Running a festival
Rachel Stringer is a producer and programmer of live events. She has programmed events for 21,000 people, including theatre, film, dance, youth events and workshops.
Rachel has been Head of Content for Greenbelt Festival, a 36-year-old liberal Christian arts festival incorporating comedy and speakers, as well as big bands like Royksopp. Speakers included environmental activist Tamsin Ormond and US gay bishop Gene Robinson.
Organising the Greenbelt Festival
With Greenbelt’s unusual organisational structure, Stringer's job is not like many festival programmers.
"Most of the booking for Greenbelt is done by teams of volunteers, whereas festivals like the Big Chill or V have a professional, full-time individual or team putting the programme together.
“If you're trying to break into festival work, it doesn't matter what work you're asked to do, you do it. Be a willing and a hard worker. That's the secret to getting another job when one ends.”
“Some of our volunteers work in their field of, say, theatre or comedy, but often they are enthusiasts who know what great theatre we need to jump on, or who think a particular speaker will be brilliant."
Greenbelt is also different to a traditional festival, in that it doesn't divide into different types of stage. "Our stages have all styles of events on them," Stringer says. "I book the music on the main stage, but a large part of my job is to guide and shape the overall programme, artistically as well as devising the schedule. If several groups want the same stage at the same time, it's my job to look at which acts work best in terms of the entire programme.
“I also work with the operations team to check that, for instance, it's practical to have an aerial theatre group come on between two bands.
"I'm very often involved in the final negotiations with agents to book an act. Understandably agents want to get the best fees for their act, but as a non-profit making charity Greenbelt has to work within a budget."
The secret to her job, Stringer explains, is "you've got to be able to manage stress. I'd say you have to really love a specific type of stress. A festival has one enormous, immoveable deadline - the weekend it is held.
“Obviously we divide that deadline to work to a series of smaller deadlines. But you have to be extremely self-motivated. You can’t fall behind the work that needs to be done each month, but at the same time the 'real' deadline can be nearly a year away ..."
Getting into events organisation
Stringer describes her career as ‘a set of sideways moves’. She studied archaeology at university, but worked in her spare time for Reading University's Technical Services team, rigging décor for club nights and at WOMAD and Glastonbury festivals.
“If I'm hiring and I have a choice of someone who's done a music-management course or someone who's got experience, voluntary or paid, I know who I'll chose."
She was able to turn that experience into a job with theatre director Hugh Wooldridge, staging gala shows for charities.
"Working with Hugh taught me that I liked events organisation, but I didn't want to work in theatre. So I started working as a freelancer on events and festivals, stage managing, rigging lights & décor, production coordination, corporate conference managing and any other events work I could do.
“That became a job as Production Manager with Warm Rain, an arts based communications agency, running parties, product launches, fashion shows. From there, I did more freelance production work with marketing event agencies such as RPM, working on events for Smirnoff, including booking the entire cabaret stage for a Smirnoff show at Koko in Camden, London."
At the same time, Stringer was volunteering for Greenbelt. For more than 12 years, she worked backstage as artist liaison, in the Greenbelt record shop, helping in the office, and as part of the music programme volunteer group. "I was the contemporary electronic music person, and as I worked at other festivals like the Big Chill, I had a good understanding of what music worked for different types of audience.”
Three tips for a career in events
1. Be willing to work
“For people trying to break into festival work, or the music industry, it doesn't matter what work you're asked to do, you do it.
“I've collected dry cleaning and bought one boss's weekly grocery shop. I've made a lot of tea. But it's not just about impressing your boss. It's more about impressing the people around them that you are willing and a hard worker. That's the secret to getting another job when one ends.”
2. Keep in touch with your contacts
“Every time you finish a job, pick up the phone and call all your contacts to ask about work.
“I'd call myself a terrible networker. I don't like calling strangers for work, I don't like any of the forced ways people 'network'. But over the years, I've made lots of connections through volunteering, working for free, emailing festivals asking if I can help with the stage team.”
3. Knowledge is useful, experience is better
“If I'm hiring and I have a choice of someone who's fresh out of one of the new music-management courses versus someone who's got experience, voluntary or paid, I know who I'll chose.
“We have an intern in the office right now who's 14 or 15. He's helping with box office, with contracts, he sees how the programming is coming together. That will give him a huge advantage if he wants to work with festivals when he's older."