‘There’s something for everyone: music, dance, drama and drag queens.’ Launch of the River Stage Festival

It was a glorious day on the Southbank with people sitting on the chairs just outside the National Theatre eating, drinking and enjoying the sun, and inside The Understudy – the bar underneath the National – a variety of press were recently treated to the launch of the 2018 River Stage Festival. Returning now for its fourth year, and London’s largest free outdoor arts festival, the River Stage runs across five weekends with a variety of music, drama, workshops and club nights.

At the launch, press were treated to glimpses of the different acts the public can see performing each weekend. Hosting the launch was Le Gateau Chocolat, who represented The Glory, the flamboyant and exciting LGBT+ performance group. The Glory will open the festival on Friday 13th July with a plethora of activities – lip sync contests, a fairy party, cabaret and drag life drawing – that promises an energised opening to the festival.

The weekend after will see HOME Manchester bring northern performers and musicians to London. During the launch, Eve Steele gave a touching monologue about Manchester and living in a city: ‘Thank you Manchester’ she explained ‘for being my place, my home’. Next up was Sadler’s Wells, a dance troupe that improvise routines based on audience’s suggestions, the most impressive of which included the light and staggered movements prompted by ‘feather’ as if the dancer was caught in the wind. Sadler’s Wells can be found on the Southbank from the 27th July, whilst Nonclassical will be there from the 3rd August. Combining classical, electronic and experimental music, audiences that week will be able to hear renaissance music, the cello trio Tre Voci and the collective DOLLYman.

The River Stage Festival ends the weekend beginning Friday 10th August, and will be programmed by the National Theatre, with family workshops, a new circus show, a tea dance, live music and DJs, ending the week with a National Theatre Live screening of the Olivier-Award winning production of Follies, with music written by Stephen Sondheim and starring Imelda Staunton.

Le Gateau Chocolate at the River Stage Launch. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

Also available over the course of the festival will be different food and drink providers. The Cheese Iron have a series of delicious toasties (I personally recommend ‘The Smoky One’), whilst Campfire Pizza supply a lovely vegan aubergine parmigiana. Melt will be providing ice creams. Both the Understudy and Apothecary Cocktail Bar will be there to quench your thirst, again with a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

After the launch I briefly spoke with the festival’s organiser, Fran Miller, about some of the challenges that come with programming such a busy schedule and why students should attend this free month-long celebration of the arts.   

AWC: When organising an event like this, where do you start?

FM: River Stage began four years ago and I’ve been programming it for three years and I’d never programmed an outside event before. When I spoke with Rufus Norris [Director of the National Theatre] he said ‘it’s got to be as open and diverse as possible,’ which is from the theatre’s mission statement, and I thought ‘that’s exciting.’ So we had this idea of takeover weekends: we want to showcase the best of the arts so all audiences know the arts can be for them. The first year I did it The Glory were there and it was amazing. Suddenly it had something for everyone: it was diverse and for the family, but under 35s also came. We wanted to programme an event for our under 35, drinking audience. So we knew on a Friday night we wanted a party at the Understudy, on Saturday we have a variety of events and let the companies do what they want and then on Sunday we wanted a more family-friendly and chilled out environment. We learnt loads and worked with new companies – Home are the loveliest people on the planet and we got to work with new dance companies like Sadlers. It’s really quite joyful and puts what’s happening both in London and nationally right outside our building, which is the nicest thing that could happen.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt from doing this festival?

The audiences that come on Friday night are not necessarily there for the River Stage and so we want to get them involved and do something that’s quite easy and that people can get involved with. On Sunday it’s much more chilled out. We don’t want to do anything too abstract.

How much of the original pitch from the companies stays as the final show audiences see?

Loads. We work with them on scheduling but they come to us with their ideas. We worked with Womad last year, who were just amazing, but we were just like ‘GO GO GO’ and literally throwing people at the stage. For us we have to have a technical focus and then we think about where best to put acts on which days.

How would you describe the whole event in one word?
Eclectic… and joyful…that’s two words… joyful, then. Especially on a glorious weekend, when you get people who would never normally go to The Glory having an awareness of this side of London life and you see families enjoying themselves. That this happens outside the National Theatre is wonderful.

What is the most common feedback you get from audiences about the event?
The recurrent feedback is the quality of the free festival: for the National’s weekend it is important to get people to come to the NT and learn what’s happening in our theatre. We’ve got bits from Starseekers and part of the community production of Pericles will come out and perform songs. We want to show what we do in the National and encourage people to come in.

Why should students come to the River Stage Festival?

It’s a free, fun and interesting programming outside the NT. There’s something for everyone: music, dance, drama and drag queens. It’s got it all and we have beer on tap and cheese toasties. It’s just the most fun.

What’s your favourite piece of food offered by the vendors outside the National?
The pizza, I’ll have to really try to not to eat it all summer!

London Student will be covering the River Stage Festival and encourages all students to enjoy this free summer series of performing arts.

Feature photograph: James Bellorini

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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