Well, it's over! Emerge Cannock Chase 2019 has been everything I thought it would be, with some extra learning curves along the way.
Perhaps the biggest learning experience for me to come out of Emerge is the importance of community partnerships – in all their complicated glory! Cannock is a town that I've found to be crying out for events, festivals, celebrations and anything that will bring life into their town centre. It is this drive that made the festival happen, and undoubtedly without a passion for their town, local partnerships would not have got behind this idea. A festival ran by teenagers in their town centre! But they did get behind it and gave us so much support and assistance in making it happen. However, with communities comes politics and what has been most interesting as an artist working in the heart of a community, is seeing how key leaders and innovators always manage to find ways to make things happen. There were times when I thought that asking for more stuff for free was too much, but we did it anyway and we got it! Knowing your town partnerships, knowing who to talk to and how to make things happen is absolutely vital to the success of a project like this. With all the good will in the world of myself and the lab partners, without the knowledge and partnership balancing that goes on behind the scenes, this brilliant festival would not have happened. I hope to be able to put this information to use in future projects and be able to spot the doers in a crowd of talkers.
The last month leading up to the festival was challenging in many ways. Yes, the pressure was building and we were worried that things wouldn't get done (which of course they did), the biggest challenge for me is dealing with the unknowns – the elements that are out of your control. As a youth-led festival the biggest out-of-my-hands element was the young people's performances, and reactions to nerves on the day, and in lots of ways managing the expectations of the young people and the adults around the project as well. I've learnt even more about working with young people than I thought I would and a lot of that has not only come from the young people, but the adults as well. When you work with young people a lot, you forget that lots of people don't, and sometimes your faith in them and the process does not translate as easily as you'd hoped. I've learnt that letting young people lead is crucial to their success. I thought I knew this before, but I have seen it happen now. There were lots of sessions, and lots of conversations, where I found myself re-assuring the adults that the young people would be okay, because a lot of the time what looks like absolute chaos, is a creative process. As artists we're not scared of chaos – we sort of have to thrive in it – but for partners who have a lot riding on a festival success to be working on a youth-led programme in the creative arts is challenging. It's challenging being the person pushing for the space and time for the young people to explore, fail and try again. But we did. Lots of sessions felt messy, felt challenging, and they were because the young people were learning, growing and creating together. More than anything else in the festival, I'm proud that the young people performed pieces they wanted to perform, that were theirs and that they could be proud of. The journey for some of those young people was vast, starting out not wanting to perform and then leading a theatre piece as a narrating Shakespeare in full costume in the centre of their local town! For others it was smaller victories that may not have been visible on the day but underpinned the process – co-operation, collaboration and leadership. For those not performing, it was in their faces as they watched the day unfold and engaged in the joyful atmosphere of a sunny afternoon in their town centre, surrounded by friends, neighbours, family – their community. They had been an instrumental part in making this day happen. I'm hoping it's an experience they're never going to forget – it will be for me.
When reflecting back with our young people, we asked for a moment that they would remember from the festival, for lots of them it was the food – which was pretty great and they got for free! For some it was performing and being with friends, for others it was seeing the professional performances of Fabularium and Dave Tong that had inspired them. For the adults it was all the same moment. The start of the festival, the parade had entered the town and the young people were set up for the opening battle dance. From inside the bandstand you could see the town laid out for the festival, the young people in their costumes that they had made themselves, poised, ready to begin. They were focused, they were ready, and they were together. It was a fantastic feeling and an image that will make the band stand in Cannock Town Centre a special place forever. I hope there will be many more moments like that in Cannock's future for its young people, and its residents, long after Emerge has left.