Wild times

The first ever Playgroup Festival took place in Royal Tunbridge Wells. Stand Out chatted to Declan Cassidy, its founder…

Stand Out is sat in a caravan… on a bed. I’m interviewing Declan Cassidy, founder and director of Playgroup Live and the Playgroup Festival. It’s not quite an “on the bed” interview ala Paula Yates and her days on The Big Breakfast, yet it’s a new experience all the same. I’m here to chat to Cassidy, a tactile and bearded individual, who has an openness and honesty that’s not always shared in the festival community. We are backstage at Playgroup Festival, deep in the depths of Eridge Park, Royal Tunbridge Wells, which is owned by Lord and Lady Abergavenny. It’s an extensive deer park, situated in Kent, and is a prime location for Cassidy and his venture. He has purposely looked for a setting that would be accessible from London and Brighton, and one that could harness a secret hideaway of creative minds.

Playgroup Festival is themed – when festival fans purchased their tickets they were allocated a character and encouraged to dress accordingly. This year, woodland creatures are prevalent – and the site is teeming with owls, badgers, hares, wasps, foxes, stags, toads and mice. Human incarnations that is.

Cassidy takes up the story: “Playgroup started in 2005 as a reaction to a dull club scene. I was a student in Brighton at the time and thought that there was a gap in the market for something more festival like but in a club setting – everything from swing to carnival to speakeasy, in one space and with fancy dress attached to it.

“In five years it just got bigger and bigger, and eventually we played Komedia, Brighton, taking over the whole building.

We were putting on 80-100 shows a year and it needed to go somewhere.”

Cassidy continues: “I am a seasoned festivalgoer and the stuff I was doing seemed to link up with the boutique and commercial scene that was present at a festival.”

In 2010, Cassidy and co-director Philip Lakka found Eridge Park, after discounting sites in Lewes and Plumpton, because neither felt like a “beautiful festival site”.

It’s a celebration

Cassidy worked closely with Donna Close at Brighton Council in the hope that she may know of suitable spaces to host a festival for 2,000-3,000 people. Yet in the end it was NGP Events, a long-term supplier and associate of Playgroup, that suggested Eridge Park. Playgroup now has a license for 5,000 people yet infrastructure for 4,000. Just over 2,000 people have bought a ticket at £77 each and 250 under 12s are on-site free of charge.

Adds Cassidy: “Our general Playgroup person is aged between 19 and 28 but Playgroup Festival is a different beast. It’s totally diverse, students to families, older festival heads and those who had their heyday in Brighton. Even though we are in Tunbridge Wells this is a Brighton festival; there’s a community that talks – media luvvies, gamers and graphic designers, a creative industry, and this is the beginning of something that yearly will celebrate the creative side of Brighton.”

Fifteen-thousand pounds from a budget of £140,000 has been allocated to marketing – a website, music bloggers and a film produced by Fractured Films have been integral to getting the message out there. Also, branding and this year’s theme have been paramount.

“We are not like a big festival that can announce huge headliners and so we’ve had to be more creative with how we talk up our acts. We’re small and growing and so it’s been important to market our theme so that when people see a flyer or poster the connection is instant.”

Learning curve

In 2012, Cassidy hopes to grow the event – 4,000-5,000 is his target next year and in time a maximum of 7,000. He does not wish for the event to get too crowded or lose the essence of what is essentially an organic and free-spirited event. Umbrellas, birdcages, clocks and books are hung in tree branches, the brainchild of the festival’s artistic director, Emma Norris. A main stage, dance tent, Moroccan tent, cabaret and talkers tent, a children’s area that has had an appearance from Bodger and Badger and a sports day for the most athletic and nimblest creatures are all featuring.

NGP Events, C3 Audio, Microspan, Arabian Tent Company, Tiger Tents, Indian Marquee Company, Firefly Solar, Powerline, Really Good Bar Company and Loos for Dos are the chosen suppliers on-site, and it’s quite a relaxed affair.

So, has Cassidy been put off by his first steps into the festival world?

“It’s made me want to do it 10 times more,” he enthuses. “It’s an absolute dream and, in general, really fun. Last year was just a party. This year, it’s a festival with 80 volunteers and it’s much more serious.

“My job has been to book artists, come up with a marketing plan and sell tickets. The team under me who have more experience with festivals get on with it.”

But what next? Would he change anything?

“We’re already in discussions with Lord and Lady Abergavenny about growing next year, and I think the infrastructure and organisation has to be vastly improved. I need to work some systems in from the ground up and there are lots of little things to iron out. I think we need to share information in advance and I need to liaise with my heads of department earlier. I know how to run a good party and I’m not going to pretend that I know how to run a site, but it’s a learning curve.”