Queer Up North 2009, in retrospect

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It’s been nearly three weeks (how?!) since Queer Up North finished for 2009, and this is the first time I’ve been able to sit down and organise my thoughts on the festival — what was great, what was good, and what could have been done better — down into my blog. Artistically this was certainly the best one I’ve ever been involved with, but still, there were a few things we could have done better.

Long piece this one, so it’s under the cut…

What Was Great

This is the first year (of the four at which I have volunteered) of which I could say that the programming of the festival as a whole was, to me, faultless. We brought back performers with whom we’ve developed a close relationship, we commissioned and showcased new work, we brought over work never before seen in the UK, and all of it was unashamedly of a Queer ethos. No compromises, no tokenism, no pandering, just the right artists performing in a festival that brought them together.

Personally, I have so many highlights this year that I feel bad about picking examples. Taylor Mac’s The Young Ladies Of… was a great piece, funny, engaging and still affecting. Steven Cohen’s 3 Pieces provoked thought and debate. Chris Goode’s The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley invoked the powerlessness of a teenager and replied with a wistfully comical, yet potent, answer. Novice Theory and Our Lady J ranged in song from gospel to lyrical storytelling.

It seems wrong to pick out these few. There wasn’t a single thing I saw that I didn’t enjoy.

What was Good

The Spiegeltent – I still smirk when I say its name was “La Gayola” – was a great venue, but had a few limitations. It would have been great had it been in the gay village, but whether the massively increased costs from location and security could have been recouped in ticket sales? I don’t know. Would the audiences have been different — less queer, more diverse, more difficult? Almost certainly. Would it have been harder to manage and run? Certainly. Overall I think its location broke all of us in as gently as could have happened. I’d have been able to cope with larger, more rowdy houses, but it wouldn’t have been fun for me or my volunteers front of hourse.

Our internal organisation was good — and that’s to say every single person involved worked above and beyond the call of duty. We were effectively two full-time people short this year, and there simply weren’t enough man-hours available to get everything done that needed to be, as well as it needed to be. I could have been better in managing the volunteers, who were the mainstay, as ever, of making sure audiences were happy. Richard Bliss ran the Spiegeltent box office with skill and humour, a role he never signed on for. Louise de Koning took on every single job that overflowed from any of us, managed to do them all, and still sing in a performance. Polly from Taurus managed the bars with humour above and beyond the call of duty. Emma Ryan and Jonathan Best managed to cram more work into each day than was previously believed to be possible.

It shouldn’t happen like this. But it does. We all kinda cope. We even made it out for drinks once or twice this year — that was a first.

What could have been done better?

There are always things that could have been improved. Many of them happened because of circumstance — we couldn’t confirm as much as we’d like as soon as we’d have liked, which pushed so much so late.

In the future, I’d like to recruit volunteers earlier in the cycle and to treat them better. I need to make sure they’re automatically comped to the performance at which they’re volunteering, that experienced and inexperienced volunteers are paired up, and that I meet and work with as many as possible early on in the festival. I know from personal experience that it’s easy to feel unvalued as a volunteer, yet there are certain tasks that absolutely rely on them.

Getting volunteers earlier in the cycle means at the very least a little low-level marketing early on in the cycle. While of course print, especially the brochure, can only be done at the last minute, this is no longer strictly a print age. More generalised marketing must be got out sooner — a banner in Canal Street (and why not in Leeds and Liverpool too?) plus targeted web advertising, driving people to a website that is updated early on in the cycle with as much information as can be given. Add to this email alerts and well-updated news feeds plus someone keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook — little bits of information, early, and often. That’s how I’d do it. It’s another set of tasks that someone needs to pick up in January however.

We do need to find a way by which we stop killing people. We’ve ruthlessly taken advantage of any help that’s been offered to us over the years, and we don’t even say thank you often enough. I know that we value and are grateful to every single person who offers help. But pissing them off doesn’t help the next festival out. The reason why this happens is that we never have enough core people. Either by lack of funding or by attrition, I always think we’re trying to do this around 3 people short.

And what next?

Paraphrased from Picture of a Man by Our Lady J, “this is what living feels like”. I’m run off my feet during the festival – this year I lost nine pounds in weight. But I’m alive. It’s big, complex, and I can hold a little bit of it together and feel alive in doing so.

Now how do I get into doing this as a proper source of income? It doesn’t need to be much income — the feeling alive is the thing.

That’s my next challenge.