Melvin Benn and Sharon Reuben (Latitude Festival) - Interview

July 18, 2019 - July 21, 2019 | Henham Park, Suffolk

The multi-award-winning Latitude Festival returns to the stunning grounds of Henham Park, Suffolk, on 18th-21st July 2019 with an eclectic bill of exceptional musical talent, an incredible comedy line-up, and just about everything relating to the creative arts. But on top of all that, Latitude Festival offers a huge award-winning array of family-friendly activities for both young children and teenagers. Creator of the festival, and Festival Republic’s Managing Director, Melvin Benn, along with the company’s Head of Head of Artist & Guest Liaison, Sharon Reuben, took the time to chat about the event to Phil Stewart.

What is it that makes Latitude Festival special, in comparison to all the other festivals out there?

MELVIN: Well, there are two things really. There’s the variation of offering – and the quality of that variation – with amazing music, theatre, poetry, ballet, family areas. When we first started it, it was the first festival that really was multi-arts. We started it with a strapline of “more than just music”. We’ve dropped that strapline since, because it’s obvious it’s more than just music. Where else will you see George Ezra and the poet laureate Simon Armitage? Where else will you see incredible theatre and Snow Patrol? And then, the audience. It has just about as good an audience as you could possibly hope for at any festival. Those two things together combined make it what it is.

For those who have never been, how would you describe Latitude?

I would describe it as a living example of a Sunday broadsheet, where you read the reviews of galleries and books and theatre and performance and ballet and music… but at Latitude you can live it, not just read about it. 

Compared to other festivals, Latitude has a lot of family and children’s entertainment. Where did that idea come from?

MELVIN: When I created Latitude Festival, I created a festival that reflected my interests, both culturally and domestically. I had a couple of young kids at the time myself, and I wanted a festival that I would be happy for my kids to be at, and they would be happy at. Those two things don’t always match! I wanted Latitude to reflect my life in a sense, and the festival continues to do that.

SHARON: It also was dictated by the audience. At the very first Latitude we immediately saw that a lot of people were going to come with children, so we expanded and expanded.

MELVIN: Yes, it grows more and more. We didn’t set out to create a family festival, we set out to create a festival that our kids would be happy at. The family aspect has become increasingly important, and Latitude has become known as a family festival and a very friendly festival.

SHARON: What’s really beautiful is that in the kids areas we find families spending time together. Whether its festival sticker art, or its kids making a backpack or a rabbit or a hat, or whatever, you will find that the parents and the kids will do it together, and that’s what’s really lovely. We have workshop leaders running their activities for children, but the parents are really interested too. This isn’t stuff that we as adults we get to spend very much time doing, we don’t explore our creative side very often. Plus I’ve always tried to book things that have real integrity, real quality, because that is what makes parents and kids spend time together.

What about kids who just want to have lots of “screen time”? What’s in it for them at Latitude?

SHARON: When kids are young, there is nothing I’ve ever seen that suggests that if they’ve got a thousand activities in front of them, what they actually want to do is sit on an iPad. I think they do that because so many other opportunities have disappeared from schools and youth clubs. I think kids from the city lose their mind with excitement at the chance to build a campfire or a rope bridge, or go pond dipping, or do a million green crafts…

It’s not just for young kids, is it? There’s an area for teenagers I understand…

SHARON: Yes, the Inbetweeners Area is for the over 12s. We have a large teen audience at Latitude; the older teens will want to go off and watch bands all day – the younger teens will probably just go see the bigger bands, but they obviously don’t want to hang out in the Kids Area, so we created an area for them, and that’s grown over the years. This year, there’s seven different tents, which will include vlogger Helen Anderson doing her stuff; we’ve also got animation, computer games design, we’ve got some AR/VR activities, we’ve got the radio caravan. We’ve got a lot of stuff based around technology in the teen area, because that is the stuff they are interested in. You won’t find a bored kid at Latitude!

How do you go about selecting the acts who perform at Latitude? What’s the criteria?

MELVIN: The core criteria is quality. The second criteria is relevance to the audience that come to Latitude, that’s really important.

How would you define the Latitude audience?

MELVIN: Well, one can’t define the Latitude audience! [laughs]

So how do you know what’s relevant?

MELVIN: I have a number of festivals, and you have a gut feel about each and every festival. It’s sort of like knowing whether your kids would like a particular thing, or a different thing – sometimes you can’t put your finger on why you know that they’d like this or that… Somehow, you can’t put your finger on why you know the people at Latitude will like this, or like that. You learn to know.  

How do you select the entertainment for the kids areas?

SHARON: Latitude has always had music, poetry, theatre, dance and the natural environment – and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do in the kids area. It’s about getting kids to understand that art and culture is for all of us, and that you can just watch it – but you can also make it. There are a million ways to engage in the arts that could also become a career in the arts. To me, it’s very important that local kids in particular realise that life doesn’t all come from London. So a lot of my content has its heart and soul here in East Anglia. It’s also really important to me that we try to work with local arts and local groups, because it also gives the festival a sense of belonging. It’s very important to create a network for all the groups that come. 

Are the activities in the kids areas just fun creative arts spaces, or they educational?

SHARON: It’s a bit of both. Five years ago, we started the schools programme. The reason why I felt able to run the schools programme is because I knew the kind of thing I had in the kids area: a lot of science, literature, poetry, theatre, things that had clear links to the curriculum. We’ve got School of Noise, we’ve got some amazing stuff in there. And, the same as with the arts, we try to find ways of making science accessible to children. Science is something that’s very easy to think is for someone else, and it’s really important that we have new generation of kids – especially from a region like East Anglia – thinking “I could be involved in this.” We’ve got people from the University of East Anglia, and other organisations, that are good at working with kids and making science make sense to them.

What have you got this year that you haven’t had before?

SHARON: I really wanted to have an artists studio where kids could learn different forms of visual arts – so this year we’ve got artists, illustrators and designers from CBeebies show Messy Goes To Okido showing how they put together an animation or a comic. We’ve got a whole tent that just focuses on creating little animal characters, or how to write words in letters that look like monsters, all that kind of stuff.

How does that compare to booking music headliners? Did you aim at booking particular types of performers?

MELVIN: Well, there isn’t a pattern, but generally on the Friday night – it’s not a rule –  but generally, it’ll be the first headline slot for that particular performer, usually a British headliner. This year it’s George Ezra. He’s a fan of the festival – he’s  camped in my garden at the festival a number of times, even when he’s performed here. This will be his first festival headline performance. So I’ve tried to do that a number of times with Latitude for the Friday night. The Saturday night – there isn’t a format as such. This year we have Snow Patrol, they were our first ever headliner at Latitude Festival back in 2006. We had 4000 people that year, this year we’re expecting just short of 40,000 people. I’m so pleased that they are coming back, because they started it – well, I started it, of course, but they were the band that actually took the chance and said “yeah, we’ll come and play”. They were the first headliner ever to say that.

Have there ever been acts who you haven’t managed to get so far?

MELVIN: No, not really. In general, what we target we succeed in. Latitude’s got an incredible name, people love the festival. People want to come and play. 

Weekend and day tickets for Latitude Festival 2019 are on sale now.

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