HOW TO STAGE YOUR OWN SCHOOL ARTS FESTIVAL

Reports continue to circulate that the arts are diminishing in our schools, but Charterhouse are going against the grain by hosting their own arts festival. In the aftermath of their second Artifex in June, the school’s Director of Creative Arts, Mark Begbie, tell us a little more about its importance to the school and beyond

Why did you launch Artifex last year?
An arts festival is a superb way of bringing together the creativity of the past academic year, and I had wanted to do this ever since I started at the school seven years ago. We are, of course, lucky that Charterhouse has a beautiful campus that lends itself to being used for large scale outdoor events. An Arts Festival at the end of the school year is a superb way of bringing together the creativity of the past academic year. It gives some focus to the activities we offer through the year, allowing pupils to direct their efforts towards a tangible goal at the end such as an art exhibition, producing a short film for a competition or even a magic show. Most importantly, I believe strongly that a festival like Artifex allows you to engage with those pupils who might not naturally consider themselves to be ‘cultured’ and encourages them to see that being creative is not something for a select few, but is central to what it means to be a human being. The excitement that comes with being part of a festival with so much going on allows them not only to celebrate the extraordinary talents of their peers but also gives pupils a chance to try something new. So we might have pupils going to concerts, recitals or theatre they would not normally go to and thus they get to see that the arts is something not for a ‘cultured’ elite.

Artifex at Charterhouse

Artifex at Charterhouse

Another major element of this was to give pupils the opportunity to organise concerts, recitals, exhibitions and even plays themselves. As educators an arts festival is an exceptional learning opportunity for students. They can develop organisational, as well as creative skills, giving them responsibility for something rather than allowing them to rely on their teachers as ‘providers’ of educational experiences. Sometimes the results may not always be perfect, but it is the process of creating something tangible for people to come and watch or listen to that is so valuable.
My hope is that this sort of intense exposure to the arts will lead to pupils who are more well-rounded and willing to participate actively in the arts either as a recipient or as an artist themselves. This hope stems from a belief that the arts are essential not only to being an interesting person but also to human experience itself.

What was the initial response like, both within the school and from the public?
Teenagers are often, by their nature, sceptical creatures but the reception during the first year was very positive indeed. I think pupils began to see the possibilities something like Artifex can offer. I was overwhelmed with the warm reception from staff and pupils in the first year – there was a general sense that a new chapter in the arts at Charterhouse had begun. I remember one colleague mentioning to me on the last night of Artifex 2014 ‘What did we ever do before?!’.

Artifex at Charterhouse

A jazz concert at Charterhouse

How did this year’s festival go?
The extraordinary success of this year’s Artifex was something I did not anticipate. I knew that because we had more events than before and some exciting new things going on that it would interest a lot of people but the packed crowds were very pleasing indeed. It is hard to describe the buzz and excitement of those five days. Pupils were begging me for tickets to sought-after events, with returned tickets being snapped up within 30 seconds of sending out an email. There were large groups of pupils telling me proudly of how many events they had been to, many of which were of a sort they had never been to in the past. To see pupils who had not been to a Jazz Club or witnessing high quality comedy on the stage such as Jeeves and Wooster for the first time is just what a festival like this seeks out to achieve – I was delighted.

Was there a particular highlight for you?
Of course, there are so many events which spring to mind but I was delighted with the success of our café run entirely by the students themselves, selling professionally roasted and brewed coffees – this became a real hub for the festival. Another highlight was our Cinema on the Ceiling. We are blessed with a large chapel with a capacity for 850 people (it is the largest war memorial in England) and a brainwave one day resulted in it being transformed into a cinema for one night. Pupils came in lay down on the floor or the pews of our Chapel and watched the Oscar-nominated Selma projected onto the ceiling above the altar whilst wearing wireless headsets which provided the sound. It was a bizarre concept which worked a treat and tickets were a sought-after commodity. The pupils really enjoyed experiencing the chapel space which is normally associated with formal ritual in a new, invigorating way and all present had a brilliant time of it.

We also had an International Fair which afforded pupils from the diverse range of nationalities represented at Charterhouse to share their country’s culture and food with each other. This was immensely popular and a brilliant way of celebrating the diversity in our school community.

Pupils at Charterhouse

Pupils at Charterhouse

How do the students generally respond to being involved in the festival?
The students loved being part of a festival because there was a sense that there was always something interesting to go to. As the days progressed many of them came up to me saying that they wish they had been to this or that but could not because they were already going to another festival event. The sense of excitement about the arts was palpable – since it has ended, so many have come up to me to say how much they enjoyed it and that they can’t wait until next year. As the organiser, you could not wish for anything better.

I often read reports that in state schools the teaching of arts is on the decline. Is that a sad thing from your point of view?
Yes. We should not see education in the arts as an ‘instrumental’ concept – i.e. in terms of whether it is useful for particular careers or jobs (which may be part of the reason for its decline) but as something that is of intrinsic value in itself. The arts – be it literature, poetry, music, visual arts, drama – are at their heart the most fundamental ways in which we express what it means to be human. Regardless of whether pupils end up in the City or as business-owners, we have a duty to show them that the arts are how we can express what is often inexpressible.

Have the creative arts always been strong at Charterhouse – and if so, why?
Yes, Charterhouse has a great tradition in the creative arts. Many of our former pupils have pursued the arts in their future life, the composer, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, poet, Robert Graves for instance but, of course, most famously the founders of the band Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and others.
Do you have plans to take Artifex even further in the future?

Absolutely – the key to building on the success of Artifex is novelty. In the next few months, pupils will throw lots of quite often wacky ideas about what we could do next time around. We have lots of new things in the pipeline for 2016 but at its heart I want to ensure the pupils come up with events themselves and get a glimpse of the possibilities of their own creativity. Each year I hope it will go from strength to strength and see even more pupils get behind Artifex.
Charterhouse, Godalming GU7 2DX; 01483 291500; charterhouse.org.uk