FESTIVAL: No sweeping changes to successful Buxton festival

Randall Shannon, Executive Director of Buxton Festival.
Randall Shannon, Executive Director of Buxton Festival.
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“I’ve seen more snow in the last few months than in the previous 30 years…”

Buxton Festival’s newly appointed Executive Director, Irishman Randall Shannon, has had some adjustments to make (including spikes for his shoes) as he settles into his new working life in the frozen north.

However when it comes to the Festival, he is loath to make sweeping changes.

“My predecessors have created this very special event… so you come in and mess around with that at your peril.”

Instead, he and Artistic Director Stephen Barlow intend to build on past achievements and develop them.

“Whereas the Music series was created as an add-on to the opera, we want to give it its own integrity – make it worth coming to in its own right,” Randall says by way of example.

They are both well aware of the economic impact of the Festival on the town. “We have two important functions, one is to create an event that is artistically successful and the other is to work with Buxton as a tourist destination.”

That the pair is on the same wavelength is no accident. They met aged 17 in the National Youth Orchestra. “He played timpani and I played double bass… we’ve been friends ever since,” said Randall.

Although Randall spent ten years as a professional double bass player he says he has no intention of emulating his predecessor, Glyn Foley, and performing at the Festival. Indeed he does not even own a double bass any more: “Once you have played to a certain level there is no joy to be got out of playing at a lower level.”

His experience in orchestras helped him realise his true ambition. “I spent so much of my time thinking: ‘Why do they do that?’… I often think if I hadn’t become a manager I’d have become a union leader… I wanted to put myself in a position where I was responsible for the conditions, not subject to them. I like the fact that there is nobody else to blame.”

Buxton Festival proved an irresistible career opportunity: “Buxton is the perfect festival town - a beautiful town in a beautiful district”, and he was drawn to the hybrid nature of the Festival as both a producer of operas and a host for touring companies. He sees the invention of the prestigious Literary Series as “a stroke of genius” and is keen to remind people of the extraordinary breadth of entertainment on offer.

A new development this year is the extension of children’s activities, from a big metal whale to climb into to story telling in the Dome. Randall is also passionate about the Festival’s year-round outreach work in schools.

“Every child knows how to get entertainment out of a cardboard box. We are all inherently creative… but by the time we go through the formal education system… any idea of creativity is knocked out of us… Those of us that have the luxury of working in the performing arts, we actually have a responsibility to try and work with the education system to develop people’s creativity.”

Working with youngsters allows the Festival to introduce opera to unprejudiced minds but Randall is also a keen promoter of the Festival for a Fiver scheme by which under-30s can buy seats for £5. He believes opera is “heavily over-intellectualised” but need not be daunting. “It’s entertainment… That’s the thing about opera, it addresses the same issues that Coronation Street addresses - love and death.”

He himself first fell in love with opera after seeing the film La Bohème aged 18 and he believes that opera’s true power lies in its pull on the heart strings: “What opera can’t do very well is tell a story; what it does really well is relationships… it gets into the kernel of a relationship or emotion.”

With snow at least a rarity in July there is every chance that there will be a big influx of visitors ready to join locals in applauding the Festival’s exciting and varied programme, which together with the Fringe offers what Randall calls a ‘mind-boggling’ array of entertainment each day.

“All the festivals in the town are starting to work together to promote Buxton as a premier festival location – and that’s vital,” says Randall, more than happy to dust off his sandals for a long, culturally sizzling summer…