New Wolsey audiences create a strong Pulse

One of the things that became very clear during the recent Arts Council funding review was how well regarded the New Wolsey’s Pulse Festival is.

During the last ten years, what started out as a small fringe festival has grown into a mighty regional showcase for new and innovative theatre.

It is now linked with the Arts Council’s own Escalator programme, which exists to help young artists find their feet in a very competitive world, and is a major part of the East to Edinburgh campaign which is all about getting talented performers from the Eastern region into the Edinburgh Festival.

The relationship with the Edinburgh Festival is an important one. One of the main tenets of the Pulse programme is that the work should have a life beyond the festival. It should be a platform for premiering new work which then goes out into the world or is a place where Suffolk audiences can see work that had previously set audiences talking at other festivals.

This year Pulse has a new artistic director, Emma Bettridge, a former programmer for The Pleasance on the Edinburgh Fringe – as well as their London venue – and she is very keen to see even more new work being developed in Ipswich.

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She says that Pulse has developed a high quality reputation for high quality fringe theatre with companies across the country and this is something she is keen to encourage further.

“We are attracting some of the best companies from across the country, not just East Anglia and that is something I would love to develop further still. It’s a wonderful balancing act. It’s giving talented local companies a chance to show what they can do but it’s also providing a platform for performers from all over the country to come here and develop something new and then to bring before Suffolk audiences the best work that was seen at Edinburgh or other festivals. It’s a big melting pot, which is what makes Pulse so exciting to work on.”

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A Reading university graduate, Emma studied English coupled with film and theatre modules and found that theatre was very much to her liking. “Their film work is good but their theatre department is particularly strong and instead of doing a theory based degree I ended up performing in most of the theatre pieces there. I had a great time.

“Because it was the sort of course it was, they encouraged you to do everything, design your own lighting and sound, direct the show and be in it – do what turned out to be perfect training for the fringe circuit.

“In my second year took a couple of shows up to the fringe and as a result of that decided that I would love to be part of venues up there.”

She said that she applied to The Pleasance and got a job managing their front of house before transferring to London as a ‘skivvy’ before landing a job as programmer.

“People say you got that job because you’re gobby. I don’t think I’m gobby, I just have personality.”

She worked at The Pleasance for four years and provided five festival programmes before heading off as a freelance. “I have always loved theatre. I love reading and new writing, so a career in theatre was an obvious step in retrospect.

“You can’t beat that live element. It gives you a tremendous buzz. Theatre can be quite last minute but it is how you handle it.”

She said that three years ago she found herself back on stage when an actress dropped out of a show she was developing for Edinburgh. “It was a two-hander and there was only about a week to go. We were previewing it in London before bringing it to Latitude and then onto Edinburgh.

“I said: ‘Well I know the show, so I had better do it.’ I ended up doing it for a month, which was brilliant. It’s so rare for people running the show to actually go on and do it. To learn what it is really like when you have 15 minutes to get the technical situation sorted out before you go on. I had great fun, I enjoyed it but it was then I thought, ‘no I do prefer the management side of it.’

She said that touring with Gecko, the Ipswich-based physical theatre company, taught her a lot about the technical demands of a show.

“I managed their tour of The Overcoat first in the UK for October/November then we went to China for three weeks. The show was epic. It was enormous and to go put it in a foreign country like China, where the language and the work ethics were different were a huge challenge. The four tech boys I had working with me were all incredible.

“At one point they wanted a face in a suitcase and someone said: ‘Wait a minute I know. I’ll do it,’ and somehow they conjure it up out of nowhere. It’s about engaging the technical boys and suddenly they are creative partners.”

Emma is a huge fan of creative partnerships, for her that is what fringe theatre is all about and she says that circus, dance and a multitude of other cross-discipline performances skills have been steadily making their way into so-called legitimate theatre for a while now.

“”It’s all about telling a story. Doing whatever is best to get your story across and giving the audience a sense of who your characters are. I have been involved in fringe theatre for several years now and it’s all about risk-taking.

“It’s about trying something new and getting a response. I think it’s a case of the generation who grew up with companies like Complicte are now running venues and making decisions and also there is more cross genre stuff about.

“Now you are getting shows at the National that have puppets in them – except it’s not a puppet show, it’s Warhorse.”

She said that it could be argued that we are witnessing the evolution of theatre. Other art forms, like circus skills, are being absorbed and harnessed to help make the story-telling more engaging, more theatrical.

“If you look at the new production of Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller’s monster character is using all the physical tricks of performance to get across that he’s not just a monster, he’s reaching out to explore a lot of what we have always done in fringe theatre, look at what people are really like, what they feeling underneath.”

She said that theatre has always pushed the boundaries and loved to make things different and the current changes in performance was a natural extension of that.

Emma first came into contact with the New Wolsey and the Pulse Festival when she worked with outgoing fringe director Steve Freeman on last year’s festival having been introduced through her work on the Arts Council’s Escalator panel.

“We got on very well and shared a lot of similar ideas about programming. It grew from there. Steve moved on, I went and spoke with Sarah Holmes and because I had experience in fringe theatre and knew how the festival ran, they entrusted me with Pulse this year.”

She said that her plans are to continue where Steve left off, keep growing the festival, talking to people and spreading the word to both performers and audiences.

“For me Pulse is at its strongest when it is previewing shows that then go out and tour elsewhere. Things start in Ipswich and then go out into the world. It’s great to take pride in the fact that a show starts out in Ipswich and then takes Edinburgh by storm. It’s a wonderful feeling that audiences here not only helped shape the show but saw it first.

“I definitely want to do more grass-roots work and more previews.”

She said that secret of getting an offer to appear in the Pulse Festival was for companies to submit, a good thoughtful, imaginative application pack because, invariably, a company that had thought about their application had also thought about the show.

Among the highlights this year are John Peel’s Shed (May 26) an ode to radio, to John Peel, to good music and to record players; Babyboxes (May 27) is a series of performances centred on four brightly coloured red self-contained ‘stages’ mounted on top of tricycles. Each of the four unique performances are approximately 5 minutes long and integrates a range of different disciplines, media and devices.

This year’s Pulse sees the return of audience favourite Hugh Hughes in Hugh Hughes: How I Got Here (May 29).

This year, Hugh returns to share his very first forays into the world of cinema. In the film, Hugh reflects on the dramatic changes in his life and along the way, he catches up with family and friends who have played a part in his remarkable journey.

Also returning this year is Bryony Kimmings, who wowed Pulse audiences last year with her audacious Sex Idiot. This year she is presenting a show in conjunction with scientists and documentary film-maker called 7 Day Drunk (June 3). This is a work in progress and will be created and performed in a state of intoxication.

One of the biggest shows of the festival will be Epic (June 5). This is described as a playful and experimental journey through the past hundred years. Epic blurs frontiers between autobiography, fact and fiction, combining personal stories, video interaction, fanciful re-enactments of key 20th century events, and a cameo from Bertolt Brecht.

Ipswich playwright Paul T Davies will be premiering Downtown (May 31) in the festival. Tony and Bernie have hit the town - but now the town is hitting back! It’s the morning after the night before, and Bernie has lost his boa. Downtown is presented by Stage Write, a new East Anglian company, that stages new writing with the emphasis shared between gay drama and universal stories.

Not bothered by a 4-hour Hamlet? Can’t face sitting through Lord of the Rings? Then Pulse and Soho Theatre have dreamt up a night of brand spanking new theatre shorts (June 3). They staging four plays all running for about ten minutes by the brightest writers in the theatre world including Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Guest Directors include Gecko’s Amit Lahav.

If you think that theatre isn’t for you, then think again because the New Wolsey has commissioned Party Piece (June 5) from The New Wolsey Young Associates – who are young people aged 18 – 21 who are actively pursuing a career in the arts.

Their production sees four hung-over friends wake up the morning after a house party. They retrace their steps, recover their clothes and discover their reasons for going to parties… fun, friends, drink, sex or just because they were invited.

It’s funny, fast, graphic, challenging and honest.

Finally, there’s comedian Laura Mugridge’s Running On Air which is performed in a vintage, yellow VW campervan called ‘Joni’ parked outside the New Wolsey Theatre. Performed for just five audience members at a time, Laura invites you on an intimate journey from Lands End to Edinburgh, sharing her experience of marriage, camping and her love of the good life.

With her own brand of quirky and charming comedy, Laura describes a journey that involves fell running and a performance in front of three kestrels: a joyful investigation into the beauty and complexity of domestic life.

n Pulse 2011 runs from May 26 to June 11. For the full Pulse programme visit

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