In the spotlight: Bradley Hemmings, Artistic Director of FESTIVAL.ORG

  • August 26, 2021

Bradley Hemmings is Artistic Director of FESTIVAL.ORG, an outdoor theatre and arts producing organisation which delivers an ambitious and diverse year-round programme. It includes the annual Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF), Global Streets (a national programme of international outdoor arts and audience development), talent development and other strategic initiatives.

Under Bradley's direction FESTIVAL.ORG has broken new ground in outdoor arts, commissioning, producing and presenting work by a wide range of diverse UK and international artists.

GDIF, the organization’s flagship which Bradley founded in 1996, has been described in The Guardian as “an event whose annual contribution to the happiness of the people of London is unrivalled” attracting audiences of over 50,000 each year.

In 2012 Bradley was Co-Artistic Director for the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 Paralympic Games, watched by 11.5 million viewers. He was awarded an MBE in 2016 and the Freedom of the Royal Borough of Greenwich in 2017.  

Hi Bradley, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, about FESTIVAL.ORG, the annual Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) and the work that you do?

GDIF came into being more than 25 years ago. Our offices are based in Greenwich, and, at that time, this part of the world looked very different from now. Back in 1996, the only way to cross the river was by foot tunnel as the DLR and later Jubilee Line hadn’t yet opened. If you looked across to Canary Wharf, there was just one tall building, the Royal Navy were still in residence and whilst Greenwich was always well known for its markets, the European style alfresco culture which we now all take for granted, was much less developed. Over the last 25 years we’ve been proud to be part of a wider shift towards the development of high quality outdoor cultural experiences. 
We’ve been hugely influenced in this by the inspiration of similar festival producing organizations in other parts of Europe such as Zomer van Antwerpen, a festival with which we have a strong and longstanding relationship. And of course, outdoor work feels even more important now, following the last eighteen months. Last year we were fortunate to be able to deliver a socially distanced version of the festival with reduced capacities and a wide range of safety measures, which became the first major live event of its type to take place in the UK. Equipped with this learning, we’re now preparing for this year’s edition (27 August – 11 September) and we’re thrilled to be working in a new two-year partnership with the Representation of Flanders in the UK.

When did you start to become interested in performing arts from Flanders? What sparked your interest?

I’m always very keen to immerse myself in the outdoor theatre cultures of other countries and have visited several festivals in Flanders and always appreciated their inventiveness and originality. I particularly enjoy seeing the way in which Patrick de Groote sites performances so imaginatively in Antwerp, in such a way as to make the landscape of the city a real protagonist in the experience. Similarly, I love the approach of Theater Op de Markt in Hasselt, where there is always a really wonderful gathering of the outdoor theatre community from across Europe.

I’m very conscious of the strength and quality of theatre making from Flanders. In outdoor arts, dramaturgy sometimes gets left behind, but not so in Flemish work. We were thrilled to host performances of De Roovers’ “A View from the Bridge” back in 2017 and appreciated the way in which this stripped back version of Arthur Miller’s great play brought out its epic sweep in a carefully selected location, in which the glimmering lights of Canary Wharf’s corporate buildings across the Thames stood in for an elusive American promised land. Artists and companies from Flanders also have an extraordinary talent for visual invention and surprise. Two years ago, Captain Boomer’s “Pasture with Cows” stunned audiences when a giant golden picture frame appeared on the lawns of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, enclosing a bucolic living reinvention of what could have been an landscape painting from a 17th century Flemish school artist.   

Can you describe in a few words what makes the Flemish performing arts so special for a British audience?

The three words that come to mind when I think about Flemish performing arts would be originality, quality and disruption. One of my favourite companies who exemplify these qualities is Peeping Tom. I remember seeing their production of “Kind” at the Barbican last year and can remember the amazing response and standing ovation from the audience – genius!  One day perhaps they might make an outdoor show! 

Are there many partnerships between Britain and Flanders in the field of the performing arts?

I know that there has been a very fruitful collaboration between Imaginate in Edinburgh and Flanders, and we’re excited to be starting a two-year collaboration ourselves in 2021. One of the things that I think could be very interesting is developing more exchange and collaboration between Flemish and UK artists. Working in the outdoors I think there could be interesting possibilities of bringing together new creative commissions across borders and we’re already starting to explore this for 2022.

Do you think that Brexit will change these partnerships in the future?

Brexit makes partnership working more important than ever. Our festival model is inherently European in its history and format. We are keen to strengthen relationships with festivals, artists and also the cultural tourism sector. Flanders is a phenomenal destination for visitors who are looking for new and exciting cultural experiences and we’re keen to communicate to our audiences about this too.

How do you view the post-covid recovery for the arts sector and the midterm influence on cultural exchange?

We’ve been fortunate to have had support from the DCMS Cultural Recovery Fund here, which has helped mitigate some of the impacts of the pandemic. We can already see (with new initiatives like the Mayor of London “Let’s Do London” campaign) that culture is going to be extremely important in rebuilding visitor confidence and encouraging people to return to our cities. Outdoor arts have a particularly interesting role to play at this moment. Audiences feel safer in the outdoors, and I believe that festivals like GDIF could play an invaluable role as a bridge back to culture for many people.

You invited 4 companies to be included in this year’s festival program. How did you proceed to select these companies?

We already had a longstanding relationship with De Roovers and I’ve always wanted to stage their famous production of “Blue Remembered Hills”. We’ve found an extraordinary site in which to present it – a landscape which has been excluded to the public for more than 100 years, so a very exciting location for this site-specific work. De Roovers share a building in Antwerp with Laika and I’ve always very much enjoyed their extraordinary sensory productions.

Unusually for us “Balsam” isn’t an outdoor piece, but as we emerge from the pandemic the themes and design of the show could not feel more timely!

I’ve also long been an admirer of 15feet6 and have been very keen to invite this virtuosic circus company back to the festival. Audiences here love the freshness and originality of Flemish circus and so I know that this will be a really popular production.

My friend Patrick de Groote recommended Geert Hautekiet’s “Automata Carousel”, and I was thrilled to see that it had such an amazing reaction recently in Nantes. I hope to be collaborating with Patrick even more as we prepare for next year’s Festival.

Could you already give us a sneak preview into next year’s edition of 2022?

We are currently developing plans and so many things are starting to cook. One thing I am very sure about though is a spectacular new collaboration with the arts collective Captain Boomer. Audiences here have previously been moved by their giant beached sperm whale, terrified by their white knuckled journey to the centre of the earth in “Skagt” and of course beguiled by their witty “Pasture with Cows”. Next year’s commission is currently under wraps but it promises us all new beginnings in a very beautiful and technically audacious way – watch this space”!

Bradley, thank you again for your time!