HighTide's Steven Atkinson: 'The audience always comes first'
As he prepares to step down he talks to Curtain Call about the 2018 festival and plans for the future
Steven Atkinson is in reflective mood. After 12 years at the helm of HighTide, the new writing festival he co-founded in 2007, he will step down next year as artistic director and CEO.
Speaking to him amid preparations for the opening of this year's festival in Aldeburgh, the company's home since 2015, he's keen to share some of his accrued wisdom.
"One key thing I've learnt is that when it comes to making changes, it's not enough to say to your audience 'this is what we're doing and this is why we're doing it," he says. "They have to love the work. And if they don't, you have to ask whether change is right, and be ready to adapt."
He has just written an article for The Stage giving advice to new artistic directors. The timing could hardly be more apposite considering the current changing of the guard at leading new writing theatres; alongside HighTide the list of vacancies includes the Bush and Hampstead.
When he founded the festival, the discovery of new writers was its central purpose. But over the years, their definition of 'new' evolved, he explains. "It broadened to recognise work by people who were new but not necessarily brand new. This meant we started to hit a particular level of achievement with the plays that was really exciting to the rest of the industry."
Looking back, he still finds it surprising that HighTide became so influential so quickly. "When I started out I wanted to create plays for the Traverse, Young Vic and Royal Court. A decade on we have produced work at all three of those venues." Meanwhile the list of HighTide alumni includes the likes of Ella Hickson, Jack Thorne, Nick Payne, Vinay Patel and Elinor Cook.
But this success led to, in his own words, a "freak out" that HighTide was "starting to become establishment". This prompted a change of direction, to producing work by writers who had never been commissioned before. As part of this he's pioneered a mentoring scheme for both playwrights and producers. For the first time, this year's five HighTide productions all premiered at last month's Edinburgh Fringe ahead of their runs in Aldeburgh and Walthamstow.
This 'two festival' approach is an essential step, says Atkinson, towards helping early career artists become established. "Most people who do Edinburgh find it very difficult financially, so we felt by supporting our artists through it we could help them get the most out of it and showcase themselves to the industry. It's been extremely gratifying, and helped us to really broaden our programme."
"People always say now that new writing is ubiquitous. But I don't think that's true."
This year's HighTide programme ranges from a musical based on Norse mythology (Thor and Loki) to a magic show inspired by artificial intelligence (The Extinction Event). There is also Tallulah Brown's gig-theatre piece Songlines, Danusia Samal's solo show Busking It and Jessica Butcher's autobiographical musical Sparks. All five productions enjoyed successful runs at the Fringe.
So what's the secret of ensuring quality control across such a broad range of work? "We have a really unique way of commissioning," reveals Atkinson. "Instead of just giving a writer a fee and leaving them to it, we select the writer and then work with them on their own application to the Arts Council. The writers can then use a portion of the commission fee to employ dramaturgs and mentors, as well as run development workshops, so in a sense they become self-producers."
This is the first year HighTide has commissioned five new works in a single season. All of them will play in Aldeburgh and Walthamstow, where the festival returns after a successful launch last year (it sold over 7,500 tickets over two weeks). And further expansion is on the horizon. Next year the company will be a central part of Walthamstow's stint as London Borough of Culture, and there are plans to launch a festival in Lowestoft from 2021.
"I enjoy the way we can create work for different audiences," enthuses Atkinson. "Songlines, for example, is a very Suffolk story but it will be great to see how it plays in Walthamstow. Next year we're commissioning a piece about a female MC, who are currently massively underrepresented in the very male UK grime scene, which will be a really interesting addition to the Aldeburgh season. I like the idea of sharing different flavours between audiences."
For all its growth and change over the years, the support of new writers is still the central tenet of HighTide's raison d'être. But with other companies and venues increasingly following its example, I'm curious to know if Atkinson can ever see this changing.
"People always say now that new writing is ubiquitous. But I don't think that's true. Supporting new artists is a very specialised thing, and we've worked with our audiences over the years to help them appreciate the value of brand new work. That is why HighTide will always be such a good place to find gems of the future."
And, having been at the centre of it for over a decade, what is his take on the future more broadly for the UK theatre industry? These are changing and uncertain times for arts funding, as well as attitudes to new writing and culture in general.
"I feel really positive about the future. But we have to hold on to, and keep growing, our audience. My concern is that as a business theatre bashes itself a lot. We should continue to get better, of course, but we must never take for granted what we already have. If we do and we lose the audience we have already built, we will end up in a bad place."
As ever with Atkinson, the audience comes first. Which is why it seems a sure bet that next year he will find himself in hot demand, whatever the future may hold.
HighTide 2018 is in Aldeburgh from 11-16 September and Walthamstow from 18-30 September. For full programme visit HighTide.org.uk
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