Literary festivals – an elitist pastime for privileged audiences subsidised by the taxpayer or an enriching experience open to all that pay dividends on every pound spent on them?
A fair question and one that every festival director should consider. What are the barriers that prevent people attending? Could we be doing more to facilitate attendance from a broad range of audiences? In short: how accessible is our festival?
As director of the Huddersfield Literature Festival, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary, I spend a lot of my time balancing budgets, growing audiences and persuading publishers that it’s worth their while sending authors to our lovely corner of Yorkshire (selling out our 1,200-seater town hall for the explorer Levison Wood this year was a major boost).
Having taken over the festival in late 2012 with £40.70 in the bank, it would be easy to blame any lack of accessibility on the annual scramble for funding. Our annual budget may be similar to some other festivals’ annual deficit, but ultimately it’s about how we choose to spend our money.
So how can we, as festival directors, make events more accessible to audiences? Let’s start with the five Ps:
1. Pricing – offering affordable tickets and free or pay-what-you-like events
2. Programming – diverse events to encourage attendance by the wider community
3. Paying performers – because they are providing a service, and because it facilitates programme diversity
4. Picking accessible venues – with hearing loops, wheelchair ramps etc
5. Proactive partnerships – with organisations that can help improve festival accessibility
At present we work hard to keep ticket prices affordable, while paying performers a fair fee, and we work closely with local organisations, from reading charities to schools in disadvantaged areas, to make HLF more accessible to those from a variety of backgrounds.
When it comes to number five, proactive partnerships, there’s more work to be done, but we have made a start.
Having previously booked speech-to-text reporting for Kate Adie’s event at HLF2014, this year two of our events will have live subtitling by Stagetext, ‘to give deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences access to the event’. These are our launch event, The Pearls Project, an inclusive celebration of inspirational words curated by local theatre director Amanda Huxtable which took place on 2nd March; and a Charlotte Brontë event with biographer Claire Harman and bestselling author Joanne Harris, a tireless champion of her local festival, taking place on 12th March.
We also programmed a free family day with storytelling and films inspired by books, open to children of all abilities. And we are actively encouraging children with disabilities and special needs to attend an upcoming Bollywood dance and storytelling session, run by an experienced professional in a fully accessible venue.
Admittedly, making festivals accessible requires effort. Subtitling has a cost element and there’s some additional work: from liaising with the charity and setting up the venue to providing speeches and readings in advance and asking authors for a list of unusual words.
But over time, we fully intend to increase activities that improve accessibility and welcome approaches from partner organisations to help us move forward (after this year’s festival finishes, please!). That way, audiences currently ‘locked out’ of the festival will find doors open wide and a welcome sign overhead.