INTERVIEW: Martin Coat on the Development of Boomtown’s Narrative
Boomtown is perhaps the most narrative driven music festival in the world, and theatrical director Martin Coat spoke to us to shed some light on how it all comes together.
All the best festivals find something to specialise in, and in Boomtown’s case, it’s the story. Since chapter one, the festival has had a kind of episodic narrative running beneath it to help contextualise all the elaborate decor and the relationships between the ever-growing districts. In the past few years though, the scope of that story has expanded rapidly, and a lot of that is down to the involvement of Boomtown’s theatrical director, Martin Coat.
“I’d been going as a punter right from the festival’s first inception,” Martin tells me over the phone, during an uncharacteristically quiet spell between duties. “I’d sort of worked the festival scene with my theatre company, The Dank Parish, and we toured a funeral show around. Boomtown was the one festival I never really wanted to work at, it was sort of my jolly, I had quite an affinity towards the Bristol artistry. Then when it reached Chapter Four I decided to take our theatre company and start doing our own stuff there. That was when the detail started to become more apparent, and the walls came up. It was then that I realised what Boomtown could be, theatrically, and after that I was determined to shoehorn myself in, and move forward with a bigger vision.”
That bigger vision, as it turned out, was Comrade Jose. “I came in for Chapter Five and decided, based on the fact that they’d just brought in councillors for each district, that the story needed something on the ground floor for punters to interact with, so I created the Town Hall and the first general election. With that the punters became actively involved, and shaped the storyline themselves.”
Once Comrade Jose was elected as the leader of Boomtown, things took a drastic turn, from dictatorship to revolution, but it wasn’t just a bunch of flavour text written into festival pamphlets, it was active, it was real. Achieving that vibe year to year is a herculean task for Martin and the rest of the team. “It’s not so much the number of people, it’s the fact that we’re putting individual crews into the storyline – each venue has their own separate crew with their own ideas. I can advise, but fundamentally what they do is up to them.” Martin explains. “It’s about putting in little tweaks and details to make the journey cohesive.”
“Outside of that I have a set of crews which are just mine, they’re more actor led, and more theatre-based, for them it’s a case of keeping in constant communication with them, I make I touch base as much as possible, and we just keep feeling each other’s ideas. The biggest problem we have is lack of rehearsal time. It takes a month to build Boomtown, we’re always really close to the bone before the punters come. Add noise restrictions to that and it basically means that we can’t have any kind of big tech rehearsal. You don’t normally put on a theatre show that’s like a two-hander without a dress and a tech. We build these big stages now to work within the narrative, and have a few narrative led ‘shows’ on them over the weekend, touch wood we’ve managed to pull it off so far, but it’s a big challenge.”
The next biggest turning point after the arrival of Comrade Jose was the introduction of the Masked Man, and subsequent revolution. “You could feel it, looking out there and seeing 15,000 people, and several of my own colleagues, you could feel the way it was dropping on everyone and I could sense that we’d finally reached a turning point. People could see what we were doing, and what it could be.” Says Martin, speaking on the moment the Masked Man appeared at the end of Chapter Seven.
The following year, the revolution began in earnest, and with it came a new kind of storytelling, which Martin calls the ‘immersion trail’. “We flooded the whole site with little pieces of paper saying ‘Do I know you, friend?’ and that would have a venue and a time. If you then went there and asked that question, you’d be started off on this revolutionary trail.” He explains, rather proudly “You’d be given a token to take to a madman in the asylum in the Wild West, which would make him sane and then he’d give you more information, until finally after about 9 venues you’d end up in the Smuggler’s Den, round one of the back alleys. There you’d meet some of the higher ranking revolutionaries, learn a lot more about what their ideas were, and then they’d tell you to infiltrate the town hall, which is where the regime were running recruitment. At the very end of that people were meant to steal the blueprints for the Bang Hai Palace and bring them back. The idea with that was that when Bang Hai fell to the revolutionaries on the Saturday night, the people who’d taken the blueprints could feel like they had done that.”
Of course, for concepts that like to be executed without error, communication is key. “Before the punters get there we have a huge theatrical meeting to reiterate what the plan is, how we envision the festival unfolding over the four days and what the key events will be. It’s a chance for everyone to talk to each other and see how they can link up.” Martin says. “In an ideal world, we’d be able to be really responsive to the audience’s choices and let the story develop accordingly, it’s something I’m for in the future, but with 60,000 people there, with maybe 10,000 engaging with the storyline, it’s difficult to be really adaptive to the choices those people make. We’re building on the immersive trail idea again this year, and maybe pre-engage the audience before the festival, getting them to make choices about their character, who they’re going to be and how they’re going to play, and then turn up and hopefully go on another trail with a heavy consequence at the end of it.”
Chapter Nine is only a few months away, and it’s still largely shrouded in mystery, but the early ads seem to suggest that, thematically, it will be focusing more on mass media consumption, something which Martin clarifies. “It’s about the mass media and about how our subculture is absorbed and spat back to us as this kind of diluted mainstream, reflecting some aspect of the real world.” He says. “For me it’s important that, whatever else happens, the story feels like art. We never directly reference the real world, but for me it’s important to have some kind of social comment, it might not directly relate to what’s happening, but there should be something that people can pick up on and take past the festival.”
For a long time, Boomtown’s most prominent reputation was as one of the UK’s biggest parties, a place where you could go mental for a few days before jumping back behind the desk, but recently, the story has gained far wider recognition, and it’s drawn more people to the festival. “We’ve got a pretty diverse audience already but there’s always room to grow, and I think immersive theatre has this way of pulling people, one of the most important things for me is attracting new audiences. I would say, and I’m plucking statistics out of the air here, but I’d say about 80% of the people who play with us aren’t traditional thesps, so that excites me. Long may it continue.”
With an expanding story comes speculation, and Boomtown certain has its fair share of self-styled interpreters. “What I found really funny was the ‘Boominati’ symbolism. We’ve always had this idea that Jose was running the regime but there was a more evil force behind her, some sort of puppet-master, so we played with this Illuminati idea.” Martin recounts. “It’s almost become a bit of a conspiracy in and of itself, which is kind of what I wanted. Nothing makes me happier than people leaving comments pointing out the illuminati symbolism and asking us who owns us, as if Boomtown was being run by the new world order. It reminds me how powerful conspiracy can be but it also sort of pleases me in a way, or just fascinates me that people have actually gone around saying ‘You can’t trust Boomtown because they’re part of the illuminati’.”
So, with Chapter Nine looming, what else lies ahead? Obviously Martin can’t reveal anything about where the story is heading beyond this year’s fair, but such a complex design, there’s got to be a long term game plan. “We do always try and have at least a three year game plan, adding a year on every time we complete one, but at Boomtown things change drastically, and all the time, you think you’re on one road and then some new drastic idea descends which you have to accommodate. I don’t like thinking too much further ahead, because I like to be reactive, I like the story to hold a mirror up to the real world a bit.” He explains. “We’re living in interesting times, and with our storyline getting more important, with more funding, we have more options to play with.”
In terms of reputation, Boomtown is living up to its name more than it ever has before. It’s always been one of sound system culture’s most important epicentres, in the UK or anywhere else in the world, but now it’s serving a second purpose – demonstrating what immersive theatre can achieve on a colossal scale. More and more people are starting to recognise that, and with that recognition, Boomtown has all the fuel it needs to keep on evolving.
Boomtown Fair’s ninth chapter commences on August 10th. Tickets are still available.