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Drôles d’oiseaux et art blaxon - Generik Vapeur (Photo by Louise Wilkin)
Last week, Stockton was transformed as more than 40 companies from at least 10 different countries landed in the town to perform in and around the High Street as part of the annual Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF). It really is the most spectacular festival and a credit to Stockton Council staff, who remain bold, brave and ambitious in their artistic vision - not just for the festival, but for the whole borough year-round.
SIRF always reminds me of my very first week in Stockton, when I took up my role at ARC in 2008, at the height of the recession. It’s no secret that ARC was struggling at the time, so I knew I had to achieve a complete turnaround in its fortunes if we were to survive.
I arrived on the Monday, having only ever visited the town once before (for my interview), and found the town full of artists. At the time, I didn’t really understand ARC’s relationship to SIRF, so was somewhat bemused to find myself seemingly hosting a guest reception for a festival we didn’t run. Meeting the then Chief Executive of Arts Council England, Alan Davey, as well as the North East Director, Mark Robinson on Day 3 in a new job probably wasn’t ideal. I can’t imagine I wowed them with confidence that ARC was in safe hands as I made rather awkward conversation! I’m happy to say that they both proved to be very good friends of the organisation, so I think I got away with it...
At the end of the week, still adjusting to the culture shock of having moved from the South to the North, I stood in the High Street alongside hundreds of local people as Dutch company Close Act performed their stunning show, Malaya. Huge structures rolled through the audience, as we were pushed to and fro to make way for them. I can honestly say I was frightened at times but also amazed as the bravery of the festival team to stage this event - it would have been quite something in the middle of an empty field, but in a High Street surrounded by street furniture, shop fronts and bus stops, the whole visual spectacle and its proximity to the audience was heightened.
As I went home that night, I can remember thinking: ‘If that’s what people get to experience in the street, for free, what on earth am I going to put on at ARC that they will come and pay for?’
It was quite a relief to find out that SIRF only happened once a year, but it sure set the bar high in terms of what audiences expect. When you’ve stood behind two young lads on BMXs and heard them critique an outdoor dance show with all the experience of a seasoned dance critic, you know there’s no dumbing down to be done in Stockton. We expect the best.