HighTide theatre festival is a vital part of our cultural economy

The Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth, home of the HighTide Festival

The Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth, home of the HighTide Festival - Credit: Archant

HighTide, the new writing theatre festival based in Halesworth, marks its eighth anniversary next year and this week they announced a dazzling programme that not only showcases rising young talent but will bring the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company to the county.

HighTide Festival's artistic director Steven Atkinson

HighTide Festival's artistic director Steven Atkinson - Credit: Archant

The festival has swiftly grown into one of the leading theatre events in the country and has helped swing a national spotlight on Suffolk boosting tourism and the county’s creative economy.

Steven Atkinson, HighTide’s founder and artistic director, said that the 2014 programme was a balance of previous writers returning to continue their journey up the theatre ladder and talented new faces looking to break into the business.

This year Steven and his team have had to read up to a thousand scripts to come up with the four world premieres they will be staging this year and will be hosting rehearsed readings of a further three new works and a revue of a series of new plays submitted as part of the Escalator: East To Edinburgh project.

Steven has also appointed ten artistic associates including rising theatre-makers Blanche McIntyre, Prasanna Puwanarajah and Ella Hickson which help shift through the rising tide of scripts submitted to them looking for approval and hopefully a fully-staged production.

A production at HighTide does help launch careers. This year Steven is not only providing the European premiere for an off-Broadway critical smash, The Big Meal, but a HighTide world premiere, Peddling by Harry Melling, has already secured a production slot at New York’s 59E59 theatre before an actor has set foot on stage.

“Melling is such an innovative, amazing actor. He’s doing some great classical roles but he’s probably best known for playing Dudley in the Harry Potter films. But his play is about the 4,000 people who sleep rough on the streets of London each night and asks the question: Is it right to ignore then and let them get on with it? Or are we creating a much bigger problem further down the road?

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“He imagines what their lives must be like. He plays a homeless man and it is written in this unique, completely engaging way and I had never read anything like it before and when he performs it, you are aware that this is a major actor giving a major performance and this is why New York agreed to take it before its first public performance because the quality of it was so high.”

He said that they were equally thrilled by the fact that they have former RSC director Michael Boyd bringing Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal to Suffolk to have its European premiere.

“Michael Boyd is one of the best theatre directors in the country, so to have him working in Halesworth is just so exciting. To have such a major director tackling such an ambitious, incredibly successful play, direct from America, it’s just breath-taking. Lots of people wanted to stage it but we got in there first, so we’re really excited by that and it reflects the quality and the standing that HighTide now has that it can compete with the best events around the country.

“Just as Snape attracts the world’s best musicians, we want to attract the world’s best theatre-makers to Suffolk.”

Among these is playwright Nick Payne who contributed Switzerland and The Pitch to HighTide in 2008. “Since his first HighTide appearance he has gone on to conquer the world. He has a play running in New York with Jake Gyllenhaal and Constellations, a play which premiered at The Royal Court earlier this year, starring Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, is transferring to the West End. He’s still only 28 and yet he is very definitely the man of the moment. We invited him back to HighTide because its good to see how a writer develops. He’s a very different person now and it’s good to see how he continues to evolve as a writer, to allow us to follow his development.”

This year’s play, Incognito, delves into Albert Einstein’s brain and it combines neuro-science with theatre. It’s fun, engaging, it’s clever and ambitious and its terribly theatrical. It will be a good night for all.”

The fourth premiere of this year’s festival is The Girl’s Guide To Saving The World by first time writer Elinor Cook, who Steven believes is ‘one to watch.’ Elinor’s play is described as a warm comedy about feminism today and how you manage the eternal battle between career and family life.

Past HighTide playwright Vickie Donoghue (Mudlarks) will be leading a writer’s academy this year. People can sign up on the HighTide website from February 10. Vickie will work with the fledgling writers developing a play which will be staged by a young company in August.

HighTide will also be offering 400 free tickets to those aged under-25 living in the eastern region. These are likely to go quickly and it is suggested that those wanting to make use of the offer book early. This year HighTide will also be looking to commission a play which examines life outside our big cities. This first for the festival is being made by the HighTide-Royal and Derngate Award – as part of the campaign to make sure that regional culture is not ignored.

HighTide 2014 will be staged a month earlier than usual, from April 10-19, moving the festival away from exam revision times allowing younger audiences to attend.