Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Ross Dury: The Living Record Festival

By | Published on Friday 8 January 2021

January’s often a quiet month when it comes to culture, and this year feels like no exception. Indeed, if anything it’s more so, given many planned performances had to be cancelled as the new COVID restrictions were put in place.

There are, however, a number of web-based festivals taking place over the next few weeks, and one of those is The Living Record Festival, staged by Living Record Productions, which begins on Sunday and sounds amazing.

To find out more about what to expect from the festival, and how we can make the most of it, I spoke to Artistic Director Ross Drury.

CM: Can you start by giving us a basic summary of what to expect from The Living Record Festival?
RD: It’s an original multi digital arts festival created specifically for streaming, hosting work from over forty independent theatre artists from across the world. Accessible from your living room, or on the go with your smartphone, it’s a celebration of grassroots digital art from trailblazing artists.

The Living Record was set up to create a thriving space for audiences to experience a range of work from this new movement of theatre online and equip companies to make the jump into this sphere.

The result is a broad church of entertainment and a virtual theatre platform equipped with features that enable audience to comment, review, create watch parties and gift their favourite shows to friends.

The festival is accessible from top to toe – affordable ticket prices built around open access programming of artists who have spent no upfront costs to be part of the platform.

CM: Can you explain the technicalities and practicalities – how will people access the different work on offer?
RD: There are various ways people can access and interact with the festival and its programme.

The Theatre Front Door is basically our company website, which displays the complete programme with links to ticket information and each showfile – or microsite – within the festival.

Alternatively you can start with our virtual theatre foyer.

Then there’s the microsites. Each event also has its own show file – a microsite which holds all the event and company information – and from these microsites audiences can also purchase tickets and head on to attend the events.

Our platform is set up as a space to give audiences the best possible chance to connect with the artist and their work.

Audiences have the capacity to set up user pages, a bit like a MySpace – if you’re old enough to understand what that is! – which enables them to write short public reviews and comment on every show that they experience.

This means another audience member who might be coming to us late in the festival can check out what people have been seeing and read through their recommendations and reviews. It’s just another way of allowing the voice of the audience to be the beating heart of the festival.

CM: What range of genres have been programmed for it?
RD: LOADS! It would be reductive of me to define any one event by one type. Because we’re finding that the very nature of putting something online involves crossing genre in a sort of kaleidoscope of style.

For example, we have a binaural sound play which combines spoken word, video art and live performance – ‘Dance of A Million Pieces’ by Gemma Rogers. We also have ‘This Noisy Isle’ By SpunGlass Theatre, a sort of do-it-at -home drama kit sent to your door which combines with an audio album and new music.

Our call out was for artists to apply with work that has been made specifically for an online experience and to be identified as digital art. From this point we can promise range and a festival which aims to explore the movement of multi discipline digital arts.

We firmly believe that limitation breeds innovation and this time of lockdown has sent artists into a unique period of major adaptation, and where there is adaptation there is creativity – and it’s that we can promise our audiences.

We hope to be a major part of this movement of online theatre, so I guess it’s a case of audiences joining us in being a bit fearless in what shows they might normally watch. It’s a hybrid of all different types of theatre and art with digital bits thrown in.

CM: What inspired the creation of the festival? Who has been involved in creating it?
RD: There are many inspirations and people which underpin this festival and it’s hard to track that down to singular events.

For me personally, I did interview, albeit unsuccessfully, for a job as an artistic director of a regional venue. I really wanted that job and developed quite a lot of ideas around how I would do it. I’m not saying the venue were wrong to turn me down or anything, but I guess the process of applying lit a flame and I set about thinking of ways I could adapt – there’s that word again! – and achieve objectives I had set out during that time.

How can one run a theatre without a theatre building? I and the co- founder of Living Record Productions had explored digital streaming and binaural sound to some success in 2017 and 2018 and I kind of put those two things together and went from there.

I should say, however, that an idea of this scale takes a great deal of discussion with other people as well as practical and meaningful collaborations. Writer Aaron Tonks helped me first getting my thoughts together, and our partners in the shape of ChewBoy Productions, Bedford Place Theatre, Dyspla, London Playwrights blog and Spunglass have all contributed hugely to different elements of how we’re operating.

Diccon Towns, the developer, took the ideas and made them real. Getting Diccon on board was our Cristiano Ronaldo moment and one that was hugely exciting.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the recommendation incentive you have created? How does that work?
RD: We are calling it a ‘gifted event’. It’s something we’re really excited about as a festival. Each ticket can be gifted to a friend with a sliding scale of prices.

This means one user may purchase an event at £8 and then gift this to a friend who can purchase at the cheaper price of £7 and so on until the ticket becomes free for one lucky user. This user can then in turn can recommend back at the full price.

In theory every ticket can move in a continuous cycle inspired by word of mouth. The feature is designed to tap into that spirit of word of mouth, which we believe is a crucial part of any theatre festival. In addition to that we hope to create greater affordability for audiences, added earning potential for artists spun around the voice of audience and what they are enjoying.

CM: How was the festival programmed? How did you decide who and what would be involved?
RD: As I mentioned before, we started with a call out. From that point we had artists identify a clear pathway on how they would make the work and levelled that with what we could support.

I have to say, at the time the whole industry was tanking and I decided not to make decisions based on notions of ‘good’. What is good in this space anyway? Why am I the person who decides that? Our decisions were therefore based more on ‘what is possible?’ When the whole industry was saying “no”, I wanted to a place that could find a way of saying “yes”.

CM: I know it’s a hard question but is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?
RD: I get asked this a lot to be honest. The thing I look forward to most is seeing the collective coming together to form a festival. I understand this is swerving the question somewhat, but I honestly believe the platform will live and breathe on its volume.

I think in a virtual space the audience will benefit from a connected browser experience, much like we get from more mainstream entertainment streaming platforms, and isn’t the thought of all these theatre companies sitting side by side kind of profound given the circumstances?!

One of the things that excites me about this space is that it’s guided by the audience. COVID has levelled the playing field in many ways, established acts and buildings have different meanings now and the events we’re talking about at the end of this might be surprising.

We, and by “we” I mean the arts community, can only survive as a connected industry which supports one another, and in many ways the act of this festival represents that. To be honest, any theatre person reading this will know that I’m talking about – the basic elements of the unifying effect of theatre. It’s this spirit that makes good plays, good theatres and an exciting audience. It’s always successful when in collaboration.

Theatre without the collective is like bread without flour, which is a roundabout way of saying…. I can’t choose! Please don’t make me!

CM: We’ve just gone back into lockdown and people will be more reliant than ever on culture and entertainment they can access in their own homes. But do you think the growth of the online delivery of cultural events might outlive the pandemic?
RD: Yes, I think it will become part of the total ecosystem of theatre and, to be honest, this had begun before the pandemic.

Theatres and theatre companies are really very good at thinking ‘and then what?’ To my mind we could use this digi art stuff as poshed up crowd funders used to raise funds for live shows, but with quality and innovation at its core. And in turn we could secure continued revenue after we close a show in a live space by creating a digital version of the live show.

You might see companies release wrap around events to live shows as well creating content which expands on, or explore elements of, the story which are only touched upon in a staged production – like expansion packs in the video game industry.

CM: The latest lockdown will be yet another blow to the arts industry. How hopeful are you for its future?
RD: I’m confident that storytelling and art won’t go anywhere. It’s older than us and out lived many viruses, wars and pandemics before.

The industry is a different beast. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking it will need to adapt, and I suspect the very notion of going to the theatre will change seismically. In many ways, through the disconnect placed on us, society has reconnected with its need for community, and theatre – if it wants to – can be the space to hold this.

I hope to see big movement in this direction and let’s just say I don’t know what place the major commercial houses will hold in that. I also imagine you might see a shake-up in how the Arts Council distributes money, which is a debate for a different time, but I hope to see it happen. That’s just me.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about Living Record Productions? How did it come together and what are its aims?
RD: I founded this company with my best friend, god mother of my son and overall life angel Jill Rutland. She has since moved on from the circus to run a series of restaurants and focus on her acting career.

To put it simply, in 2015 we wanted to make plays and formed Living Record to do that and it grew from there. We started off making new writing and adaptations of classics with writer Neil Smith. We later moved into live digital streaming and binaural sound plays with our award winning production ‘Thrown’ By Jodi Gray.

This opened the doorway to the festival but, to be honest, I never saw it coming. Our aims are naturally in transit, having taken on such a massive project as this, so if you don’t mind I’m going to swerve the second part of this question as well. Let’s let the festival do its thing and I’ll answer the rest further down the road.

CM: What hopes and ambitions does the company have for a post-COVID future?
RD: Ambitions? Well my sky blue ambition would be to run a physical community arts space which hosts the digital platform. That’s it I guess.

The Living Record Festival takes place from 17 Jan – 22 Feb. See the festival website here for all the info.