Guest Blog: Theatre and business assemble in Hull

This guest blog comes from Rich Sutherland, who is Marketing Manager at Assemble Fest, a new theatre festival in Hull. Photographs by Miles Twist.

Hull, the UK’s City of Culture for 2017, is also steadily becoming a city of festivals, celebrating everything from jazz and literature to food and fashion. Assemble Fest is the latest addition, a theatre festival that launched on Saturday 3 May 2014 down Newland Avenue, a street lined with coffee shops, stylish bars, independent businesses and boutiques. The area is multicultural, steeped in history and just a few minutes’ walk from the Hull University campus, resulting in an atmosphere that switches from tranquil and welcoming during the day, to animated yet relaxed at night.

Staging a community festival

I’m one of the organisers of Assemble Fest as well as its Marketing Manager. My fellow organisers are Festival Director Madeleine O’Reilly and Producer Mungo Arney; we’ve all worked in the theatre industry for a few years, from acting and directing, to making shows sell. The spark behind Assemble Fest was that together we wanted to bring theatre to a community, creating something exciting, accessible and enjoyable whilst providing numerous opportunities for people to get involved, including recruitment and volunteering.

Developing an action plan

Over the course of a year we took a strong idea and developed it into a clear and precise action plan. It wasn’t a case of finding mates to put on a few shows; we held a selection panel and carefully chose seven theatre companies, who were then commissioned to create new work. These pieces had to take inspiration from Newland Avenue as a whole and work in harmony with their individual surroundings, as many of the venues were trading businesses.

Performing community stories

So, one company decided to put on a humorous musical in a hair salon, with the challenge of singing louder than the hair dryers. Another company was given an empty student house, in which they put on a theatrical display of interactive science, with audience members playing Space Invaders and a digital drum kit using just a potato and a spoon hooked up to a computer. (Seriously, that really happened.) One told a poignant true story of Newland Avenue families dealing with the ramifications of the First World War, inside what used to be a primary school, whilst another treated audiences to a slapstick CSI scenario in a car park. The other three ranged from a duo sharing memories in a charity shop, to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a nightclub, to people being led around the avenue with the mission to either ‘make’, ‘do’ or ‘play’.

In the weeks leading up to the big day, Maddy, Mungo and I had shared goals and personal expectations, all of which were exceeded. Thanks to sunny weather, helpful business owners, jolly buskers, supportive local media and an incredible show of community spirit, Assemble Fest smashed its targets and completely sold out – over 700 seats filled throughout the day. As the marketing guy, this pleased me no end, but at the risk of sounding cheesy it was the audience members’ reactions and feedback that made it a true success, with so many of them saying that they’d had a great time, discovered something interesting, and even made new friends.


What made the festival possible

Assemble Fest was made possible thanks to financial backing from Community First and other funders, for which we are extremely grateful. We’re now in the evaluation period, and it won’t be long before we’re planning an even bigger festival for next year.

Whether you live in Hull or on the other side of the country, we’d love for you to be involved in Assemble Fest 2015. Join us on Facebook and Twitter and let us know what you’d like to see!

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