Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Life as a Greenbelt Venue Manager

Much of my recent visit to the Greenbelt Festival was spent catching up with old friends and their news. This forms part of my main enjoyment of being at the festival and amongst those I tend to bump into, are people who I have previously worked with at the festival, either as part of the Performing Arts and Classical Music group, or venue management.

The conversation with one of these people prompted this blog.

One of the key areas which Greenbelt has to fill each year is the role of venue manager in each of the tents, rooms and fields where it is holding events over the weekend. It is a role that goes fairly unnoticed by the public – the manager will often be seen hovering around in the background, possibly making platform announcements, and depending on the venue, introducing the next artist or speaker.

I started my working life at Greenbelt as a Venue Manager back in 1993 when the festival moved to Deene Park. It was triggered by a call from the then General Manager of the festival, saying he had a job that he thought would be ideal for me. Deene had a de-consecrated church and it had been decided to use it for a mix of classical music and speakers. Unusually for Greenbelt, the venue was off-site, a good 20 minute walk through the village.

For me it was a case of being thrown in at the deep end. It soon became apparent that the church was held in high esteem by the locals and that whatever we did there would impact significantly on our relationship with the village. As a venue it was brilliant, but it had been empty for some time and was covered in dust and cobwebs, plus the electrics were something out of the Ark. In the week running up to the festival locals came together and volunteered to clean the church. I spent much of my time talking with locals and we used the church as a form of PR with the village. Access for locals during the festival was free and the front row was always kept available for the owners of Deene Park. Lady Brudenell arranged for huge bouquets of flowers to be made up and placed in the church. The evening classical concerts conducted by candlelight were breath-taking.

The other great thing about the church was the fact that it had failed to appear on any officialdom radar in its first year. We had no capacity limit set, and were left to our own devices. The sound desk and lighting was extremely basic – any more and the electrics would have blown. My best memory of the weekend was when Adrian Plass was speaking in the church. This was a venue that held at best 200-300 people. We crammed about 500-600 inside. There was literally no space to breathe with all the aisles filled with people sitting. Outside the church people were climbing the walls, clinging to the window ledges to watch the event.

Of course this couldn’t last forever, and the following year saw firecrew inspections, stewards and capacity limits imposed. Having the freedom though for that one year to create something from scratch paved the way for what was to be 12 years of managing venues.

Over those 12 years I worked with some amazing people and was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for some of the most popular events. We created venues out of nothing and during Greenbelt’s darkest financial hours, even shared a venue with the Fine Arts team. For me the best venues were the courtyard stable at Deene Park, and the Hall of Fame at Cheltenham. The stable courtyard was highly commended for the Green Room, which was in the pig sty. And of course our first job on site was to muck out the pig sty. My final role before having to retire due to family priorities, was to jointly manage the inaugural year of using Centaur at Cheltenham. This fantastic purpose built venue also proved to be about the most difficult to manage. It was new, had cost several million pounds, and the company responsible for day-to-day running of the venue was very worried a weekend of Greenbelt could see it burnt to the ground.

We spent most of the weekend in meetings with the Racecourse, discussing each event, providing the necessary assurances. Somehow we scraped through, learning as we went along. We had some pretty hairy moments when mothers were separated from their children as the only toilets were across the way from the venue, and stewards would not allow re-access as the venue was full. And I squeezed about 2,500 people into the arena for the sing-along to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, whilost keeping about 2,000 young children entertained for over 30 minutes as we attempted to get everyone in.

It’s been several years now since I venue managed. Would I do it again? Yes, definitely if I had the time. Would I encourage others to get involved with the festival and sign up as venue managers? Yes, it is a great way to become part of the Greenbelt family and gives you the chance to put into practice all those skills you never realised you had.

At times it can be quite a lonely job, but the constant changeovers mean you are never sitting still.

What skills are required? To a certain extent it depends on where you are managing. Something like the big top requires an ability to multi-task and see the stuff others have failed to spot. Often you may find the crew is used to working on single events. So when presented with 9am worship, followed by a speaker, followed by theatre, followed by music, followed by dance followed by an orchestra etc, it can be a bit daunting.

A key skill is pre-planning, gathering information about events and making sure everyone involved with the venue is singing off the same hymn sheet. A good example of where it can go wrong was the first year of Centaur. We hosted The Rising. On day one, the tech crew set up a rig for one man and his guitar. The stage manager hadn’t registered that it involved 4 people. But the venue managers knew the set-up by heart so crisis averted.

Always follow the rules and ensure others know them and follow them. We once blew up a £7000 lighting desk because the artist went and plugged an incorrectly wired light into the system.

Be prepared to take tough decisions – don’t lose sight of your role and the importance of delivering the events people have paid to come and see. We once held an emergency meeting at 3am to discuss a growing problem and agree the steps necessary to resolve.

Listen, and then listen again. There is much that you will learn from colleagues, especially the Operations Team which probably has 150 years plus experience between them.

Know who to speak to. Few venues escape the weekend without at least one thing going wrong. If you are luck the biggest hurdle you will face is ensuring you have power connected up before you are due to go live. This is something that can often require the need to sit on the site crew, especially if you are due to open earlier than other venues.

Make your needs and your priority known early on. And don’t let the sparky out of your sight when he/she turns up, else they will be gone, off to another emergency call.

Always carry a notebook with you. Take notes of what worked well, and what didn’t. These days Centaur seems to run like clockwork. Much of this though is down to the feedback received from venue managers and others that first year.

Know you crew and be nice to the stewards. I always made a point of chatting to the stewards when they came on duty, explaining to them what was going to be happening, and making them feel at home.

Remember that you are ultimately in charge. Others may be keen to take decisions and I’ve met plenty of artists who were determined to do things their own way. Your job is to stick to the rule book, possibly bending it a bit where it is for the good of the festival. Don’t be afraid to say no. And if you feel out of depth, you can always call in one of the Operations Team for support and guidance.

Most of all, enjoy yourself. Take pride in what you have achieved, knowing that Greenbelters will be saying “what a great venue”.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Michael McDermott - Greenbelt 2010

My blog page has become an annual affair over the last couple of years as I moved into Facebook and then Twitter territory. But when I was reading some old blogs yesterday, I was reminded that I have always blogged about Michael McDermott’s visits to Greenbelt. So in breaking with my new found laziness, here is my take on Greenbelt and specifically Michael McDermott.

It’s been 3 years since Michael last graced Greenbelt with his presence. Last time round he had been booked to play a couple of big gigs and I had launched a mini gorilla campaign to ensure no one at the festival had an excuse to say they didn’t know he was on. Wall to wall posters plastered the site, so much so they even got mentioned in one of the main festival reviews that year.

The tactic worked and Michael played to packed houses all weekend and lots of new fans were made. This time round there were no posters. Pre the festival various Facebook sites were used to remind people who Michael is, and Steve Foster wrote a beautiful piece for the Greenbelt website on why he was excited by Michael playing the festival.

Coming to England to play when you live in Chicago is expensive, so the choice of gigs and venues was very important to ensure people would see Michael play and and then buy the CD. So thanks go to Rachel and the music team for Performance Café and The Rising, Last Order’s team for their show, and also the CD store guys for giving Michael a good afternoon slot.

I met Michael shortly before he was due to play Saturday night in the performance Café. He had already told me how tired he was - combination of jet lag and lack of sleep from being a proud new father. He looked weary and I wondered whether this could impact on the performance.

Come kick-off time the Performance Café was bursting at the seams with not a chair or space on the floor to be found. I made do with a space at the side of the stage, with two of Michael’s biggest fans, Mike and Hannah, just behind me. I spend half my time at a McDermott gig scanning the audience, watching their reactions, soaking in the emotions that they show from their listening. Even before the show started it was clear this was an audience that included people who already knew and love Michael’s music. Yes, even in England there are hardcore fans!

The front of the stage was packed with youngsters seated on the ground. One of the most notable bits about this weekend was the impact Michael clearly had on teenagers and I would love to see him do a workshop/show in the youth area at Greenbelt in the future.

So it’s showtime. Another of Michael’s biggest fans over here also happens to be the compere for this venue, so after several superlatives from Paul in the build-up, Michael hit the stage. Don’t ask me for the track list - I don’t remember. Total running time was 45-50 minutes (thanks Paul). Favourites such as So Am I, Wall, LA Woman rolled of Michael’s tongue. And it was all very weird. Michael played with such ferocity and emotion you might have expected this to be the start of some rallying cry to go forth into battle. Except that the audience was silent - totally silent. None of the constant background chattering you get in videos on YouTube of Michael playing bars and clubs in the States. Here was an audience that was totally stunned and shaken by the outpouring from Michael.

Quieter moments came with Wounded, which in itself carries such weight and power, and I was pleased that Carry Your Cross was chosen to be the closing song as Michael brought us gently back down to earth. He intertwined this with an old American gospel song which he sang un-miked as he strolled off through the crowd and off into the moonlight. Take a look at Flickr for pictures of Michael in the Performance Café - it’s a great venue, by far the best looking one at the festival.

No polite applause for Michael at the end of the performance, just an eruption of yelps and cheers.

Michael was to perform one song later that night at the Last Orders show - a kind of chat show/video and music event. Big venue and fairly full which is never easy at 11pm. I like to catch a bit of Last Orders each year as I was involved with them when they first got going. I have always wanted to see Michael play on the show so it was great to be sat amongst so many people to witness this. To be honest it was all over a bit too quickly and I cannot remember what he sang (may have been a new song).

Greenbelt for me is very much a time to catch up with old friends. I don’t have the luxury of many who go off on holidays to exotic places - my sole holiday each year is 2days spent at Greenbelt. It’s a strange place to go and try and unwind but most of my life long friends are also there and there is much catching up to be done. So for me, the rest of the evening was bar-side chats and early to bed. Michael, I believe, kept others entertained with his Springsteen repertoire. Would love to have heard it but life is about priorities, and for me that was sleep.

Sunday at Greenbelt is dominated by the coming together of 20,000 plus people for a morning service. So often in recent years I have been busy doing other stuff (last year I was arranging the communion taking place after the service, busy opening wine bottles) and only manage to dip into it. This year I was able to be there in its entirety. For the last 30 years I have always been with the same group of friends when I go to the service, and this year was no exception. Sadly the service failed to have the impact on me that it did on others. Poor sound and lack of video screen to the left of the stage made it difficult to follow the proceedings. But it is still a great feeling to be stood amongst so many.

The next chapter of Michael at Greenbelt was about to unfold. There is one "must-do" gig in my eyes for Michael at Greenbelt, and that is to stand alongside Martyn Joseph at The Rising. Three artists are chosen to appear with Martyn, and get to discuss their inspiration etc and sing a couple of songs. Martyn talked about the passion Michael puts into every word and note when he performs, and Michael duly delivered. This is a gig that is impossible to get into, such are the sizes of the queue, so grateful for friends who enabled for me to have the best view in the house. From memory Michael sang Wall and LA Woman (OK Still Aint Over You Yet - but LA Woman is easier to type). Michael then joined in on harmonies with Martyn on a Springsteen song. As with the Performance Café, Michael gave it everything. The messages from the States were true - he is singing the best people can remember. Audience reaction told you that he had nailed it.

A quick bite to eat and then it was off to the CD store for his final performance that weekend. A decent crowd was there to see him play and he gave 20 Miles an outing as his closing number. This was followed by a CD signing session, using his very own ("Michael McDermott Autograph Pen" - I kid you not!). The queue was great, and as with the rest of the weekend, Michael showed a warmness and engagement with fans that I had never witnessed before. None of the nerves that had been present on previous trips were evident and Greenbelters went away happy with their photo with Michael memento.

The weekend was almost over for both of us - I had to go home early the following day, Michael was flying back to Heather and Rain. There was time for an interview at the press office, and whilst Michael was doing that I had an interesting discussion with a journalist about music stuff.

Michael was clearly shattered and I dropped him back at the hotel. I caught up on some paperwork that I had promised myself I would do during the weekend and then met up with friends back at the festival. Later I joined the Pip Wilson crew in the bar and we chatted to the small hours with Gil Scott-heron’s band - wonderful stuff from them. Sadly Gil failed to show on the Monday, but that’s another story.

Monday morning I dropped Michael off at the coach station, said my farewells to people and headed home in a record 3 and a half hours, helped by the tribute show on Radio 4 to Humphrey Lyttelton.

I was away from home for about 52 hours. Not the longest holiday I have ever had! It had moments of joy, sadness, reflection and at times was just plain weird. Was it all worth it - YES.


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