9 January 2018

Ellie reflects on Critical Mass

Our Production Coordinator Ellie Nicholls reflects on her first visit to ISAN’s annual conference Making Waves: Critical Mass 27-28 November 2017.

In this sector we’re too often consumed with the quotidian, frenetic business of making incredible spectacle happen, but it’s vital that sometimes we step back and reflect on what it’s all about. Being a first time ‘fresh faced’ attendee, and so it was a golden opportunity to learn more about the most pertinent ideas and challenges for the Outdoor Arts sector in this, a most intractable of years.

Milton Keynes was the chosen host city for the conference, having recently been part of the team that delivered MK’s 50th birthday celebrations finale , it felt good to be back in town. ISAN Executive Producer Angus Mackechnie opened proceedings by elaborating a little on the framework of the conference, which was structured around four main themes; Celebrating Success, Measuring Impact, Moving Forward and Making Mischief.

Day One galloped through an eclectic bevy of speakers, among others Bev Adams (ISAN) spoke rousingly about the necessity to continue grow and professionalise the Outdoor Arts in a Post-Brexit world. Longtime Plank collaborator Jeanefer Jean-Charles gave a fascinating presentation on her work as a mass movement choreographer, and the importance of encouraging independent creative agency within volunteers.

In the afternoon Sue Hill of WildWorks gave a keynote speech centred around her work on outdoor theatre piece ‘Wolf’s Child’. The show was created with Sue’s late partner Bill Mitchell, who sadly passed away before the project was fully realised. Her deeply personal account of citing the work in the wild woods of Cornwall and her vivid description of the creative journey she went on, both with Bill and then alone throughout the production process left not a dry eye in the house.

The following day, with only slightly sore heads, we re-gathered in the auditorium. Tuesday featured discussion and debate around topics of inclusion and diversity.  The standout talk for me was from Global Grooves, youth representative Freya Bennett-Neilson talked with passion and poise about her experiences going from volunteer to helping to run a small festival with the organisation. Hearing about her journey and achievements, was quite remarkable. I really don’t think I would have had the wherewithal to speak with such clarity and confidence at her age, or even now to be honest, she was an inspiration.

Jude Kelly (Southbank Centre) rounded off the presentations with a message of love, unity and hope, before we headed back to Festive Road to showcase new work at the ‘Ideas Summit Marketplace’. Plank presented our new show Inferno: The After party which got a lot of interest.

Given the recent announcement that the UK will no-longer be eligible to a participate in the European Capital of Culture, the conference proved to be a defiant call to arms. Anti-isolationism, the importance of rebelling against the increasing number of pseudo ‘public spaces’ (which are actually being bought up big corporations) and a desire to reduce racism, sexism and ableism were common strands in many discussions. I came away with an enhanced respect for the scope of what Outdoor Arts can do. When done well, it has the power to incite a sense of community, cohesion and creativity in individuals, and by its very nature is one of the most democratic mediums to do so.