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Steven Atkinson is ready to enjoy final HighTide festival as director

PUBLISHED: 19:01 06 September 2019 | UPDATED: 09:51 10 September 2019

Steven Atkinson who is stepping down as artistic director of the HighTide theatre festival in Aldeburgh Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

Steven Atkinson who is stepping down as artistic director of the HighTide theatre festival in Aldeburgh Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

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HighTide has become stand-out event in the theatre calendar over the past 12 years. Now that founder Steven Atkinson is about to head off to pastures new, he talks about what has made this Suffolk festival so influential

LIT by Sophie Ellerby which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: HighTideLIT by Sophie Ellerby which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: HighTide

Next week the 12th HighTide theatre festival opens in Aldeburgh. It's a celebration of new writing, giving both actors and audiences a chance to sample the very best in new theatre writing and encourage new voices in theatre.

The festival which first started in Halesworth in 2007, was the brainchild of theatre-maker Steven Atkinson who wanted to host an annual event that would encourage new writing for the theatre. The festival would also bring in experienced theatre-makers to be interviewed and host discussions as well as to star in some of the productions.

HighTide moved to Aldeburgh in 2015 which allowed them to significantly expand their programme. Each year there is a mix of commissions from national writers as well as work from East Anglian-based playwrights. In addition to fully staged productions there are rehearsed readings of new work and touring productions from local and national companies which have made their mark in Edinburgh or other festivals around the country.

Pops, by Charlotte Josephine, which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: Bronwen SharpPops, by Charlotte Josephine, which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

This year's event will be bittersweet because it marks the last one overseen by founder Steven Atkinson. He feels its time to explore new opportunities and to hand over the reigns of what is now a thriving festival to a fresh pair of hands, Suba Das, former associate director at the Curve (theatre) in Leicester.

Steven, HighTide is now a major national theatre event that takes place on the Suffolk coast. Has it developed in the way that you expected or is the festival now in a completely different place to the one you were aiming for?

Rust, by Kenny Emson, which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: HighTideRust, by Kenny Emson, which is being staged as part of this year's HighTide festival in Aldeburgh. Photo: HighTide

"That's a very good question. I don't think that necessarily I spent a lot of time thinking about the long term future. In the beginning you are putting all your time and energy into just getting a new festival off the ground. Looking back now I think HighTide is far more successful that I ever thought possible. We have been able to find very good plays, develop relationships with some wonderful writers and stage plays that people have wanted to see.

"For me the mark of a great play and a good writer is that they go on to do great things away from the festival. HighTide is a launch pad. I find it remarkable that whenever a major theatre publishes details of a new season there will be new work contained in that season and invariably a former HighTide writer will be involved. So if you have ever been to HighTide in Halesworth or Aldeburgh , then you are seeing the work of major new writers at the outset of their careers."

Steven Atkinson who is stepping down as artistic director of the HighTide theatre festival in Aldeburgh Photo: Sarah Lucy BrownSteven Atkinson who is stepping down as artistic director of the HighTide theatre festival in Aldeburgh Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

You read in the theatrical press that some theatres do have a problem in attracting as large an audience as they used to. Do you think an injection of new energy from emerging writers will help attract a new, perhaps younger audience?

"I think what has changed in the 12 years that HighTide has been running is the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, and they are after both audiences and writers. So you have talents scouts, television producers, coming to festivals like HighTide looking for writers with distinctive voices and looking for material which can be turned into good television. If you remember our production of Girls by Theresa Ikoko, the first thing that happened with that was Channel 4 optioned the rights to develop that play into a TV series which Theresa is still writing at the moment. So the whole landscape has changed for audiences, for theatres and for writers.

You say you have been lucky that great plays and writers have come along but you have worked hard at developing new talent.

"That is true. One of guiding principles I have always had is getting the balance right between mentoring and collaborating. For many of these writers HighTide represents the first opportunity to have a play properly staged in a professional theatre and you want to allow them to have a voice, to flex their creative muscles while smoothing out some of the rough edges. It's important to me that they have a good experience before they go into like TV or film where it is very much the producers and directors who are in charge. As a result we have had some amazing plays because we have encouraged writers to be brave and to be bold.

And it's good that you have developed a relationship with certain writers over a period of years. There's a sense of continuity as you continue to work with people over a number of different projects.

"If you look at this year's programme we have Tallulah Brown and Vinay Patel coming back and when we produce a second or third play by a writer it's because we have always believed in them and perhaps we felt that their first play didn't quite have the career changing impact that we felt they deserved so by doing a second play, it's giving them another opportunity and its a major vote of confidence from us. I always remember Elinor Cook who did The Girl's Guide to Saving the World, her first play didn't set world alight as we thought it would and so we commissioned a second play Pilgrims which packed in audiences and then played at The Yard and Theatre Clwyd. Following her second HighTide production she was commissioned by the Donmar Warehouse to adapt Ibsen's The Lady From The Sea. She had made a name for herself."

Has your approach to make-up of the festival changed as it has grown?

"Not really. People always like well-made plays. We have always been about telling good stories - something like Rust, this year, or LIT is a good example. We like making plays about recognisable people in difficult situations. I suppose the biggest change in recent years is that we have expanded into more experimental theatre. This year we have a company called Queer House they embrace quite challenging themes about sexuality and identity and I feel that the festival is now big enough to incorporate that kind of thing and that is then balanced by the talks and that ensures that there will always be established artists in the festival programme. My approach to programming has always been the same over the 12 years and it has always been about maintaining a balance between quality, innovation and experience. At the end of the day HighTide is all about good writing.

This year's programme includes: the world premiere of LIT by Sophie Ellerby which explores turbulent teenage years; Rust, by Kenny Emson, is an ultra-contemporary, sexy and funny, love story about two people trying to escape the pressures of the modern world; Collapsible by Irish writer Margaret Perry, a funny, furious new monologue about holding on, and Pops, by Charlotte Josephine, which follows a father and daughter caught in a cycle of addiction trying to love fiercely through a hopeless situation.

A new partnership between HighTide and The Queer House provides the opportunity for Since U Been Gone, by Teddy Lamb, and Mia Johnson's Pink Lemonade to come to Suffolk.

Steven Atkinson's last HighTide festival takes place at several venues across Aldeburgh from September 10-15. The full programme and tickets for all shows are available at www.hightide.org.uk or call Snape Maltings Box Office on 01728 687110. Website www.hightide.org.uk

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