Leadership Diaries: “The work never stops”

This week, Andrew Loretto, director of Hat Fair and Playmakers talks describes a week in his life leading up to the annual Hat Fair and everything that goes along with it.
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Hat Fair is the UK’s longest-running festival of Outdoor Arts, taking place over the first weekend of July. This year it runs from Friday 1 to Sunday 3 July and invites audiences of all ages to come and enjoy bright and bold street theatre, circus, dance, comedy, music and more in the streets and green spaces of Winchester.

Hat Fair is so-called after its origins with street performers or buskers passing around a hat to collect tips in following their performance. Nowadays the professional acts are paid; while others (our ‘Hatters’) continue the ‘hatting’ tradition. This year there will be two ways to enjoy the festival too, with the Friday and Saturday absolutely free, with all performances taking place across the city centre; while on the Sunday, audiences can opt for a more relaxed festival fun-day experience, with a ticketed event at North Walls Recreation Ground – a greenfield site close to the city centre.

The festival was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic and last year took place in its entirety at a city-based recreation ground to respect government guidelines so the festival team are really excited to be able to bring it back to the streets this summer.

Monday

Hat Fair Production Week begins with our freelance team of builders, technicians, security and the like starting to arrive in the city ready for the festival weekend and it’s my pleasure to welcome them. This is when our Hat Fair family goes from being very small with only a handful of us working on the festival to a full-on production team.

I start to check the weather obsessively as all of our performances take place outdoors and it can be very unreliable and changeable as we all know! We hope for good weather but have a plan in place in case there are downpours, with some indoor options available.

Finally, despite Production Week now underway, my job as Hat Fair and Playmakers Director doesn’t stop and this year I’ll be an attending partner at a conference at the University of Winchester so I’ll go to this.

Tuesday

Tuesday begins with the first stages and pitches being built and set up and the production team oversee the builds during the coming days. This year our headline act, Fidget Feet will arrive today so I’ll greet them and I’m looking forward to their performances of A Handful of Dreams, which will be their international premiere of the show. It features aerial and circus acts, live Irish traditional music and dance.

As director of the festival, I play host during the week, welcoming crew and artists to Winchester while also liaising with the production team and responding to the unexpected. Hat Fair is a carefully curated festival and there are always challenges and surprises to overcome, involving discussions with our brilliant Hat Fair Coordinator, Rose Slade and Production and Event Manager, Mat Ort – and which concern everything from the position of a market stall to the need to delay or cancel a performance due to an injury or wet weather.

For example, dancers cannot perform on a slippery surface but Outdoor Arts audiences are very patient and understand.

Wednesday

Today, Fidget Feet’s staging will be erected at their performance space for the festival – Busket Yard behind Winchester Bus Station, a spot that draws a large crowd. Not only festival-goers who have chosen to see the show, but curious commuters and others waiting to use public transport! Hat Fair is brilliant for exploding on to and showcasing our beautiful, heritage city – with performances taking place outside iconic buildings such as the guildhall, Winchester Cathedral and the medieval Wolvesey Castle as well as following the path of the stunning River Itchen.

In the afternoon, in my capacity as Hat Fair Director, I have a board meeting with Without Walls Outdoor Arts Consortium, which is a network of festivals that work with artists to bring Outdoor Arts to towns and cities across the UK - with Hat Fair a co-commissioner of productions. During the meeting we will review work that is already being performed and on tour and focus on strategic developments for the next three to four years. But Hat Fair is still my priority so I’ll be available to take calls from the team.

Thursday

On Thursday afternoon this year we will host local schools and community groups for an exclusive preview of Fidget Feet’s A Handful of Dreams. Later there will be a volunteers’ briefing when information such as key contacts, performance venues, first aid and public toilet facilities will be shared. This is also a chance for our security team to make everyone aware of emergency procedures.

Finally, we have another performance by Fidget Feet scheduled, with local councillors, business people, press, creatives and other guests invited to an event to thank them for their support, promote the festival and talk about what they can expect and enjoy the show put on for them. Some of the Hat Fair team will also get together to enjoy a drink to celebrate. But it won’t be a late night as tomorrow we need to be up bright and early to make final preparations.

This is my sixth Hat Fair (including 2020 because a festival was planned and in place for that summer) and I still get nervous, but I try to enjoy it and be in the moment. I think it’s a real shame if you can’t.

Friday


Friday is Carnival day when hundreds of local schoolchildren kick off the festival around noon by parading down the High Street. There is so much to coordinate and it is a wonderful explosion of colour and joy, music and celebrating young people. The last Carnival we did was in 2019 and hundreds of people came out to see it, including visitors to the city and workers popping out for lunch so we’re really looking forward to bringing it back this year.

The Carnival concludes in Abbey Gardens where I give a speech to open the festival. A part of my job is to speak to audiences and introduce acts and I like doing this. I like being visible and getting on the mic. After, I do interviews with the press – I feel comfortable as host – and over the coming days I greet industry guests and funders and touch base with the performers and production team to see how the festival is running. After a day of checking in, if I’m not needed I’ll try and have a sneaky glass of wine with some of the team and visiting artists to wind down.

Saturday

Saturday is much the same as Friday with me checking in with the production team, Play to the Crowd staff, artists and volunteers, announcing performances and chatting to journalists, appearing on camera and giving radio interviews, watching shows and handling any enquiries the production team may have. Come Saturday night, after the headline performance, when audiences are welcomed to dance the night away with DJs or a band, the crew dismantle the city stages and pitches to move the equipment, artists’ green room and production office across to our greenfield site, North Walls Recreation Ground, ready for Sunday’s festival fun-day. It’s a big ask as they basically have to build two festival sites over the course of the weekend.

Sunday

The Sunday of Hat Fair is a more relaxed experience with a full programme of performances and activities on offer, but there is less walking involved as it takes place on one site. I enjoy the atmosphere as it’s very family friendly.

This year the Sunday is a ticketed event and the money will pay the performers and Hatters. After a busy weekend – some of it, years in the making – it is always a quiet, bittersweet ending. After the traders and performers who are leaving have left, the crew begin to dismantle the site and it’s time for everyone to stop for dinner and drinks. Everyone is exhausted but happy with a job well done and this is a chance to thank the full team.

Tomorrow the crew and production team will continue to clear the site and pack away equipment, signage and such and I will start to work on reports for stakeholders. The work never stops and there is always a festival being planned. What the audience sees is only the tip of the iceberg and the culmination of years of building relationships with performers, local groups, industry professionals and organisations like Without Walls and Arts Council England; helping to develop shows; finding venues; scheduling performances and fundraising for the festival. It’s a lot of work but Hat Fair is supported by a great team here at Play to the Crowd who all have a lot of passion for the event and have a lot of fun when the time comes!

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