Rhinegold Photo credit: ‘Flat as pancake’: St Mary in the Marsh

Lucy Thraves



1:37, 23rd April 2019

JAM on the Marsh festival is going from strength to strength, each year developing and nurturing a community of artists and local people based on the Romney Marsh in Kent. Lucy Thraves caught up with the team behind the festival to find out more

JAM on the Marsh is a multi-arts festival centred on music, theatre and poetry, and held in the sparsely populated marshlands on the south-east coast of the UK. ‘It brings different people together, many of whom don’t entirely know exactly what they want to go to,’ explains artistic director Ed Armitage. ‘So you get a cross-pollination: someone comes to a photography exhibition, and they think, “actually, we’ll stay for the evening and go and have supper and listen to a concert”. They end up coming to multiple events.’

Evidence of this cross-pollination between different audiences has emerged through a decline in the number of festival programmes in circulation. ‘You come in on the first event and pick up a programme that covers the whole festival; you then walk around with that the whole week rather than picking up another one every time,’ Ed continues. ‘It’s a brand thing; people have bought into the brand.’

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Part of the reason for the festival’s growing popularity is the ‘quirkiness’ of its venues. ‘The Marsh has 14 medieval churches,’ says Ed. ‘And would you rather see the London Mozart Players (who are headlining this year) in another concert hall, or in a medieval church that seats 300 people? There isn’t one main venue, and we put on a festival bus that takes people between venues – sometimes via a pub for lunch. You never quite know where you’re going next – for a lot of people that’s interesting and quirky. And for many local people, it gives them a chance to explore places on their doorstep they’ve never been to before.’ By Ed’s own admission, ‘it’s also a really weird place. It’s eerie, historically spooky. It’s flat as pancake so you get these huge skies.’

Another reason for its success is its affordability: about 50% of its events are free, children go free, and the most expensive ticket is £18. Sarah explains: ‘The Romney Marsh has generational unemployment; it’s in a low-income part of England and it’s arts deprived. Artists generally will go to Rye, they’ll go to Deal, or Ashford. For many artists, turning up in a village in the middle of the Marsh requires a big leap of faith. And likewise, people on the Marsh are quite nervous about coming out to things. When we first started thinking about doing JAM on the Marsh, people said, “Oh, it’ll never work here.” I did a bit of research in 2017 and found that people were of the opinion that “if it’s on the doorstep, if it’s affordable, and maybe a treat, I might go.”’

One of the ways in which the team have increased visibility and engagement has been to involve a lot of local people. As well as a steering group, ‘we involved 60 local volunteers last year, putting up posters or serving drinks, or just being on the ground. This means that the local audience and community can really buy into it. The attendance from local people went from 16% to 66% in two years.’

The ethos of the festival is one of collective responsibility and participation, with an absence of hierarchy between performers, audiences, and staff. ‘The festival curator, who might be conducting a concert one night, will be stacking chairs the following morning. Everyone mucks in,’ Sarah says. Moreover, all participants are encouraged to socialise together in the evenings. ‘Because it’s in the middle of nowhere, a lot of us who are working and performing end up staying in houses around the area. Each night everyone piles into one house and eats and drinks together, and discusses ideas.’

The emphasis on forging an artistic community has helped solve a potential problem for the organisers: ‘One of the challenges that we faced early on was where to accommodate all the artists? Because the Marsh is mostly farmland, there aren’t many hotels,’ Sarah says. ‘One of the essential parts of JAM funding is our supporters – some of them are local, and they very kindly put people up. Then the hosts are involved too; they’ll come along in the evenings to have a glass wine. Of course, there are some artists who want to go straight home. But the ones that do stay have an awesome time. It becomes a community thing.’

“It’s flat as pancake so you get these huge skies”

This atmosphere has meant that the leadership team have created loyal relationships with their artists. A lot of the performers have been on board since 2001. But this in itself has thrown up some challenges in terms of ensuring a balance between perennial favourites and new, emerging talent. For this reason, the team have introduced a curator, which changes every two years. ‘It means the festival never feels stale,’ explains Ed. The last two years were curated by Daniel Cook (master of the choristers at Durham Cathedral); this year it’s the turn of Michael Bawtree, Scottish-based conductor and organist. How do the team choose the next curator? Above all, it’s done ‘by feel’; but it often ‘relates to people who spend time down there and understand what it’s all about. Either you get it or you don’t: the Marsh is a ‘Marmite’ place.’

Another way the team have found to foster loyalty in their artists has been to give them opportunities and platform to showcase sides of their artistic endeavours that might otherwise be overlooked. ‘We’ve got a photography exhibition being done by Amos Miller, who’s principal trombone at Birmingham Royal Ballet,’ explains Sarah. ‘I happened upon an Instagram account of his. He’s taking these incredible, almost abstract photographs. One of the things that the festival does really well is give artists opportunities that they wouldn’t perhaps have had before.’

In addition, every festival includes an event with a ‘bring your own’ formats. Artists can submit ideas for this in July – theatre, dance, photography – and then host their own event come the festival. ‘We don’t take anything for this; they take all the profits,’ Sarah says. ‘People have asked why we don’t develop this into a Fringe festival, but we think it’s important that these artists feel as important as the King Singers or the LMP or the big headliners.’ It all contributes to the feeling of a lack of hierarchy between everyone involved.

While the festival itself runs for then days in July, various education and outreach projects sustain its impact and reach throughout the year. The team bring in resources to local primary schools and provide pupils with weekly singing lessons. This July, about 50 children will sing with about 120 other musicians in a performance of Paul Mealor’s The Farthest Shore. ‘It’s really easy to take children from quite a deprived area and take them to a West End show,’ says Ed. ‘But all you really do is show them what they haven’t got, and then you take them home again. But I feel that’s the wrong way of doing it.’ Sarah agrees: ‘It’s important to keep it going over time. Each week, these children are singing together. And then once a month we put in a vocal teacher, all building towards a July performance. There’s a constancy, rather than a one-off trip somewhere. We get really good feedback from the children, teachers and parents.’

This year’s festival will take place from 4-14 July, and will feature the Kings Singers, the Selwyn College Choir, the London Mozart Players and Art of Moog playing Bach on synths. For more information and to book tickets visit https://www.jamconcert.org/.

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