Latitude: “It’s the Tate Modern of festivals”

How do you programme 10 Latitude stages in between scouting new talent, holding down a 9-to-5 and keeping your sanity? This year’s Access All Areas Editor’s Award winner Tania Harrison knows.

Tania Harrison is doing a million things at once.

I’m standing in her office as she simultaneously checks her computer (“I have 3,000 unread emails,” she laughs), shows my photographer the corners in the building that get the best light, confirms her schedule with her colleagues and chats idly with me about the shows and performances she’s been to recently.

It’s hardly surprising that the woman behind Latitude is both supremely busy and firmly handling it all.

“I feel very lucky to be doing something I love, which I know sounds fairly trite, but I do love it,” says Harrison. Photoshoot done, she’s sat in her private office sipping peppermint tea; around her, taking up every corner of every wall, are clippings, notes, quotes and scribbled ideas – all of which will eventually come together to form the content of Latitude’s 2016 arts theatres, stages and performance areas.

The reason for all this introspection is because Harrison – who came up with the idea for Latitude in collaboration with Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn – is this year’s Access All Areas Editor’s Award recipient, a trophy she picked up last month at the Event Production Awards.

“It’s really lovely to be recognised, because it has been incredibly hard work,” she says. “Latitude is taken for granted now – the idea that all festivals have so much more to them, that they aren’t just music festivals, that they are multi-arts. But it wasn’t like that in the beginning; it was a big deal then. Everyone said, ‘What are you doing? What are you thinking?’”

The ‘beginning’ began more than 10 years ago. As Harrison tells it, the idea for a multi-arts festival came from casual conversations with colleagues about other festivals, and in particular how she would improve them if she had the chance. She brought it to Benn, whom she’d been working with for more than a decade; he liked the idea – and had been looking at doing something similar – and asked Harrison to come back with a fleshed out idea of what this new festival would look like.

“I sat down and imagined the stages,” she says. “There would be comedy, theatre, literary, spoken word, film, music and cabaret. I don’t think anybody is just interested in one thing; people like to read, they like to go to the movies, they like comedy. It’s cultural adventurousness; people are interested in a multitude of things.

“Creatively, I thought about it very differently. It was a chance to look at a festival in a very different way. The pressure was to create something that was as incredible and beautiful as it could be, and the important thing was to never look at anything that anybody else had done. I was just very clear in what I wanted it to be, which I saw as the Tate Modern of festivals.”

Tania on stage winning at the EPAs

Tania on stage receiving her Editor’s Award with editor Emma Hudson (left) and comedian Roisin Conaty (right).

What emerged in 2006 was Latitude, a festival that, despite opening relatively small (only 12,000 people came, compared to 2015’s 35,000), immediately changed everyone’s expectations of what a festival could and should be. Mixed in with the music – Snow Patrol, Antony and the Johnsons and Mogwai headlined – were artists from all different disciplines. Sean Lock and Josie Long performed; the Royal Court Theatre came; John Cooper Clarke and Patti Smith showed up in the Poetry Arena.

Latitude’s tagline declared it as “more than just a music festival”.

“For a lot of people, they thought of festivals as how the media portrays them – plastering on the front page how muddy it is at Glastonbury,” says Harrison. “Certainly, in the beginning, I would approach dance companies, theatres or authors and they would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know about doing a festival’. For a theatre company, a festival isn’t in their touring schedule. It’s part of a band’s cycle to play festivals; it’s certainly not part of the Royal Court’s plan to come into a tent in a field. The requirements for a lot of these companies – BAFTA, Sadler’s Wells, the RSC – are really extensive, so not least for them it was a very expensive risk to take.”

Harrison is open about how difficult it was – and still is – to put Latitude together. She also makes no secret about how close the festival is to her heart, in large part because of the hard work she put into making it happen.

“Nothing is done normally,” she says. An early idea to put a Perspex box on the Waterfront stage for a dance performance was done away with, but not until after underwater divers had already built it. The submerged catwalk was more successful – St Martin’s College and the Royal College of Art now do annual fashion shows on it – but required another crew of experts.

Understanding the different aspects of production for various disciplines was crucial. “Obviously dance works in a very different way to music,” she says. “You can’t have a dance warm-up tent that’s 6m x 6m, which you can for a band, because a dancer’s stage is 12m x 12m. You can’t just have them only practice half the steps and then do the other half against the wall. But usually at festivals, you wouldn’t have to think about that.

“It’s funny now, looking back, because it does actually feel normal to think about these things – but it certainly wasn’t normal when we first stepped out.”

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Harrison got her start working at the Camden Jazz Café in the early ‘90s during her holidays off from drama school. Promoters Mean Fiddler Group – which would go on to become Festival Republic – had just taken it over and began asking her to do bits on Reading, their sole festival at the time.

Her theatre background came in handy, and she soon moved up through the company. By her own count, she has worked in at least six different areas in her more than two decades at Festival Republic: in merchandise, licensing, acquisitions, public relations, marketing and programming. She began booking comedy for Reading and later Leeds, when the company acquired it, and started experimenting with putting spoken word, film and dance performances on those stages.

And then came the merger with Live Nation UK, officially announced in 2005. Festival Republic was no longer a small company, and there was no need for one person to be doing so many different jobs. Melvin Benn took Harrison aside and told her she had to choose just one job.

“It was lucky, because I was seriously overworking,” admits Harrison, though she’s smiling at the memory. “I had been programming for quite a few diverse things, and Melvin said to me, ‘I think you’re really good at this, you should look at doing this full time’. He had real faith in me, and I owe him a lot. He definitely took a big risk with me, and hopefully I’ve proved myself.

“I’d already come up with the idea for Latitude, so I did a trajectory of all the different jobs I could do, and it was funny because creating programmes was the area I actually had the least experience in. But I thought, Which one is the one that gets me out of bed every day? And 1,000 per cent, it was this one.”

Not that the workload got any smaller; as arts curator for Latitude, Harrison may just have one job now, but it’s a job that encompasses a huge range of responsibilities. Fourteen to 16 hour days are the norm; there’s hardly a night between November and the following October when she isn’t out scouting new talent and projects.

“It’s funny, one of the things I often get asked about Latitude is, ‘Do you get to go?’” she says, cackling at the thought. “I’m asked that question more than anything. I’m awake 21 hours while I’m at the festival, because everyone’s calling me – all I’m doing is problem-solving. ‘Do I get to go?’ That would be hilarious if I wasn’t there.”

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One of the most striking things about Harrison is her approach to her life and her work. There’s a certain mischievous amusement about her when she talks about Latitude, often followed by genuine bursts of passion about the festival she thinks of as her baby (“It definitely is – I birthed it.”).

“Sometimes I can be really, really serious with Latitude,” she says. “I’ll have gone down a theme, like last year’s ‘For Richer, for Poorer, for Better, for Worse’, and it’ll be quite political. There will be some very heavy plays on, some very deep work on that is very stimulating, thought-provoking and probably scheduled in a tent late at night. And then I’ll have to say, ‘Hang on, everyone needs to have a good time’.

“I have to make it work, that balance of having exciting new work you’ve never seen, but I also have to have some big shows in so that people come.”

This attention to the needs of every single person that crosses the gates at Latitude is important. To her, there shouldn’t be a separation between the attendee who visits the music stages and the one who spends his days in the arts arenas – in fact, they should probably be the same person.

“Latitude is a lot of things to a lot of people. It was always my big mission to get, for example, a 17-year old guy going to see The Maccabees into the theatre arena to see a show,” she says. “Magazines like Vogue and Tatler come, but we have a partnership with The New Statesman; the Telegraph really likes us, but so do Noisey and Dazed & Confused. That is a pretty wide spectrum of people, and it’s really amazing and quite fantastic to watch those audiences cross-fertilise, and to see things they wouldn’t have naturally seen.”

It’s been three hours and two peppermint teas since we first sat down, and I’m mindful of taking too much time out of her schedule – those emails won’t check themselves, and she’s got a train to catch to see a new potential Latitude participant.

As we wrap up, I ask her where she goes from here. Latitude celebrated its 10th birthday in 2015; in those years, it inspired an acceptance and embrace of multi-arts arenas, stages and performance areas from the wider festival community. Several younger festivals owe their programmes, both directly and indirectly, to Harrison’s vision. If both her and her baby could do all that in just 10 years, surely she must have big plans for the next decade?

She looks comically horrified. “What will I do, where will I go next? That question will keep me up at night. Who knows where I’ll be and what Latitude will be, but let’s hope we’re all having a good time.”

This feature originally appeared in the March issue of Access All Areas, out now.

All photos: Simon Hadley/hadleystudios.co.uk