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SPLAT Festival: A Tale of 2000 Ice Creams

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‘We did it!’, ‘Look how awesome this is!’, ‘Wow, just wow!’…Cheers of celebration could be heard from all the children involved in Warwick Arts Centre’s Arts Active Network project as they saw their SPLAT Festival take shape on Saturday 15th July at Jephson Gardens. They were excited, jubilant, proud and confident to speak to the public and tell them all about the hard work they’ve put into pulling a festival of this magnitude off. St Patrick’s, Sydenham, Shrubland Street, Clapham Terrace and Kingsway Primary Schools were all represented on the day by students and teachers who walked around with beaming smiles of wonder on their faces as they took in just how much had been achieved by the 60 children who made up the Festival Management Group.

There was such a lovely family atmosphere throughout the day with children playing games, seeing professionals do their thing, taking part in art activities and participating in interactive theatre performances. This was a day for everyone and with everything being offered for free, it was clear to see that everyone felt valued, respected and involved. From schools performances of short physical theatre pieces created specifically for the SPLAT Festival with the help of Highly Sprung’s artists, to professional theatre companies entertaining the crowds, the festival was fully inclusive and packed from start to finish. There really couldn’t have been a more fitting crescendo to this round of the Arts Active Network project.

Arts Active Network is a connective alliance of five South Leamington Primary Schools, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick District Council, Arts Connect, and local artists, who set out with an ambitious aim in mind – to plan and mount the first South Leamington Children’s Arts Festival designed by and for children in 2017 and then grow the project to embed it as a sustainable, community event for all of CV31. It’s fair to say that the ambition that fuelled this stage of the project was realised and then some with this year’s SPLAT Festival and with plans for the future already underway, there is no sign of the original ambition diminishing any time soon.

Although the Arts Active Network project has been running since 2015, the Festival Management Group started to meet almost monthly from November 2016 to create the SPLAT Festival. When they first met all they knew was that they were to plan a festival with guidance from the Creative Learning department at Warwick Arts Centre. Soon they had decided what it would be, where it would be, what it would be called, what would be there, who could come and what it would look like. Each detail was planned by the children with votes being taken on names and venues. In smaller groups that consisted of Box Office, Technical, Programming, Marketing, Finance and Front of House & Operations, the details were hashed out with a budget and some guidelines in mind. Armed with the decisions made and questions asked in these meetings, the Creative Learning Team then facilitated their requirements. The only time we had to intervene was to nix the plan for an enormous fireworks display! What’s that well known saying…never work with children and…gunpowder!?

Arts Active Network uses a ‘See, Make, Share’ cyclical structure with participants seeing some professional work, making their own in response with help from local artists and then sharing the creations with each other. The SPLAT Festival acted as a grand finale of their ‘sharing’ strand with the Art Gallery marquee hosting a unique exhibition that catalogued the ‘making’ strand of the project from the beginning. The breadth of work on show from start to SPLAT really highlighted the growth in ability and confidence of imagination that came from being a part of such an interactive and visually stimulating project. Sculptural mobiles mixed with paintings mixed with film and performance mixed with sculpture mixed with games and activities; the feeling of an all-encompassing ‘arty’ atmosphere hit you the minute you stepped through the gallery entrance. There was a delightful, collaborative feeling amongst everyone involved with Warwick Arts Centre Sculpture Trail Leaders, Jayne Hughes and Charlotte Stokes, helping make some lovely looking-glass creations and an ever changing kaleidoscope of colourful shapes moving around the gallery walls. Put this together with ARTventurers supplying the under 6’s with some exciting making and messy play opportunities and SpongeBlob Facepaint offering up fun facepaints, there was a really lovely feeling of inclusivity throughout the festival that didn’t just stop at the crafty activities.

Each of the professional companies invited to the festival by the children thrived on audience interaction and used it to generate collaborative stories throughout the day. Pif Paf Theatre made dreams of adventure come to life as they took to the seas and air in their magical traveling Flycycle and Submercycle, while The Fabularium told their more stationary but no less adventurous tale of Reynard the Fox. Both were exciting pieces of outdoor theatre that brought adventurous worlds to life using puppetry, original live music, improvisation and unique staging that well and truly captured the imaginations of all ages.

And if that wasn’t enough, Highly Sprung’s Traveling Treasury took audiences inside an enchanted storytelling caravan and transported them straight into the pages of a book where stories opened up, quite literally before their eyes, and Talking Bird’s The Whale delighted it’s audiences with its utterly unique giant whale shaped structure – those brave enough to venture inside found themselves listening to a charming tale from a submariner named Jonah and after a delightful 3 minutes they were sent back out onto shore to continue their fearless adventure through the SPLAT Festival.

And last but certainly not least, Infuse Dance kept the festival goers safe during their SPLAT adventures with their smash-hit ‘Bodyguards – Protect and Serve’ performance. Their roaming interactive Street Theatre / Dance performance saw a team of highly trained dancing bodyguards comically secure the area while rhythmically guarding and protecting ‘VIP’ members of the public as they navigated the SPLAT site. Such was their popularity that children couldn’t help but join in with the dance routines, making it seem likely that the Bodyguards will soon be needing bodyguards of their very own!

Phew! And with all of the entertaining going on, it was essential that everyone made time to chill out and grab a coffee, cake or ice-cream. There were big family picnics spread out under trees and the lovely vintage coffee truck, HMS Cupcake, provided much needed fuel to audiences in the shape of locally sourced espresso and home-made treats. And as for the ice-cream, let’s just say that with 2000 cones being sold in a 5 hour period, there must have been a lot of brain freeze going on behind the huge smiles and loud laughter!

And yet, with all of this going on, the highlight of the day was unquestionably the presence of so many children from the Festival Management Group. The festival was so busy that their help was needed in each area. Roles varied from helping make sure that all people queued nicely and patiently to handing out badges in place of tickets and helping others craft and play in the Art Gallery and activity areas. Without question, these children were integral to the success of the festival and the confidence that they exuded throughout was a joy to see. They each started this project with no idea how to plan, programme or staff a festival and yet on the day they talked confidently to the public about the project. To see these 9/10/11 year olds be so assertive in public speaks volumes about how much impact the Festival Management Group meetings have had on not only their educational growth but their personal growth too. It was delightful to see the way they worked together in yellow t-shirted teams from across the AAN schools, wiping out any thought of school by school segregation; their cross-school friendships were clear to see in the incredibly tight teamwork that helped to make the festival run so smoothly.

With such a successful event, it wasn’t surprising to hear more than one voice asking if they could come back again the next day to join in only to be told that the festival only lasted one day. However, with the Arts Active Network teachers all banding together to put in a bid to the Arts Council for funding to keep the project going and to build on the success of this festival, who knows, the next one may last a whole weekend!

Until then, Warwick Arts Centre is open to schools and community groups throughout the year and offers a great range of activities. The arty activities provided in the SPLAT Art Gallery were only a taster for the new ones that will be available in the Mead Gallery’s Creative Space alongside the next exhibition – Kaleidoscope, a fun and accessible exhibition that explores 1960’s colour and shape with repetition, sequence and symmetry in mind. The Mead Gallery and the Creative Space will be open for visitors to see and create some magic from Thu 5 Oct – Sat 9 Dec 2017 with some extra special October Half Term activities available too. Best of all it’s all free and available for individuals, school and community groups and families. To book a group visit or for more information about the Creative Learning Team’s work in schools or with families and the community or even to tell us an idea for an activity or project that you would like to see us offer, just get in touch!

But if you’re already longing for more SPLAT Festival or missed out on the day, keep an eye on our website: splatartsfestival.co.uk. Over the next few months we will be updating the website with blogs that document the progress of the project along with hints and tips on how schools or communities might go about organising their own Children’s Arts Festival. To give you a head start on your festival planning, here’s a sneaky first Top Tip: pick a meaningful mission statement and stick to it! It certainly worked for this year’s children who decided that their mission was, “To bring schools together, to entertain all ages and to inspire young imaginations to create!”. I simply can’t think of any other sentence that would so neatly sum up the SPLAT Festival. The schools, without doubt, came together, all ages were thoroughly entertained and young imaginations were firing right, left and centre all day long. So here’s to the future of Arts Active Network, the next SPLAT Festival and all those young imaginations that make the project’s ‘By Children, For Children’ ethos work so beautifully!

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