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”.

Nice one Dave.

From the guy who learned all he ever knew about venue managing from you.

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