Backstage with...Sweet Venues, Brighton

Sweet Venues are a big player at Brighton Fringe, with permanent and pop-up spaces offering a diverse mix of theatre and comedy. We chatted to their Artistic Director, JD Henshaw to find out how it all happens.

Backstage with...Sweet Venues, Brighton

First of all, when did Sweet Venues get involved with fringe theatre, and what was the decision behind it?

I've worked in Fringe theatre as a performer, a writer, a director, and a producer for fifteen years - it's an amazing area to be in. Seven years ago I decided that I'd get into the venue end of things, with the aim of providing a performer-led boutique venue. Essentially the idea was to try and make the venue and experience that I'd want to put my shows on in when I was working in fringe.

This is your first year at Brighton Fringe, is the process hugely different to putting on shows in Edinburgh?

Some things are very similar - a lot of the logistics and administrative stuff. I rather imagine the boring bits of running and creating theatre are the same the world over! The exciting part of building a fringe programme for any festival is obviously always the performers and their work. In Brighton there are differences in mood and themes, and arguably a stronger focus on local performers - although that is a difficult thing to gauge completely given the differences in scale between the two events. The main thing to remember when programming is to follow the art - trying to find that commercial smash typically leads nowhere. Finding great performers with passion and creativity is always going to take everyone further.

What can we expect from Sweet Venues' shows this year?

Well, the obvious answer after the last question is passion and creativity! You'll find a wide-range of productions, with genuinely something for everyone. We've brought together amazing local talent, brilliant international acts, and stunning work from around the UK. We've got shows that were Edinburgh Fringe smashes, with sell-outs and awards alongside shows that are just beginning not only their Brighton Fringe journey, but the touring future of their companies. All in, if you're looking for theatre, music, comedy, magic, live games, family shows - heck, we even go all the way to knife-juggling - then Sweet has something for you.

You'll be programming across four venues, what was the choice behind these specific spaces, and do they all require very different thinking?

Every space needs to be treated with care and attention. Sweet Dukebox has been running for three years prior to its merger with Sweet, so the last thing you do in an established, year-round space is start changing things for the sake of change. We've got a listed building and hotel conference room conversions into pop-up theatres, and all deserve the same level of attention as they will always need different things from each other. The key is to remain flexible and never to be afraid to react to the needs of the building. We're looking at this in very long-term goals, so we're always going to be learning new ways to bring the best results to our performers and audiences.

What is your favourite kind of venue to programme?

The answer to that is a little twee, I'm afraid, but my favourite venue to programme is the one that you've put the right shows into for the space. They've all got their quirks and strengths, so it's important to ensure that you've programmed them in the best way to reflect those things back out to the audiences and creatives engaged with your venue.

What does a typical day look like for you while the fringe is up and running?

Barely tethered chaos? Actually, the day to day of the Fringe is much more straight-forward than the weeks leading to it. Once you're in, you get into the rhythm of the shows, their rehearsals, and the flow of audiences. It's long hours, but amazingly satisfying. I think, as with all fringe, the real key is flexibility - not everything wants to stick to your carefully colour-coded plan, and why would it? Just make sure you're ready and able to turn your attention to those things that crop up and resolve them.

What is the biggest challenge in running fringe theatre to this scale?

Managing to see the other amazing work taking place in other parts of the city is the greatest challenge. When you start being part of the Fringe, it comes from a place of love for the performances that exist there. The difficult bit is always that the more you work in it, the less opportunities exist to be able to see all of those productions, and typically you're hungrier for them than ever due to being so heavily involved in the scene! Now, if someone else could just put on a fringe for all of us working during them...

And finally, what advice would you give to any venues who were looking to get involved in fringe theatre?

Go for it. Give in to it and follow it, without hesitation or overthinking, to wherever it leads you. Fringe theatre genuinely changed my life. It has taken me to places I never thought I'd go, brought me friendships from around the world that have lasted years that would never have occurred otherwise, and it has given me the most fulfilling years of my life. Don't get me wrong, it's also given me some of the biggest obstacles, conundrums, and general how-do-we-fix-this moments as well, but I wouldn't trade a single one of those away at the risk of losing any of the positives.

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