Preview: Just So Festival 2017

The organiser of the eighth edition of the family
arts festival says it has been life changing

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“We loved festivals, camping and the arts but more and more as we took our children along to music festivals it felt quite divisive,” says Sarah Bird, co-founder of family arts festival Just So. “There was lots of splitting up the family whilst one of the adults headed to the main stage, the other took the kids to do some low level craft activities in a corner of the field.”

As more and more festivals attempt to attract families it’s a problem that many of them face – some are designed around adults with an obligatory area for the kids, others are designed with children in mind and leave parents cold. “We wanted something that felt inclusive for the whole family and where more or even all of the ticket money was being spent on family arts rather than the majority of the music headliners.”

Bird, a mother of three and former bookseller, teamed up with her friend, illustrator Rowan Hoban, to create a solution. Just So Festival was it and, in 2017, at Cheshire’s Rode Hall Estate on 18-20 Aug, the Macclesfield-based pair will host the eighth instalment.

Over 20 bands will perform on the Footlights stage this year. Headliners include “sea-soaked” Dublin folk quintet The Eskies, riotous six-piece The Carny Villains and the blistering brass of The Baghdaddies. Award-winning country singer Laura Oakes joins the line-up, alongside folk acts like Ogre Melodies and Rob Ritchings.

More live music will be found at Jitterbug – a dance tent with workshops including can-can, Charleston, circus swing, flatfooting, Bollywood and ballet. When evening comes there’s a disco here too.

If you’re feeling more contemplative you can head to the Observatory to learn about the constellations, with star gazing sessions led by an astronomer. Unlimited Theatre will perform How I Hacked My Way to Space there, there’ll be Spanish contemporary trampoline circus, games of eye spy in space, and crafts to form a tapestry of beautiful stars and star and moon-shaped lanterns to parade against the twilight sky.

Campfire bands and theatre will return to the Spellbound Forest this year as will storyteller Ian Douglas, who will be celebrating his wedding there. There’ll be a wedding feast and a spellbound shindig where traditions will be turned on their head with cake throwing – a Japanese wedding tradition – and an opportunity to shake bad luck by marrying a tree, a tradition found in India.

Sarah Bird (left) with Rowan Hoban

“I think the biggest difference between Just So and other family festivals is the atmosphere on site,” says Bird. “From the moment you walk under the entrance archway you feel like you’re in a completely different creative landscape. There are surprising, charming installations and signs at every turn. It heightens your senses, imbues curiosity and makes you look at the world around you with a more playful perspective.

“This creative wonderland helps to break down barriers and helps the audience to relax into the festival and community spirit. The families who attend lend the festival a colour and energy that mean at any turn it’s hard to tell who is a performer and who is an audience member, which makes for the most vibrant and exciting atmosphere.”

Excitement may peak among children at the inaugural Just So jelly fight at the new Social Barn. Located next to the food market, it will be a place for families to get creative with their dinner. There’ll be insect eating, foraging, jellybean architecture challenges and a chance to compete in the vegetable games or play in a vegetable orchestra. There’ll also be a Great Just So Bake Off and the traditional Just So midnight feast.

Also new for 2017 is the lakeside Silver Screen, a large-scale area dedicated to all things cinematic. You can recreate famous dance scenes from favourite flicks, join a musical chorus line or slapstick and ukelele workshops, become extras in a Just So epic production and get ready for Hollywood with film star styling. There’ll also be a film quiz and outdoor cinema in the evening including silent movies and family classics.

“The audience ran with it, creating more incredible costumes and throwing themselves into it more than we could have ever imagined.”

Bird says her youngest daughter is a fan of The Week Junior magazine so this year they’ve set up a partnership in the Forgotten Courtyard, for children aged eight and over. Set within Rode’s Italian Garden, in the atmospheric ruins of the Old Tenants’ Hall, it will provide a creative space for inquisitive young minds to stretch their knowledge of the world around them through workshops, provocations, debates and talks. There’ll be photography and writing workshops and the chance to have news articles and pictures created at the festival featured in the magazine – maybe even on the cover. Children’s authors will be leading interactive sessions there, and there’ll be talks from adventurer and director Matt Dickinson, Real Junk Food Manchester director Corin Bell and music-making sessions with David Gibb and the Bramble Napskins.

The High Seas is set on the banks of the Rode Pool lake where there’ll be large-scale sculpture, family yoga and tai chi, meditation and rowing boats, while the Welda Peekaboo Garden offers an area of botanical bliss. Other areas include the Woodland Theatre, a secret fairyland and the eccentric Village Green.

Underpinning the whole weekend is the tribal tournament. Families are encouraged to pick a tribe before they arrive and dress accordingly.

Tribal conga at Just So

“We set up the tribal tournament back in 2012 when we moved site to Rode Hall,” explains Bird. “Our first festival site had had small glades for camping and we had named each area after an animal in Kipling’s Just So Stories, our namesake. When we moved site we lost that intimacy of small camping spaces as it is now in wide open, but beautiful, rolling parkland.

“We had recognised on our first site though how families had identified with the animal area they were camping in and it led us to talk more about that tribal identity and the sense of community you can build by identifying collectively in a group. It just all fell into place and the audience ran with it, creating more incredible costumes and throwing themselves into it more than we could have ever imagined.”

Just So has created a quiz to help you decide whether your allegiance lies with the fish, foxes, frogs, lions, owls, stags or, this year’s new tribe, the bees, and they have lots of costume ideas on their Facebook page. Throughout the festival you can take part in tribal shenanigans to win points. Performers and volunteers will have coveted golden pebbles to give out to worthy recipients, which they can post into their tribe’s measurometer on the Village Green. The festival ends with a tribal march on Sunday evening to find out which tribe is victorious.

Bird and Hoban don’t just descend on Rode Hall in the mid-summer and impose their plans for Just So on the site. They’re immersed in the landscape year-round. They’re based at the Whirligig, a four-acre woodland on the estate. The site has developed slowly as they’ve added more spaces. There’s Fleur, their converted horsebox and head office, shepherd’s huts, vintage caravans, roundhouses and a tree house. The pair have made not just their summer holiday family friendly, but their working lives too.

The success of Just So inspired Bird and Hoban to branch out. They formed Wild Rumpus, a community interest company. All of their profit goes back into its arts programmes, developed to support emerging artists, create schemes for volunteers and host creative adventures for families. They’ve published books, hosted artist residencies and last year, after catching the attention of Brazilian arts producers Maria Gama and Isabela Hadler Coudry, they held Just So Brazil. In the works for 2018 is Just So New Zealand.

“It’s been completely and utterly life changing,” says Bird. “I think when you start something as a hobby and then that thing becomes your career it’s the most incredible transformation. You’re doing the thing you love and are passionate about. It seems so obvious that this would make you more fulfilled and happy but I’m not sure that everyone gets that opportunity in life and we feel supremely lucky that it’s worked out like that for us.”

Just So Festival is on 18-20 August at Rode Hall Estate, Scholar Green, Cheshire ST7 3QP. Tickets are £140 for an adult weekend camping ticket, £50 for a child weekend camping ticket, £80 for an adult two-day ticket, £30 for a child two-day ticket, £50 for an adult day ticket and £20 for a child day ticket. Under-threes go free. Local residents are eligible for a £5 discount. To book visit justsofestival.org.uk

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