Fringe festival is still taking the Pulse of Suffolk’s cultural life

During the last ten years PULSE has quickly grown from a small-scale fringe festival in Ipswich to one of the eastern region’s leading festivals. The Festival is currently shaped by the New Wolsey’s festival director Steve Freeman, who has to sift through the hundreds of entries to compile a programme that has to be entertaining, challenging, ground-breaking and diverse. The elements of PULSE also has to cover a wide range of styles and media. In short, everything about PULSE is designed to both engage and surprise.

This year’s brochure is positively bursting with extra events – more than 50 this year compared with the dozen events which made up the event in 2001. “We haven’t made the festival longer, but what we have done is add to the number of venues. PULSE is not just about the New Wolsey Theatre, PULSE is about going out and discovering new venues across the town.

“The scariest thing about managing a festival like this is creating new performance spaces around town.

“We are building a theatre in the Town Hall galleries. We have one day to construct this 10 metre by 20 metre box with black drapes and seats which is a terrifying prospect. It has to be completed in a day because the show goes in the following day.

“The Buttermarket is giving us a shop – we are going to black that out and turn that into a theatre space. It’s essence is storytelling, but it is set against this landscape of sound and visual projections.

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“As well as that we have got stuff being performed in McGinty’s and The Greyhound, in the spiral car park here at The New Wolsey, in a container... it’s about being creative – not only with regard of the performances themselves but how and where you stage them.”

He said that he would love for the whole of Ipswich to have a buzz about it and give off a real festival feel.

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The programme draws together the very best of new performance by local artists from the East of England and mixing them with some of the leading talents from across the country. The real strength of the programme is to be found in its sheer diversity. It includes theatre, dance, comedy, event-led visual arts, participatory theatre, physical theatre and circus.

“The mark of a good festival is how the rest of the town embraces it. I have to say that Ipswich has welcomed PULSE with open arms. The fact that we are staging performances in a whole variety of non-traditional spaces is a testament to how the town and festival have grown together. It’s about reaching out beyond the theatre and reaching people who perhaps, for one reason or another, wouldn’t come into the theatre but if they stumble across it in their daily lives then what they see or experience may speak to them.”

He said that creating site specific work was incredibly exciting and provided the public with an easier entry point into theatre. “I think it’s important to get across that its not all about sitting in seats and staring at a big, red velvet curtain – that’s a massive barrier for some people. Chuck it in a shopping centre and see how people react to it when they see it out in the community at large.

“I would love to interrupt their world with something unexpected, something engaging, for just 40 minutes. That would be great.”

The Buttermarket performance will be a show called Burning Out by Katherine May and producers Nimble Fish. It combines live performance with a tailor-made sound design and live video inserts. Burning Out is the first production of Katherine may’s Re-Authoring Project which is dedicated to finding engaging ways to bring books to a live audience.

“The way that we have increased the number of performances is to expand the number of venues. I think that’s really exciting. It gets PULSE out in the community and around town. People have said ‘Will you extend the festival?’ and the answer is no – not until we run out of venues. I think two weeks provides a focus which would be dissipated by a longer run. I like the fact that the event is concentrated and audiences have to engage with the programme and choose what they want to see because you can’t see everything.”

He added that there has been a huge growth in the number of performers and companies wanting to stage site specific work. This year he said there was a 200% rise in applications for performances staged in spaces away from the theatre. The shows cover a wide variety of subjects using a dazzling number of different presentation techniques. Leo Kay’s It’s Like He’s Knocking is a personal, stripped down performance about three generations of men, performed for a small audience in a bedsit. Meanwhile, Metis Arts’ 3rd Ring Out is performed in an industrial container, asking the audience to take on the role of a disaster response team facing a natural disaster in Ipswich.

“I am very excited about this because it’s very much an interactive performance. The small audience will be part of the response team. They will have live camera teams going round to various locations in Ipswich feeding back information which will affect the decision-making process.

“It’s about getting people involved, making work that will appeal to a broad range of people.”

Elsewhere, the Hydrocracker Theatre Company’s Shakespeare a la Carte combines bitesize performances from the Bard with a two or three-course meal in Arlingtons in Museum St and 3D Camera Obscura by Will Clifford is an immersive sculptural installation in Buttermarket Shopping Centre mixing traditional photographic techniques with 3D stereoscopic technology to offer a fresh perspective on Ipswich.

While there is a wealth of work being created away from the theatre, the New Wolsey and it’s studio in St George’s Street, there is also plenty of imaginative work being created on stage. “The trick is getting the balance right,” said Steve.

The opening weekend showcases nine works that have emerged from Escalator: a programme dedicated to supporting artists and companies to investigate their practice and undertake a creative journey, with the emphasis not on final ‘product’ but the ‘process’, encouraging artists to collaborate, take risks and embrace mistakes.

Steve said that Molly Naylor’s show Whenever I get Blown Up I Think Of You highlighted an on-going change from dramatic narrative theatre to performance theatre. The show is based on her experience and her reactions to the July 7 bombings on the London underground. Within one performance there is storytelling, stand-up comedy and poetry. Steve said: “It is so important to get that mix right and I think that Molly is one of those artists that marks a growth in performance theatre and live literature.”

He said that he sits on the Arts Council’s Escalator programme selection committee and they took the decision to develop an East To Edinburgh campaign because a lot of hugely inventive, high-quality work was being produced in the eastern region but wasn’t gaining a wider audience. “To be frank the Eastern region was woefully under represented at the Edinburgh Festival and we decided that we needed to showcase the work that was being developed in our part of the world.”

He said that fashions in theatre do change. This year he has noticed a tremendous growth in young performers turning to live literature – “which I find tremendously exciting because it strips back everything to its basic level. PULSE shows aren’t about using devices, big sets or lavish costumes, it’s about the artist. Any fringe festival that’s any good should be focused on the artist.”

Other highlights of the Escalator weekend include Free Time Radical, a work-in-progress showing of the latest piece from the team behind Edinburgh Fringe ’08 hit Paperweight, telling the story of two surf lovers living together in a converted church as the city around them begins to flood.

Nabokov shares a rehearsed reading of The Siege by acclaimed television writer Jack Thorne (Skins, Shameless), and a one-off performance of Come To Where I’m From, a selection of work by local writers, inspired by the places they grew up presented by Paines Plough.

Bryony Kimmings shares her sexual adventures and misadventures in Sex Idiot, and 30 Bird Productions reflects on the cultural and personal implications of the Poland vs Iran football match at the 1976 Olympics in their slide lecture/performance, Poland 3 Iran 2.

But, PULSE isn’t just showcasing new work heading to Edinburgh, it also provides Suffolk audiences with an opportunity to see some of the best acts from last year’s event. Among the multi award-winning works looking to make a splash at PULSE this year are: Ontroerend Goed’s Internal, which will provide an intimate and highly personal performance for five audience members. This was winner of both an Edinburgh Fringe First and a Herald Angel Award.

On other nights Daffyd Jones and Ben Lewis will present their Total Theatre Award-winning My Name is Sue, an unlikely but hilarious music theatre piece sharing the inner thoughts of a piano-wielding spinster from Wales. Meanwhile Certain Dark Things is a powerful family drama set in the Basque region of Spain under Franco’s religious dictatorship of the 1950s and told in the round. Tangram‘s Almost Ten is a remarkable solo performance by Caroline Horton about being a child and Kirstin Fredricksson’s Everything Must Go is a moving meditation on the relationship between a father and daughter, combining cinefilm, clowning, puppetry and hurdling.

Dance plays an important part in this year’s festival with several performnaces being staged at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Waterfront. One of which is My Name Is, presented by Paul and Kieran Dance Theatre.

It tells a contemporary story addressing the problems of addiction and how it affects the family unit and the journey of recovery. It allows the audience to consider the life of an alcoholic and is told through snatches of conversation between a father and son and heightened contemporary dance.

Steve said that with so many good shows on offer he had a tremendously difficult job trying to fit everything in. “To be a festival director you need to be disciplined but as this year’s programme shows, this year marks a complete lack of discipline because I have virtually doubled the size of the festival.

“But, you have got to have a focus, you have got to have certain criteria which defines the event. This year we put in the application pack that we were particularly interested in site-specific work. PULSE generally is only interested in new work or new artists or those who are new to East Anglia. We are looking at emerging artists who have never had a platform in this region before.

“Also the show has to have a further life. It can’t be a piece that is just for PULSE. It has to be sustainable. But, in terms of building a programme, you have got to have balance. We have got dance, we have theatre, live literature but at the end of the day it just being excited by the idea of the work. I love it when someone puts in a submission and I go: ‘Woa, I really want to see that. I’d love to put that in front of people.’

“As much as you don’t want a programme to be personal, part of it has to be subjective because that is why you are doing this job. It’s got to have a certain feel about it, which why the nature of a festival changes when the director changes.”

He said that audiences have a valuable part to play providing unbiased feedback to performers, allowing them to shape the work for future performances.

The festival has grown beyond the theatre’s wildest expectations and is now one of the leading events on the region’s cultural calendar. Steve is happy that everyone will find something to tempt them.

“PULSE is now firmly on the cultural radar as the place to see new work. With 58 events in just two weeks, PULSE ’10 is going to be a demanding but highly-rewarding experience. The range of work is immense, from deeply personal stories to tales of magic realism, from work in a traditional theatre space to work in a car park, from work which is provocative to work which will make you giggle… so I hope this year’s festival will attract a lot of new supporters.”

n Tickets range from �4 to �14 but you save �1 off every ticket by purchasing a PULSE Pass for just �10. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Ticket Hotline on 01473 295900 and online at

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