Curating Latitude: Creative director Tania Harrison speaks

Following Latitude’s 10th outing, Access talks to creative director Tania Harrison (left) about the festival’s evolution, keeping the audience on its toes and the benefit of taking risks.

How did Latitude’s eclectic vibe evolve?

We had a plan starting out, and it was very different. People were quite negative about bringing theatre into a field, alongside literature and music. There were literary festivals 10 years ago, but generally festivals were three bands and a hot dog stand. I love music, but also theatre and dance, and we realised that other people like that too.

Did you ever have any doubts?

Jon Dunn, who used to book music at Latitude, said in the first year, ‘What if nobody likes what we like?’ I’d never really thought about it like that. Clearly that would have been a bit of a stress for [organiser and founder] Melvin Benn financially, and it was a big risk.

Why the big push for less stereotypical festival acts like theatre productions?

We’ve really pushed the art end of Latitude with exhibitions of contemporary art, working with numerous companies like Sadlers Wells. Now I have nearly 300 theatre shows across different stages. Ten years ago, theatre was more of a middle class, middle-aged thing, or at least it seemed like that. Now the attitude is, ‘Of course I’d go into the Literary or Spoken Word arena’.

How do you come up with a theme every year?

We love working with creativity and music. It’s not about imposing the same ideas; it’s more about deciding on themes. This year, for example, our theme was ‘For Richer, For Poorer, For Better, For Worse’. It was inspired by the £35m flats in One Hyde Park juxtaposed against the lack of affordable housing throughout the country. I commissioned artists and companies to create work inspired by that idea. We’re into working with culture and what people are thinking.

What is it like working with Melvin Benn?

Working with Melvin is brilliant; he really is at the top end. We’ve worked together for 21 years and he’s very generous with me, but not afraid to veto ideas. I had this vision of dancers dancing in a Perspex box on top of the lake, which was impractical in reality. It’s a great collaboration; he allows his team to bring what they can creatively.

How much work goes into creating that specific Latitude atmosphere?

All of the contractors here bring so much. The lighting in the trees, the magic, the atmosphere, lakeside stages and so forth. It’s great for suppliers to be given a platform to push boundaries. There’s been some serious work put in here over the years.

What were some of the challenges this year?

I’m always pushing for budget – that’s my biggest conversation with Melvin, and he’d laugh at that. Some things are tangible, some aren’t. For the 10th birthday this year, I asked what we could do for certain budgets, and Melvin asked what we would do to top it the next year. But that’s always the case; we’re always looking to go bigger.

This interview, conducted by Access editor Tom Hall, appeared in the September issue, available to read here.

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