The lead up to the festival was intense, and featured mixed success. On the positive side, the weather forecast was looking good, we found contingency plans in case of rain, and our technical set-up was looking excellent. Banners had been put up around the Arboretum, and flyers distributed to an extremely receptive Walsall community, who displayed 'Stories From The Trees' prominently in shop windows, hairdressers' reading tables, restaurants and station counters. The big test was our Prep Day, taking place 8 days before the Festival itself. All the young people from the Arboretum and Shelfield Academy met for the first time, and showed each their pieces in situ. This was the hardest part of the preparation, as tensions ran high among some of the young people who were less clear on their lines, who had forgotten much of their blocking after the Easter Break, or who were simply intimidating by performing in the Arboretum itself. This set up a tricky final session on the Wednesday, where many of the technical preparations were clear, helped by an increased number of planning meetings and professional technical support, but where the performances required intense rehearsals.
On the festival day, we were greeted by a woman passing by in her car as we approached the Arboretum, laden with gear. 'I love what you guys have done with the Arboretum,' she said, 'can't wait for the festival later!'. For all our worries, this was a heartening experience, and as we approached on the day, weaving our way through the early morning fun-run in the park, we felt the buzz of the festival day, which only grew as time went by. Hundreds of festival-goers turned up, spreading out across the haunted house installation, the Boathouse projections, the music at the Bandstand and performances on the Green and at the Hut. Shakespearian characters guided audiences around the Arboretum, and for the first two and a half hours, the atmosphere was fantastic, and the young people were thrilled at how well the performances were going. Unfortunately, a 15-minute downpour of heavy rain soaked our stage and dwindled the audience, forcing us to move to our back-up plan: a group of the audience moved to the bandstand, where the musicians and the louder performers continued, supervised by our Gold Arts Award participants, and the younger performers moved inside the Visitor's Centre, with a slightly smaller audience joining them in there. This is where the young people pulled it out the bag as, far from being dispirited, they performed with even more energy. We were thrilled with the response to the weather, and the audiences were too. Most importantly, however, the young people did a fantastic job, with one young dancer even taking the place of a young person who'd have to leave early, picking up a full dance routine in just 10 minutes to be performance before the audience.
If we were to give tips to future young artists, the main one would be: get young people to the performance location as early as possible. Many of our young people were surprised and intimidated by the scale of the performances, which led to nerves and a lot of prep work to do in a final session. It would be worth getting at least two rehearsals in the space, in order for them to test out the performances as if in front of an audience. However, another important tip: do not underestimate the enthusiasm of the local community, especially your young people. We were amazed by the response around Walsall just as soon as we got out and started talking to people, and we found many people who were keen to do more than just display flyers as advertisements. Your young people will love the chance to perform for a real audience who are enjoying themselves, so let them relish that opportunity, and trust them. They will do brilliantly, given the chance.