Year of Shakespeare: Festivals, Sponsorship and Spontaneity

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Festivals, Sponsorship and Spontaneity

By Emily Linnemann, Shakespeare Institute

For the past few weeks I’ve been walking past a poster at Euston tube station announcing the beginning of the London 2012 Festival. At the top of the poster, overlaid over silhouettes clutching microphones, are listed the three top attractions for the London 2012 festival goer:

Shakespeare – Scissor Sisters – Pina Bausch


Another poster on the same platform advertises the Lovebox music festival, ‘London’s biggest disco’ which takes place in Victoria Park, East London. Divided into three columns representing the three days of the festival, the top row reads:

Hot Chip – Friendly Fires – Grace Jones

Through the visual cues of the London 2012 posters, Shakespeare has been transmuted into a festival headliner. The visual similarity of the posters thus highlights an important trope of the twenty-first century’s encounter with arts festivals: the fact that they frequently mediated through the cultural values of the twenty-first-century music festival.

The relationship between the London 2012 and 21st-century music festivals points up some of the tensions of cultural value that circulate around the production of festivals in general. When I use the term ‘tensions of cultural value’, I am referring to all those binaries that are used to discuss and disseminate culture (eg high/low, innovation/tradition, utopia/dystopia). These tensions are often viewed as problematic by cultural producers, policymakers and academics because they seem to encourage a top-down approach to cultural production. Nevertheless, they continue to govern the way in which culture is produced and, if tensions are viewed as potential sites for negotiation and debate then they can also help to create new cultural value.

The cultural values which are located in festivals spring from the break in time that festivals offer between the ‘real’ and the ‘festive’. This break is identified by Mikhail Bakhtin in his examination of festival’s forerunner – the carnival. Bakhtin’s ‘festive’ time is bound up with ideas of social inversion, a break in the barrier between actor and audience and the creation of ‘authentic’ experiences. By creating a schism or tension in time, other tensions of cultural value can be articulated and negotiated. Carnival is idealised as non-commercial, authentic, spontaneous. But it cannot be idealised in this way without drawing attention to its binaries: the commercial, the inauthentic and the structured.

In negotiating between these poles of cultural value, twenty-first-century arts festivals disrupt the idealisation of the festival and lead to a more nuanced form of the festive tradition. Festival practitioners continue to lay claim to the values of authenticity, non-commerciality and spontaneity. At the same time, this practice is tempered by careful planning, corporate sponsorship and meticulously orchestrated performativity. If we look in more detail at Glastonbury festival we can see how this set of tensions works to define festival events in the twenty-first century.

Glastonbury’s claims to authenticity are linked to its geography. As the organisers explain on their website: ‘it’s where King Arthur may be buried, where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have walked, where leylines converge.’ This powerful mixture of the magical, mythological and religious underlines Glastonbury’s authentic roots as a celebratory event. This authenticity is further emphasised by the website’s description of the spontaneous and wild happenings that occur during the festival:

‘There will be enlightenments, awakenings, surreal happenings, Damascene epiphanies and people doing the strangest things in public. Sometimes the strangest things you’ll see happening have been booked well in advance – but often it will be people spontaneously reacting to the spirit of the Festival’.

The authentic nature of the festival’s location will foster a festive spirit which leads in turn to spontaneous – and thus authentic – happenings.

Glastonbury also draws authenticity from its origins as a free event and although it now charges for entry, it continues to displace the economic and champion the non-commercial. The organiser, Michael Eavis, donates large amounts of money to charity. Where most festival websites display their sponsors’ logos, Glastonbury champions its three ‘worthy causes’ and distances itself from other festivals which ‘prize profit above all’. The organisers’ idealisation of Glastonbury as an authentic, spontaneous event is drawn from their displacement of profit-making activities. However, its lack of sponsorship also suggests that Glastonbury may be one of the more economically successful festivals since it does not rely on the support of other businesses. Glastonbury can afford to distance itself from the market.

A similar displacement of the economic can be seen in the recent re-branding of Reading Festival. Readingspent much of the nineties and noughties being sponsored by Carling lager and branded as the ‘Carling Weekend.’ Since 2007, the organising company, Festival Republic, has removed this overtly corporate reference and has instead moved towards a mixed funding model including sponsorship from various sources. The less prominent involvement of Carling at the festival suggests that Festival Republic is trying to negotiate between the two poles of the festive event. Reading is part of a profit-making business but it has grown out of a tradition which displaces commercialism. By shifting back to the name ‘Reading Festival’ and moving sponsors’ names to the bottom of promotional material, Festival Republic appears to be displacing the economic whilst continuing to make a profit.

The approach to sponsors during the World Shakespeare Festival has reflected the approaches of its pop-music-focused counterparts.  As part of the Cultural Olympiad, the WSF has received financial support from BP, its ‘founding presenting partner’, Arts Council England and the Olympic Lottery fund. Not surprisingly, it is the connection with BP which has troubled audiences and commentators alike.

The protest against BP was brought to the attention of RSC audiences when two people calling themselves the ‘Reclaim Shakespeare Company’ took to the stage before a performance of The Tempest in Stratford. One performer, dressed in feathered cap, hose and doublet addressed the audience: ‘What country friends is this? Where the words of our most prized poet can be bought to beautify a patron so unnatural as British Petroleum.’ A video of this three-minute skit can be seen on the Reclaim Shakespeare Company’s website ( Protests have also occurred at productions of Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad.

The RSC is accused by Reclaim of selling Shakespeare off in order to allow BP to atone for its past. At root, their argument is that the cultural values of Shakespeare are being (mis)appropriated by BP in order to improve and even grow the cultural value of its business. This recognition of the reciprocal nature of sponsorship is an important one. Festival sponsors gain much from supporting an event and can use such relationships to accrue cultural value themselves.

Rather than condemning this interruption of their performance, Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the RSC, explicitly stated that they would allow the peaceful protests to continue. The protests allowed the RSC to act in a nuanced way towards their sponsors – at once accepting their support and acknowledging the problematic nature of it. Just as BP’s image can be rescued through an association with Shakespeare, so the RSC’s could be improved by allowing these protests to continue.  But even more than this, the protests represented a form of spontaneity and ‘authentic’ performance. When Reclaim jumped onstage they appropriated the utopian and non-commercial elements of the idealised festival in order to criticise the WSF’s economic and commercial realities. Suddenly, the WSF was no longer a series of carefully planned and meticulously orchestrated productions, but a site where performances had the potential to be unstructured, impulsive and radical. BP’s sponsorship provided the catalyst for the festival’s spontaneity.

The relationship between sponsor and sponsored is just one example of the negotiation between tensions that must occur in order to run a successful event. Sponsored festivals must be carefully planned: neither sponsors nor funding bodies will want to give money to poorly executed, haphazard events.  This careful planning complicates the idealised authenticity of the festival experience. A planned performance, no longer a spontaneous ‘happening’, cannot lay claim to the authentic.

I’m not suggesting that twenty-first-century festivals are devoid of value because they are commercial, carefully planned and, by association, inauthentic. Instead, I want to suggest that if they work within their inherent tensions and view them as negotiations, they can act as catalysts for creativity and for further cultural value. By accepting this, more nuanced, model of cultural production, festival producers are able to create communal events where the onus on spontaneity resides with the audience rather than the performers; where commerciality is distanced but not denied and where memorable experiences (authentic or not) can certainly take place.

What do you think about these issues? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Emily Linnemann

Emily completed a PhD at the Shakespeare Institute investigating the cultural value of Shakespeare in publicly-funded theatre. She now works as an events organiser but maintains an active interest in the values surrounding cultural production, public funding and Shakespeare.
  • Adam Hansen

    Fascinating piece, thanks.  Good to publicise the work of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, but…historically, is their (and others’) radicalised view of Shakespeare anomalous when set against a critical, theatrical (and educational) tradition of sanitising, corporatised, co-opted, conservative, expropriating Shakespeares, a tradition the plays themselves might well be seen to initiate (and a tradition Edward Bond, and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker – in The Many-Headed Hydra – would say Shakespeare himself was invested in)?  In other words, are they going against a long-standing repressive and exploitative grain?  I say this as someone invested in the idea of a ‘radical Shakespeare’, and not to deny the value of what Reclaim do, and what others have done – we need more of it, to counter that tradition.  If mixing ‘pop culture’ and Shakespeare, emphasising his ‘popular voice’, and politicising theatre, do this, great.

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