A Winchester Life
A day in the life of a festival organiser
Named for the tradition of passing a hat around at the end of a performance, Hat Fair has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a busking festival in 1974. Always held over the first weekend of July, 2009’s event saw a staggering 35,000 visitors flock to Winchester city centre to see over 250 acts performing open air theatre, dance, music and mind-blowing acrobatic and circus stunts. We spoke to Sian Thomas in 2009 (pictured) former Director of Celebrations for Hat Fair for seven years, to catch a glimpse of life behind the scenes of one of the UK’s signature cultural events.
"On the biggest day of Hat Fair, the Saturday, I wake at 5.30am and tell myself to stay calm and focused. The organising team feel it’s important to stay together for the run up to the event – so there’s an atmosphere of great excitement in the mornings.
We start programming in May the year before the event so at one point you’re actually running two festivals at different development phases at the same time. By June I’ll have a high level of adrenaline.
I have two right hand men. Mikey Martins is the other person who knows ‘everything’. There are around 40 volunteer stewards, local people who have made me feel so welcome. Everyone supports each other and wills the event to go well.
We’ve got people who came to Hat Fair as children and are now bringing their children. All the community aspects are very special, the people of Winchester’s ownership of it. Just simple things like the handmade silk bunting creates an impact; you know it’s a festival for the city and not just a programme of shows.
And to me, Hat Fair is the only event in England that has the atmosphere of a traditional European festival. My mum was a puppeteer and my step dad a fire-eater and acrobat. I spent my childhood traveling around Europe’s festivals in a double-decker bus.
Going to Poland with my parents was extraordinary because the Iron Curtain was still in place. It was a completely different world and it taught me so much about political activism in theatre as that was their motivation. The war was still so close to them. I saw a show there that still influences what I do now. It was an outdoor performance centered around a 60ft ice man who slowly melted. They set fire to little boats which floated down the melting ice streams into the river.
Another time we started doing a show in a village in Franco’s Spain and everyone ran inside: we were told it was illegal to perform in the streets and anyone caught participating could be arrested.
Later, as a touring dancer, I became interested in outdoor, site-specific performance environments and when I got the job at Hat Fair I suddenly realised that I’d come a full circle – that I was going back to my roots and this was what I was meant to do. Drawing on my childhood experiences, I brought a company over from Poland, Via Partroczi. They do dark political shows about humanity and the state at war and several people said that the Hat Fair audience weren’t ready for that. Never underestimate an audience’s potential to appreciate good work – people loved it and were in tears. Since then I have always tried to put something in the programme that pushes boundaries.
In February I have a Hat Fair anxiety dream about something major I’ve forgotten. Once it was that no stewards were organised, another time all the artists were arriving and I hadn’t programmed any shows. Last year’s dream was all about me suddenly realising I hadn’t printed the programme.
Sunday night is a celebration – at the end of my first Hat Fair we went to the artists’ campsite and sat in a really beautiful artist’s caravan with china tea cups hanging up.
If anyone thanks me for doing Hat Fair I say they need to thank my family as it’s down to them that I can do this. My sons – Harold, 14 and Albert, 11, love Hat Fair and they learn something new at every event. They’re both brilliant break-dancers and acrobats.
I think fundamentally any festival is important because you’re not just laying on entertainment: you’re enabling people to celebrate themselves and the place that they live. I believe that’s something society is in danger of losing. Hat Fair brings an extraordinary amount of cultural activity to a number of people who might not otherwise have had an opportunity to be a part of such an event. I feel hugely proud to be making a contribution to Winchester’s culture."
Want to find out more about Winchester's festival season?
Hat Fair is just one event in a line-up of city-based arts festivals that burst into life in Winchester each year between May and July. Visit www.youtube.com/visitwinchester to see a short film of the festivals in action. For programme information about the festivals see: www.festivalsinwinchester.co.uk. For a list of events across the district see www.visitwinchester.co.uk or follow King Alf: www.twitter.com/king_alf