10 top tips for producing and creating work outdoors, by Phil Hargreaves
25 November 2021
Hello – I’m Phil Hargreaves. I’m a Creative Producer & Programmer, working in the wonderful world of outdoor arts. Without Walls invited me to share my top tips for creating cultural experiences outdoors. It’s not a definitive list, rather, a set of key tips based on my experience producing and programming cultural experiences outdoors, to help people have some clarity on exactly what they are embarking on.
I have created this because I believe that a whole new range of skills, thinking and processes are needed to create work outdoors. I hope this advice can help you with your practice.
1. Creating outdoor work is a craft
It has its own skills, artistic requirements, processes, and qualities. By this I mean – you can’t just take a piece of work created for indoors and drop it outdoors, and I don’t believe that you can just decide to work outdoors and create an amazing piece of work.
Sometimes the experience, themes, artistic ambition and exploration are not suited to the outdoors. You’re in a public space, people are going to talk as they walk past, shout, leave in the middle, join halfway through the piece.
I’ve worked with choreographers who have had to change their whole practice because the domain in which they are working in is so different to their previous formats. They have had to start from scratch with understanding the body, how it moves, how it moves on concrete, how they create content, and so on. This is important to understand, and will be explored more in later tips.
Find some artists, shows, producers, and organisations that you think do outdoor work well. Chat to them, explore their websites, ask them questions, and ask yourself why you think the work is great. Watch any footage available online, connect with artists and ask them to help with support/mentoring/guidance. If they are creating, ask about access to the studio to see how they create and develop work in this environment.
I spent a lot of time preparing artists to hit the outdoors, some shows have taken two years, some have taken four. We have travelled to events, festivals and shows and we discuss the work we have seen, what the curation of the festival orevent looks like, and they meet with artists to explore artistic practice.
If the outdoor arts is totally new to you, then this research is key, but it’s also an opportunity to expand your horizons, practices, and knowledge (which I continue to do every week!). Get the research in early and you will be forming a strong foundation to build out your idea from.
"Think about the layers of interactions that take place when you are performing on the street and how you will cater for this. Try to keep focused and targeted to ensure you know who and what you are making the show for."
3. Get your ducks lined up
Spend time connecting with important organisations, players and support programmes and take part in networking or virtual training events, to help you understand the sector and start to get your name/project/creative idea into those networks or spaces.
Think about what’s happening in your local area or region – who’s supporting outdoor work in your area? Are there any specific programmes for artists, talent development initiatives, or producer training programmes available? Do you have any partnerships already working in this space who can help start new conversations for you?
It’s important to get your partners and people ready asthey act as promoters for you and your work; they can start to talk about what you are doing across new and different networks you may not be part of, and help to raise your profile.
4. Consider the audience
Just because your work is made for the public realm, doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Think about the range of people who stumble across non-ticketed outdoor arts programmes. Think about the layers of interactions that take place when you are performing on the street and how you will cater for this. Try to keep focused and targeted to ensure you know who and what you are making the show for.
This doesn’t have to be answered immediately, but audiences are at the forefront of this space. They need consideration, and understanding them will help you position yourself appropriately.
5. Plan sufficient time for your practice to develop
Like I said in my first top tip – not everything is made for the outdoors and you need to give yourself the space to test, fail, learn, and grow. Even if you have been making work outdoors for years, it’s still important to give yourself appropriate time and space to hone your artistic voice.
It’s important that you feel protected and safe as practitioners, so plan and create the space for that, and surround yourself with people that will allow you to do that.
6. Work in the environment you are creating for
If you are making work for the outdoors – then try to create outdoors or in a safe setting that feels in some way like your intended location. Do this for some or all (especially if the area is new for you) of the creation process. This will absolutely help to contextualise the work in its surroundings.
This also allows you to develop an understanding of your work and where it fits. Just because it’s outdoors doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be on a loud street. Maybe it’s a unique experience that you stumble across in a quiet corner. Working in your intended environment will give you a sense of how your work is perceived and how you feel it should be presented.
7. Budgeting isn’t the same as indoors
Remember you literally have ZERO infrastructure, so if you’re rehearsing outdoors or presenting outdoors outside of a festival context, who and what is the infrastructure required?Have you been thinking about toilets, fencing, security, cables, first aid and so on and so forth?
Have you considered the local infrastructure that’s in place, such as Public Safety Liaison and Safety Advisorygroups for local councils? Licencing or temporary event notices? There are lots of considerations at play which we take for granted when working indoors. Think about this when rehearsing, performing, or undertaking research and development.
Something else to consider is how you generate income. We are working in a different context, so investments from alternative sources might possibly be available. For example, if you are driving footfall to a local area or businesses, then sponsorship might be an option. Can you connect with local councils’ wider service teams – environmental, education, business improvements, or regeneration to use culture as a tool for social and economic development?
Keep all of this in mind when thinking about creating and looking at how you might be able to utilise new resources in an innovative way.
8. Surround yourself with experts in the field
Having someone who can support you with guidance and mentoring is a great thing. Utilise experienced creatives, producers, and support organisations in this field, they will be able to help you avoid situations and hurdles they stumbled on. They can also act as outside voices to help understand your work through a new lense.
"The public space is the intended destination for the work, so why not test it with them?"
9. Share your work freely in the environment it’s intended for
I think this is incredibly important – when I worked at Déda’s Talent Development programme OffSite (linked to Derby’s outdoor festival Festé), we tried to provide sharing opportunities for new shows or artists to share them with live audiences.
The public space is the intended destination for the work, so why not test it with them? Even rehearsing in a public space will open some space for feedback or conversation. It worked extremely well with OffSite and I feel we supported artists to think about how their work is being perceived. Don’t wait until you think it’s ready to share because it can be very exposing very quickly, and might not help you with the future of the piece.
10. Be clear about how, when, and where the work is presented
If it’s a night-time show, you need to be clear about this (and budget for it!). If it’s a quiet show, you need to ensure this is clear and in your communications with festivals, venues, or event organisers. What if your work is programmed next to something else which is loud and drowns out your show? This isn’t great for audiences or for you. Have a good understanding of the artistic placement so you can ensure your work is showcased in the best context.
I hope that these are helpful or useful in some way, and I hope that you have as much fun creating and producing work outdoors as I have!
Image Credits (in order, left to right): Urban Astronaut by Highly Sprung (c) Steve Eggleton, PULSE by Joss Arnott Dance (c) Josh Hawkins, SPHERA by Humanhood (c) Warren King
About the Author
Phil Hargreaves is an award-winning Creative Producer with a vast amount of experience creating and producing a diverse range of cultural experiences from large scale outdoor productions/festivals to intimate light installations and festivals.
Over his career Phil has had the honour of working with some incredible creative organisations including as the Creative Producer for Déda, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Joss Arnott Dance, Highly Sprung Performance, Overhead Project, 2Faced Dance Company, Humanhood and Southpaw Dance.