Each autumn – once the dust has settled from the festival, once the artists and contractors are paid and thanked, once we’ve reviewed and reflected, and once we’ve had a little lie down – we start to dream up the next festival bill.
But last autumn, things seemed more onerous: where do you go after you’ve had the privilege of hosting Pussy Riot in residence? That amazing experience cast a long shadow over our planning. How would we top that?
And when you’re determined to not just fill the bill with the same-old-same-old roster of heritage acts doing the festival circuit, you have to work even harder. We’re a festival of artistry, activism and belief, after all; we have a different lens.
What booking this year’s festival has taught us – again – is that Greenbelt is much more than its lineup (however proud and excited about it we are!). It’s about a journey and a way of seeing; a motivation and inspiration that we want to share.
Every year as we curate the bill we have been reminded once again that we learn and grow – every bit as much as we hope our audience will at the festival.
One by one, as the yes’s to our invites started to outnumber the no’s, the bill began to take shape – and, as usual, the linchpins were things we’d been working on for years, not weeks or months.
Russell Brand has been on our wish-list for five years. At one point, Katherine, Greenbelt’s Programme Manager, even took a letter to an event where we knew he’d be, hoping to slip it into his pocket. Over time, we found a route through to his agent and she’s been great – reminding us that building relationships is key in curating the bill. Frank Turner has been in our sights for even longer. And so it was brilliant to get a yes back from his agent early on in the process. Both Russell and Frank remind us that it takes time to build a bill well.
So, in the year when our theme is Wit and Wisdom, we’re thrilled to have them both on the bill. Both quintessentially English in their different ways, they come to Greenbelt at a time when Brexit is forcing us to think about national identity in ever deeper and more complex ways. Both independently-minded and spirited in their views, they divide opinions. They are not safe or comfortable bookings for us. They are rabble-rousing and provocative. And both have interesting relationships with faith and religious institutions.
Frank is outspoken about there being “no God’ because of what the church has shown him about that God. And Russell, while being totally into the idea of there being a God and totally sold out on the teachings of Jesus as vital in our times, is completely ambivalent about the church as an institution.
(There is also a swathe of great women on the bill too! Some of them are celebrated in our 15 gems to discover blog here. Many more are featured on our lineup pages here. It just so happens that our two big new names this year that we felt needed an introduction here are men.)
What felt most rewarding, as it always does, was when we went out on a limb and it came off – like with Russell and Frank. But with many more acts, too.
It’s a bit like when you’re climbing a tree and you inch along a bough as it grows ever more slender, looking back at the sturdy, secure trunk in your rear view. Standing in our strong and progressive Christian tradition – with a worldview that doesn’t see sharp distinctions between the sacred and the secular – once again we used that anchor to risk and adventure, to seek out and to discover new things that we know would energise the space we make together.
And so once again, a bill is emerging that is perhaps not what you might easily expect of a ‘Christian’ arts and justice festival; a bill that subverts tired stereotypical notions of what we even mean by the word ‘Christian’; a bill that features a drag queen DJ set from Sink the Pink, a recovering addict and cheeky intellectual in Russell Brand, Muslim activists like Mariam Khan and Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and South African Nakhane, an artist who renounced his Christian faith because of his queer identity.
We do this not to be controversial or clever, but to build a bill that is genuinely inclusive, challenging, prophetic and joyful. One that is wise and witty too.
And talking of joy… Often, when the yes’s came in for those acts we’d gone out on a limb for, they had us jumping with joy around the office. Like when we got a yes back from Fantastic Negrito’s agent – we had staked our claim to bring him back over to Greenbelt after his European summer dates because we felt it so important to stage him this year. Like when we learned that we really could bring Balaklava Blues (presented by Belarus Free Theatre) to Greenbelt – we’d seen their Counting Sheep immersive show and knew that we had to move heaven and earth to get them to the festival, not least to build on Pussy Riot’s residence with us last summer.
In all this, there’s immense trust in play. Without being able – and without wanting – to put together a bill of household acts and names, we’re incredibly grateful to our faithful festival-goers for trusting us to curate a bill that will excite, provoke and engage. It’s a privilege and an honour. So, we’ve built the bill with our existing supporters in mind. But also, just as importantly, with a picture in our hearts and minds of those who have not yet found us in the field, but who we hope might do so this year. Or next.
Each year as we pull the bill together, we are reminded that Greenbelt is a gift; one we are excited to share and open out. We think it’s a good thing; and we’re more excited about the depth and diversity of these first announcements than we have ever been.
And there’s still so much more to come – worship and spirituality, children and families, youth, visual arts, and more comedy, theatre, ideas and music. Plus the homegrown festival favourite shows that help makes Greenbelt a homecoming.
For you, not us
So, we’ve made our first lineup announcements for 2019 – here’s what’s new, here’s what we’ve been working on. We hope you like it. Enough to share it with your friends. We’re really proud and excited to have got this far so far – and now it’s over to you. What will you make of it? How will you talk about it?
Because for all the work we put into the lineup and for all our excitement about it, it’s you, our audience, our festivalgoers, the Greenbelt community, who bring the festival alive with your anticipation, your excitement, your engagement and your presence. You – and the audience we hope to win this year who will discover Greenbelt for the first time as somewhere to believe in.
Pictured: Brass Against