Anticipation of the festival began early this year, with lineup news from the Greenbelt office sparking reaction from both hardened festival veterans and curious newcomers alike. Was this the strongest lineup ever? And could it possibly live up to the hype? In the end, Greenbelt 2011 lived up to it – and more – with audiences enjoying the (no pun intended) grandstanding performances from friends of the festival both fresh and familiar, as well as those smaller, more intimate moments of wonder Greenbelt conjures so effortlessly. This was a festival to cherish.
Whether it was our enormous new Big Top, stuffed full of 3,000 people to hear outspoken comedian Mark Thomas tell tales of his walk along the Israeli Separation Wall, or gospel legend Mavis Staples with the Mainstage crowd in the palm of her hand; whether it was a Wild Rumpus parade of children and parents in hand-crafted monster masks, or moments of quiet contemplation high above the racecourse in Soul Space; whether it was Paula Gooder asking impossible questions to a packed Grandstand, or Rob Bell beguiling an audience from Mainstage, or a knowledgeable panel of experts discussing the financial dire straits we are in; there was creativity and passion, insight and reflection in every corner of the bunting-bedecked site.
With a renewed focus on the provision for families and children, some remarked on how the festival felt richer somehow, more like one big family. The Village was the new home for children’s programming onsite, with returning venues like Messy Space taking a new form and new venues – like the incredibly popular Make and Take craft tents – giving children and families more to do than ever before. A welcome addition to the festivals of both junior and senior Greenbelters was the Playhouse; home to family fun in the day (Elmer The Elephant and The Mousehole Cat being particular highlights), and in the evening, a theatre space for storytelling and high-class performance like George Dillon’s retelling of the Gospel of Matthew and Ben Moor’s captivating Coelacanth.
It was all go in the Youth programme with enormously successful sessions of Cake & Debate, and visits by Rend Collective, Hope & Social and LZ7 to the Acoustic Cafe. With our new Youth Participation Coordinator Becky Smith now in role, there will be more opportunities for young people to get involved across the organisation for forthcoming festivals, and beyond.
As always, the Communion service brought together all aspects of the Greenbelt family in a joyful, unique act of worship. With the raising of a rainbow-coloured fan of ribbons providing a central moment of collaboration and spectacle, the music served up by a London gospel choir and a hollering New York preacher, and 10,000 people giving and receiving bread and wine, it’s important to remember the uniqueness of our festival.
2011 was also notable for returning contributors getting even more involved in the festival. Following a brilliant headlining set on Mainstage, Billy Bragg took part in other sessions on site, including a remarkable session looking into Criminal Justice, and introducing Leon Walker, a graduate of his Jail Guitar Doors project. This session introduced themes we will continue to consider in 2012 and beyond, with a focus on debating the issues involved in criminal justice and prison reform.
And that’s before we even mention world-class performances from Candoco Dance Company and Ockham’s Razor, thrilling Mainstage sets by headliners Idlewild and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, reliably incisive talks from Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, and the Big Top used as a home for everything from a brilliant spoken word showcase to the unique jazz of Arun Ghosh.
As we look towards 2012, it’s clear that Greenbelt’s festival is in great shape – with inspiring artists brought together with the activists who are making a difference in the world. It can be a place for us to re-focus our lives, to be transported by the universal language of art, to be the change in our communities, and to get a fresh glimpse of the divine at the heart of it all.