured the UK. At the same time I also formed a company with my wife (who I had met at Dartington) called Tinseltown, which explored multi narrative story-telling techniques and the use of multimedia in performance.
One of our performances commissioned by Arnolfini was Disposable which was staged in the V Shed on Bristol Harbourside, a space now occupied by bars and restaurants, but back in 1994 it was still a very large empty warehouse and we were handed the keys! We constructed a rain machine inside the building, performed scientific experiments and created vast landscapes the length of the space (the size of a football pitch!), giving us an indoor perspective to play which would have been impossible to achieve anywhere else. We changed each performance nightly after discussions with the audience, disposing of content and replacing it with new ideas we were developing, continually moving the piece into different realms. All of these experiences led me to create new performances in other spaces, utilising computer and video projections, not only with artists but also with communities and young people, developing ways in which our work could engage and attract new audiences to what was traditionally labelled ‘difficult’ work. After 10 years of making performance work my interest in new media forms led me to the BBC, and I joined their infamous Production Trainee programme where I worked in radio and TV drama, documentary and programme development and from there I went on to join Rural Media.
Whilst I enjoyed my time at the BBC I was impatient to create my own work, I couldn’t reconcile the thought of working on something that I wouldn’t actually watch. So when I came across Rural Media it felt like the perfect fit – it had originally been founded from a theatre company (Pentabus) and possessed many of the same Dartington values, engagement and experiment, and was a perfect melting pot for my skills and experiences.
I’ve had a very diverse career that has taken in live art, repertory theatre, street theatre, installation, education, site specific, TV, film and radio. I have worked with fellow professionals, with people from the age of 7 to 75 in rural and urban communities and with young people in schools, colleges and special education. Throughout my career my approach has been the same, to create the best thing I, or we, possibly can and to ensure that everyone involved remains engaged in the project. Context is key, but I have always felt that people can achieve the most extraordinary things and will always rise to a challenge if supported, nurtured and engaged. As my career has changed and evolved I still feel the same.
What is a challenging part of your job that book lovers might not see when they are attending an event at Hay Festival?
Every job brings its own challenges. Our aim is to ensure that when people come to the Festival they have the most fantastic experience and hopefully don’t see the work that goes on behind the scenes. I think the fact that you could drive past the site 2 months before and 1 month after the Festival and have no idea that where the sheep are now grazing is where 1700 people were watching Margaret Attwood, laughing at Bill Bailey, browsing thousands of books or eating incredible food speaks volumes. The Festival doesn’t exist unless it’s made and there are lots of talented people who help bring it to life.
What are the pressing matters Literature and Arts festivals, such as Hay, are faced with today?
I have only been at the Festival for 4 years, but it’s clear there are more literature, arts and music festivals than when Hay first started and it’s a far more competitive industry than it ever used to be. The rise of digital has also enabled us to connect with artists and writers in ways in which we couldn’t possibly dream of, without even leaving our homes! That said, attending a Festival has possibly reaped the rewards of the digital explosion as people seek to connect with artists and authors in living spaces – the shared live experience is something that people perhaps now value and crave more than ever. We have to be continually creative, adapt and remain flexible to new ideas, but I think the future for the Festival is very positive.
What’s the significance of Hay Festival’s location in the Welsh borders – how does the festival respond to that context and balance regional, national and international perspectives through its programming?
The Welsh borders have a magic to them, whether its Hay, Kington or Bishops Castle, and appear to inspire amazing feats of the imagination and welcome and attract the most extraordinary people. The Festival has always embraced its community, whether they are artists, audiences, employees or suppliers. Hay, like many other rural market towns has had to adapt to survive. When Richard Booth opened his first bookshop and claimed independence for Hay in 1977 I doubt anyone foresaw the ramifications of that one action. Hay, as a town, and as a Festival, has always looked beyond its borders whether that’s into England or other countries and cultures across the world, in the Festival’s case Colombia, Spain, Kenya, Ireland, Bangladesh, Beirut, Maldives, Mexico and Peru. Writers, artists, creatives and thinkers have always been welcomed to this small Welsh border town and the Festival programme continues to reflect that. The Festivals strapline Imagine the World is very accurate.
How do you like to work with people, what’s your approach to leading teams of creative individuals?
Have a great idea.
Expect the best of everyone and they will give it.
Listen to other people’s suggestions.
Don’t be frightened to change direction.
Look in unexpected places.
Take people with you, always.
Apologise when you need to.
Celebrate your success.
Cheer your failures.
If people attending the Hay Festival take away only one important point about literature and the arts, what would you want that to be?
That literature and the arts are for everyone.
What projects are you currently working on?
We’re currently researching how we can develop our digital offer and engage a wider audience with Hay content, and perhaps begin to create more ‘digital first’ pieces of work.
What are you currently reading?
I am an avid consumer of music and not only enjoy listening but also reading about musicians, groups and culture. Brett Anderson’s, Coal Black Mornings, is one of the most engaging I have read, a beautiful account of growing up and the birth of a band. I continually reach for 1966 by Jon Savage, probably one of the most enlightened, forensic and intelligent books I have read about 1960’s culture and politics and The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal is something that I am currently dipping into… then there is Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples, a glorious piece of work.