Andrew Comben - credit Luke Carlotta

Andrew Comben – Brighton Dome & Festival

I manage to elicit a belly laugh from‎ ‎Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival Chief Executive, Andrew Comben, when I ask if he ever wishes his career choices had involved something less complex. This last year has been difficult for every arts organisation. The coronavirus hasn’t cared how historically, or culturally, important work might be.

“It’s hugely challenging. But I’m aware how tough other people have had it during the pandemic. How friends and colleagues in the medical profession have managed over this last year, I just don’t know. All in all, I’m pretty lucky.” It’s been just under a year since social-distancing restrictions saw Brighton Dome close its doors to the public and abandon plans for its annual world-famous festival. Similar issues have been faced by almost every single corner of the entertainment, arts and culture sector; a community founded upon the spirit of bringing people together.

There’s some solace that this has come during a new dawn of mass communication. Brighton Dome has been able to explore and deploy new ways of connecting with audiences. During last May, in lieu of physical gatherings, the 54-year-old event held Brighton Festival at Home – a series of virtual productions, which recreated their hugely popular Children’s Parade, took listeners on a journey into the Sussex woods to hear birdsong accompanied by guest musician Alice Zawadksi in Sam Lee’s Singing with Nightingales and held Uninvited Guests’ participatory examination of adoration and romance, Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, with Fuel Theatre. Since then, there’s a progression of brilliant online events, mostly revolving around books and literature.

When restrictions lifted for a short time last year, Brighton Dome also began a collaboration with Team Dominica, opening the venue’s main foyer as a café to support this social enterprise working with learning disabled young people. “That felt like a really important step. The Dome is owned by the city, for the people of the city. We felt really strongly that it should be open whenever possible, even though it was in a really restricted way.” Heading into the autumn, they were also able to deliver Live Is Alive!, performances in collaboration with grassroots music venues, and open spaces for artist rehearsals.

The cancellation of Brighton Festival last year, the first time in its history, was a significant blow for a wider swathe of the city’s cultural sector. While establishing a statement of intent for Brighton Dome’s programming and projecting the city on a global scale, the event is produced by a network of venues and artistic partnerships across the region. Many of these participants worked with children and young people, or in areas traditionally under-represented by the arts, so it was an impactful decision. “We were incredibly supported by everyone involved, but also by the audiences – who were really with us and understood. Many of them donated tickets back to help the festival survive.” Additional support would arrive as grants from the Arts Council and National Lottery Heritage Fund, along with Capital Kickstart grants. It offered a significant testament to the value of Brighton Dome to the community.

 

Corn Exchange Interior Visualisation – FCBS Architects

By bringing people into Brighton & Hove’s city centre, the Dome feeds customers to surrounding businesses like cafes, pubs, restaurants or retail. Arts organisations everywhere form part of an intricate community and economic eco-system. “I’m aware that’s a very privileged position. The support which moved me the most is the individual support from our audiences.  The Government support has also been vital. We’ve benefitted enormously from that. We are very, very fortunate.” Comben says there were also many amazing gestures of solidarity at this difficult time. 

Like most of us, the entire organisation is still a little uncertain about what lies ahead and recognises a need to plan this year’s Festival so it could deal with any eventualities. Although in a different and more responsive form, it is scheduled to return this May. “I was thrilled that Lemn Sissay immediately said, after not being able to be the guest director for 2020, that he’d be able to come back for 2021!” Again, the event will be staging a set of productions which react to modern experiences. The aim is to create a group of works which not only addresses the pandemic, isolation and separation, but looking at the future and how people can all start coming back together. “We were very keen to not have something  “worthy” or… I suppose, gloomy. We were very aware the work could have gone in that direction.” Instead, the programme launching on Tues 30 March will offer something profoundly hopeful, presented in a manner which can adapt to any social mixing restrictions in place.

 

The government’s ‘roadmap’ for the lifting of restrictions dictates indoor gatherings won’t be happening before 18 May. So Brighton Festival has commissioned work which can be enjoyed online during the season’s first two weeks. There’s also a host of live productions, both outdoors and indoors, depending on what circumstances might allow. “This year will be a very different Festival. It’s an important symbol that we’re ‘edging our way back’. I’ve had to fight the instinct that it needs to be all or nothing. The beauty of it is that it can be flexible.” Although it’s never had issue with the unfamiliar. The Festival has built a reputation for exploiting atypical sites, whether indoor or outside, on a variety of scales. The joy of each year is it can bring a new set of spectacles, environments and experiences, and there’s a conscious ambition to make a virtue of ability. 

As you’d hope, one of the biggest concerns is to engineer environments which are very safe and people can have confidence in. These won’t mirror the epically-scaled productions of previous years, bringing thousands of people into the same space, but will still offer a set of rich experiences which celebrate the way back for society.

Brighton & Hove is home to around 17,000 creative workers, all being affected by the pandemic in different ways. While livelihoods have been threatened, many are revaluating their role within the industry. Much of this has been positive, offering a renewed sense of purpose amongst artists. A lot of that is to do with community and location.

Several internationally-renowned artists, who live locally but work globally, have been looking at other ways of being a more rooted part of the community around them. “There’s an awful lot of work to do, structurally, to make that possible for people. There’s a wealth of talent here, which has historically not been able to give as much to its place as it wants to.” One mode of thought suggests the isolation of lockdown will give birth to a new period of creative innovation, as has happened throughout history. “That space and time leads great artists and thinkers to do what they do best. Out of that can come extraordinary things. I know there’s really great work going on that we will see the benefit of. But there’s also been great losses, so I don’t want to over-romanticise that.” But there remain whole sections of the arts, like dance and theatre, whose core craft relies on performing together which may take a longer time to return to a sense of normality.

As part of its work amongst the community, Brighton Dome maintains several programmes to promote creativity and discussion. These have obviously had to adapt to testing times. Working alongside Brighton & Hove Music & Arts they promote music lessons in 217 schools across East Sussex. From Portslade to Rye, they enable around 5,000 children and young people every week to experience the benefits of music making. With schools closed and sessions becoming virtual, this has proved a valuable service for many participants. “What they’ve managed to do is remarkable, moving very quickly to online provision.  It gives a different way of interacting onscreen, other than classroom teaching.” Enthusiastically supported by headteachers across the board, this scheme allows for improved wellbeing, and a different form of thinking and expression, a small joy away from having to learn maths or English in isolation.

Brighton Dome and Comben are now playing a key role in establishing cultural recovery plans for the city. Starting back in September, this work has seen conversations with around 100 artists and innovators. “One of the challenges was the impact of the pandemic on the creative community, and the structural inequalities that’s been exposed.” While a strategy has been created and some budget secured, there’s still plenty of labour to come. Working groups are being assembled, which will launch specific initiatives to power Brighton & Hove’s artistic industry back to recovery. Welcomed by the City Council and politicians across the board, there’s now discussions around how culture can more widely support the beleaguered retail sector.

Beyond its immediate remit to entertain, bring people together and provoke conversation, the wider opportunities offered by a strong cultural environment can’t be underestimated. It can make a city more attractive to visit, move to and invest in. Which offers significant economic benefits for the whole community.

Brighton Dome Exterior

One aspect of Brighton Dome’s work which wasn’t so affected by the lockdown is the painstaking restoration of the Corn Exchange. This 220-year-old, Grade 1 listed hall was originally constructed as a riding house for the Prince Regent. Since becoming one of the city’s main performance spaces, it closed its doors in 2017 to prepare for the next 200 years. It’s no small undertaking. The project’s original contractor ceased trading partway through the endeavour, a burial ground was unearthed, and the structure was in a markedly more vulnerable state than originally understood. Regardless, the building’s unveiling is edging closer –

“Paradoxically, the pandemic hasn’t had as much impact as you might expect. Westridge, the contractors working on it, and the City Council in managing it, have dome amazingly in keeping the pace of work going. It’s been wonderful as an antidote to everything else over the last year, to see the progress onsite and that building coming to life. I think, at the end of all this, it’s going to be a really great way to signal the ‘rebirth’ of the city centre.”

Planning for the project started in 2011, and the team were always adamant they didn’t want to simply patch-up the roof and add some better toilets.

In addition to renovating the ceiling’s fragile timber frame, basement areas were excavated to increase storage, add backstage areas, and enable better access for the whole complex. There’s also been achieving the ambitions of adding a new foyer, creating bold new performance spaces and shifting the entire building’s main entrance to New Road. It’s been a huge amount of intricate work, but the finished building should soon provide wonderful things for audiences and visitors.

Nobody expected the pandemic, or the questions that lockdown would ask of the community.  But slowly, with the imminent staging of the Festival, Brighton Dome is edging back to normal. Whatever that might mean for a world-class, multi-venue, arts organisation. It’s now placed in a position to help many others who haven’t been as fortunate or well-supported. Comben says they are now all looking at methods of better supporting individual artists, collaborating with a range of organisations and ensuring the work being done in communities can be as wide-ranging as possible. “The responsibility we have is greater than ever to pay it back.”

Brighton Festival returns to venues across Brighton & Hove on Sat 1 – Sun 23 May 2021

www.brightonfestival.org

 

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