Programming Process for 2021 Festival

Exeter Fringe Festival Co-Founder and Festival Director writes about how the 2021 festival was programmed with the trial of a new programming model giving artists and venues equal say.

A few months ago, Helen Bovey, Producer (Artist Development) at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, and I talked about this year’s Exeter Fringe Festival. Not knowing if or when it would go ahead, we chatted about ways to put artists at the centre of the festival.

That’s been our hope at Exeter Fringe Festival since we started in 2019, that we could create opportunities  for local theatre makers, building a space in the South West which they could feel a sense of ownership over.

Key to this approach has been the open call for pieces. This felt the most democratic way to invite everyone to be a part of the festival. But we knew we needed to go further. For too long, freelancers and those who make the main bulk of the productions you see on stage are left out of the conversation about what gets programmed, when, and why.

Helen suggested that we brought local theatre makers onto the programming team that made decisions about who got programmed in the festival. We talked through how it could work and decided that a 50/50 split between the core team (myself as Festival Director and venue representatives) and Advisory Artists (as they came to be called) would be the fairest way to divide up the workload. It also meant that there would be 6 people in each programming session which took place via Zoom, and that felt manageable. 

This would enable everyone’s voice to be heard in an equal way. It also meant that both the Advisory Artists and venue management could learn from each other about where the priorities and logistics of programming come into play. We decided at this point to find a way to pay the Advisory Artists and advertise them as job roles which anyone could apply for. Again, trying to be as inclusive and open as possible.

Our venue partners all jumped on board with the idea, and we decided to use the following process to programme the festival.

  1. Each of us would rank the applications based on our four criteria which were set out in the application pack: artistic quality, relevance, commercial viability and representation.
  2. Each of the criteria were given a score out of 10, and that in turn was averaged with equal weighting into a total score out of ten for each programmer on each application. We also made notes in the (enormous) programming spreadsheet so that we could each write down any thoughts that we wanted to discuss at the meeting.
  3. Once together on a Zoom meeting, we filtered the spreadsheet to reflect our collective average scores, and decided a numerical cut-off point for applications that we would decide not to discuss as the average score was low enough to not compete with the scores of the rest of the applications. We decided that because all applications had been read by our team and scored (including leaving comments after each score), this was a rigorous and fair process despite not being able to discuss every application at the meeting.
  4. We then decided a numerical range for both applications we would discuss as ‘definite yes’s and ‘maybes’. This helped us have a framework for our discussions and decide which applications would be programmed. We also created a ‘reserve’ list which would be offered spaces if they became available following the initial contract deadline.

We had around 50 applications in total for the festival, and had space for 16 performance slots, and 3 research and development spaces.

It took around 6 hours in total to discuss all of the applications. We had 2 sessions, one for the performance programme and one for the R&D programme. We considered each application carefully and rooted our discussions in the application criteria. This helped us to compare applications on a like-for-like basis and allowed us to consider the impact of programming each piece, both for the creators and for audiences. We were conscious of our moral duty of care for artists and audiences especially after the difficulties for our industry in the last eighteen months.

Programming decisions are never easy. It’s a jigsaw to put together a programme that feels balanced, inclusive and exciting. You’re always aware that for every piece you programme, there are more that you have to decline. But I was so proud of the whole team who took this responsibility incredibly seriously and were considerate, compassionate and candid in our discussions.

So, I’m very grateful to Helen for suggesting this response, to our venue partners for being keen to give it a go, and to our Advisory Artists who brought a fantastic range of knowledge and experiences into the room which helped the team to come to decisions.

Collage of Programmers
Our 2021 Programming team (Top Left to Bottom Right: Ruby Woods, Alex Jackson, Sarah McCourt, Yusuf Niazi, Karen Huxtable, Jack Dean, Olya Petrakova, Matt Farley, Naomi Turner)

Reflections from the team

In writing this blog, it felt right to offer each of our programming team an opportunity to reflect on what worked well (and what we could do better next time) with this programming approach. Here’s how they reflected on the process.

“I was very excited to be part of the experimental programming approach for the Exeter Fringe Festival. It was unlike anything I had been part of previously and I really learnt a lot about fringe festivals and theatre programming which I will use in my own role at Libraries Unlimited”

Karen Huxtable – Senior Supervisor – Development, Exeter Library

“It was really refreshing programming the festival with such a diverse panel, and I particularly appreciated the opportunity to programme in collaboration with the Advisory Artists recruited. It brought a deeper level of perspective to the process, and my own thinking, and I truly felt like this approach ensured the programming was balanced and fair, reflecting a wide variety of voices & lived experiences.”

Naomi Turner – Performance Programmer, Exeter Phoenix

“As a touring company director, I’m usually the one trying to get programmed rather than the one doing the programming, so being on the other end of things was an unusual experience for me. Alex brought in a big range of people who scored the shows on a range of factors, which felt a lot more democratic and deliberative than leaving it to a personal whim, something many people in his shoes could and would do.”​​

Jack Dean – Advisory Artist

“MakeTank functions as an incubator for new ideas, initiatives and projects. The concept of R&D strand of Exeter Fringe festival is in synergetic alignment with the type of work and processes we cultivate in our studios. We are very happy to be a part of it this year! Time for research and development will encourage artistic and hopefully interdisciplinary risk-taking in a safe and creative environment. The cross pollination between different artists and companies creating work at the same time and at the same location fosters a greater sense of mutual support and inspiration.”

Olya Petrakova – Artistic Director, Maketank

If you have any questions about how we programmed the festival, please feel free to get in touch via [email protected].