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Programming live arts events in a digital age


The second in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) has established a great reputation for programming high quality arts content, including original commissions, calculated to appeal to audiences in a digital age. In doing so it drew to some extent of the experience I gained as founder and CEO of its sister organisation, Poet in the City. Whilst there I developed a kind of ‘magazine style’ format for events. Rather than simply being a poetry reading or performance, an event was a carefully curated show combining a panel of ‘talking heads’, readings by famous actors, and musical performances. This approach results in multifaceted events which are larger than the sum of their parts. There is always someone providing context, so that those who know nothing about the subject are introduced to it properly. There is usually a second expert speaker who delves deeper into the subject, providing a detailed look at one aspect. Whenever possible there is also what I call an ‘off-left-field’ element too, someone giving an unusual or unexpected take on the subject. It is often during this quirky segment that the event really starts to light up. We have entered uncharted waters and the audience loves it. I shall always remember a Sappho event at which an expert from the British Museum demonstrated the perishable nature of papyrus by crumbling some (new) papyrus between his fingers on stage. The audience gasped as though it was an ancient Egyptian papyrus being destroyed before their eyes. Last, but not least, music is often used to add some magic towards the end of the event and create a climactic finale. Again, I shall always recall a Robert Burns event at which three unaccompanied Scottish folk singers performed songs written by the poet. The astonishment and delight of the audience was palpable.

This style of programming is a key aspect of R&V’s approach to live events. One of the best examples was The Disappearing Poet, an event comparing the poet Arthur Rimbaud with Rosemary Tonks, a British poet who vanished from the world of letters in the 1970s, almost exactly 100 years after Rimbaud gave up poetry and disappeared into obscurity. This illustrates one of the great advantages of the magazine style approach. In this case the Rimbaud connection was used as the basis for a fascinating event about a marvellous but now virtually unknown British poet whose work was directly inspired by her French predecessor. And the mysterious subject matter allowed us to market the event as a sort of gum-shoe detective story, and to design our invitations and emails accordingly, reaching out to fans of detective stories and true crime. To take another example, the T.S. Eliot and Decadence event, featuring the film and TV star Simon Callow, told the astonishing story of how Eliot’s year in Paris in 1911 definitively influenced the style of this famous English-language poet. Again, a headline association with a poet familiar to many people was used very effectively to attract a capacity audience to an event which told a fascinating and complex story of artistic influences and connections, almost certainly new to the vast majority of those who attended. The characters of Rimbaud and Verlaine are a sort of gift to this kind of portfolio programming. Their influences ripple out far and wide, providing a sufficient basis for events about many other artists and art forms.

The magazine style format is particularly well-suited to programming arts events in a digital age. The whole idea is to send the audience away with a powerful desire to discover more, to buy the book, see the film, listen to the music, or search for more information online. If you are promoting the arts you need to be evangelical about it, and that requires you to be clear, persuasive and captivating. At their best these magazine style programmes appear natural and spontaneous, as though the audience has been invited into a living room to eavesdrop on fascinating discussion, interspersed by readings and music. The aim of creating this kind of eclectic event is to reach out to new audiences, and to provide them with an accessible, intelligent and entertaining night out. Even if an audience member does not understand the poetry they may enjoy the music. Even if they are not interested in the papyrus specialist, they may be thrilled to hear readings from a celebrity actor like Simon Callow or Juliet Stevenson.

To achieve this apparent naturalness the events need to be intricately planned and constructed. I have often talked about ‘manufactured spontaneity’ and R&V works hard to ensure that its events contain at least one moment that sends a shiver down the spine of those in the audience. Experiencing a ‘shiver moment’ of this kind is one of the best indicators of a successful live event. Disciplined timing is an important part of the format. The object is to create a strictly timed event which leaves audiences stimulated and wanting to find out more. The more niche the subject matter, the more important it is to keep the programme short and sweet. I recall with a shudder an early Poet in the City event celebrating the fascinating Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa which ran significantly over-time and completely lost the audience.  Kept within a tighter running time it might have been a great success. Disciplined timing can literally be the difference between a successful event and one that bombs, and is an item of faith for R&V. 

For R&V the aim of programming is to communicate interest and complexity whilst maintaining pace and accessibility.  I would like to think that many of these events would work just as well as television or radio programmes. Many of the same techniques are being deployed to craft a programme that packs in a lot of live experiences, information and emotion into a fixed time period. The digital age is breaking down the barriers between what used to be very different artistic disciplines. Nowadays it makes much better sense to think in terms of ‘rich content’, great stories, readings and live performance, which might be embodied in a number of different ways, as a live show on stage, as a film, a podcast, a radio programme, or as a piece of augmented reality or virtual reality programming.

Since its inception R&V has also been an organisation specialising in cross-arts events. Given the protean nature of the French poets and their impact it was entirely natural that the organisation should not restrict itself to poetry and literature programming. Thus, one of R&V’s first major live events in Hall 1 at Kings Place was a concert featuring performances of Fauré’s song settings of Verlaine poems, marking the publication of a complete edition of these songs by the pianist and musicologist Roy Howat. This was the first of many R&V events programming wonderful songs from the French chamber music repertoire, much underrated and under-performed. At its best R&V’s approach to programming allows it to present difficult and relatively obscure music in such a way as to appeal to new audiences. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was the Twenty Contemplations concert it held with the pianist Cordelia Williams, a winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. This series of complex devotional piano pieces by Messiaen was contextualised and explained by a series of original poems written and performed by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Here an up-and-coming music star and a celebrated poet were the vehicle for presenting a concert of famously challenging music, but in such a way as to make it interesting and accessible to everyone. I am tempted to say that you should never ‘dumb down’ content to reach a wider audience. But you should develop platforms and formats designed to present complex content in such a way that the wider audience will not find it off-putting, and never make it past the foyer.

One of the other great things about R&V’s approach to programming are the opportunities it gives to commission new original artistic content and provide opportunities for up-and-coming writers, artists and musicians. The arts are part of a living tradition and R&V has always been determined that the French poets should not be celebrated and performed in a sort of closed loop, but that they should be used as the inspiration for an explosion of new creativity. This has included the commissioning of a Jazz suite inspired by the poets’ time in Camden (Jazz from the Playing Card Factory), and an original theatre show featuring short plays by seven of Europe’s most talented up-and-coming playwrights (Poetry House Live). In both cases the stories and ideas emerging from R&V were used in exciting ways to create brand new artistic work. More theatre commissions have followed, with R&V taking a new show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 (Before the Wall) and presenting a mixed theatre and chamber music show in Feb 2020 (Songs from a Parisian Salon). In the programming of live arts events, it always pays to follow your passions. In the case of R&V this has resulted in fresh and original content providing opportunities for up-and-coming writers, artists and musicians. The fact that Rimbaud, in particular, is much loved by Rock stars like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith also caused R&V to create a special Rock for Rimbaud programme of live music events. These concerts are designed to combine mature music artists with up-and-coming new acts. For example, in an Americana Folk Rock concert in 2016 the US Folk singer Diana Jones and the slide guitarist Preston Reed were combined with a new Northern Irish band called The Mad Dalton. So the inspiration of the two French poets can be taken off in all sorts of innovative directions, with a view to creating exciting new live arts content in the present.

Programming now must be fully integrated into an ongoing conversation which the arts organisation has with its audiences via the web and social media. Events have to be promoted online, sometimes with promotional videos and, whenever possible, content needs to be captured in other forms, as a blog, as film, audio or photography. More than ever before the programming of events is part of a whole world conjured by the arts organisation for its community of supporters. In R&V’s case this has resulted in the making of a number of short films and promotional videos. A 16-minute short film (House of Knives) was a key tool in launching the new charity in 2014, being screened at about a dozen different venues. More recently R&V made two long series of music videos (An Invitation to a Journey and Songs of Awakening) which played an important part in providing a stream of great content to its supporters and friends during the COVID lockdown. Just as importantly these films have provided paid work and creative opportunities to dozens of filmmakers, singers and actors. Providing this kind of opportunity for up-and-coming creatives has become one of R&V’s proudest claims to fame.

The most important lesson that I have learned about programming live arts events in a digital age is that it should be based on a particular kind of relationship with the audience. Inspired by the monthly drop-in poetry events which were a feature of my work at Poet in the City, R&V has for several years programmed monthly salon-style events, small-scale gatherings of up to 50 people constructed around a single guest speaker. The latter gives an informal 40-minute talk about their area of interest, which is then broadened out into a general discussion with the audience. In keeping with the spirit of R&V’s programming the guests are an eclectic bunch. As well as experts on Decadent literature, music or history, events have featured a contemporary ballet dancer, circus choreographer, public artist, Rock music producer and many others, allowing audiences to hear directly about the processes surrounding the creation of new artistic content. In my view this kind of intimate and participatory event is now an essential part of arts programming. It allows an arts organisation to communicate directly with its community of supporters and have an ongoing exchange with that community.

And it is not a one-way street either. It has become normal to hear people talk about the ‘crowd-sourcing’ of content, but this is usually understood in rather narrow and technical terms, as the sourcing of occasional content and suggestions via the Web or social media. R&V has understood this term a little more literally. Almost all of its events, commissions and new platforms have come about because of conversations, suggestions or proposals arising from within its own community. As the CEO of R&V I am constantly being approached with new ideas and suggestions, many of them from up-and-coming creatives, scriptwriters, filmmakers, translators, fine artists and musicians. We need to get away from the idea of a ‘professionalised’ arts sector with ‘amateur’ audiences. Audiences are heterogenous and include everyone from casual hobbyists to world class experts. An arts organisation like R&V, driven by a passion for the arts, is well-placed to tap into this deep well of knowledge and enthusiasm. In the new digital world of arts programming an organisation like R&V has the opportunity not to act as a gatekeeper, maintaining the arts as the preserve of an elite, but as a gateway to new artistic creativity and rich arts content. I think that we can see a way in which arts programming can function in a new and more creative way in the future.


Graham Henderson

Posted on:Thursday 10th March, 2022