Though it takes place outside the quaint city of Winchester each August, Boomtown Festival has always felt like an extension of Bristol. Not only does the city annually clear out as we drive east to make up a significant portion the Boomtown population, the festival is also run out of Bristol and built out of the ashes of the old free party scene Bristol was once famous for.
Boomtown is run out of Bristol and built out of the ashes of the old free party scene Bristol was once famous for
Alongside arguably the biggest and most diverse lineup of any UK festival – especially with Glastonbury taking a break this year – Boomtown’s ever-evolving theatrical storyline continues to grow to beyond massive proportions as the festival embarks on Chapter 10 this August. The Boomtown story is now as much a part of the festival as the music, and a big chunk of tickets are sold each year well before the lineup is released.
One of Boomtown’s main theatrical directors, Martin Coat officially moved his co-founded immersive theatre company Dank Parish to Bristol in January, having split his time between London and Bristol over the past few years. As well as helping plan for the biggest and most outrageous Boomtown yet – an annual habit that makes it hard to imagine how the festival makes any money – he’s also hoping to inject some year-round Boomtown fun into Bristol.
Martin has been a major part of the storyline since Chapter 5, after impressing organisers with his Dank Parish show the year before. Now, as one of the main theatrical directors of the whole festival, as well as running Boomtown’s new Paradise Heights district, Martin estimates he has anywhere from 800 to 1000 people under his remit, with Dank Parish alone bringing a team of 180 people – a fat increase from the crew of eight he first took to Boomtown in 2013.
I graduated from drama school in 2010 and was pretty disillusioned by the industry instantly
‘I graduated from drama school in 2010 and was pretty disillusioned by the industry instantly,’ Martin explains. ‘After putting myself through drama school for three years to try and become a professional actor, the idea of the industry and what actors have to go through and feel lucky just to get a foot in the door – it started to infuriate me pretty quickly, so I knew I was going to step away from that.
‘I’d always been a festival fan, so me and a few mates were really just looking at how to get into festivals for free. Back then it was walking around for a few hours in character and having a play with people to get a free ticket. Out of the blue, one of our friends was offered a gig at Secret Garden Party. All they told us was that they were looking for a crew, minimum budget, and they wanted to give people the experience of being buried. We jumped on that straight away and just being people that we are, we went above and beyond and created this whole massive show called It’s Your Funeral. We build a church, a morgue and a graveyard, and create this 40-minute show that gave people their own funerals. It was pretty intense, I’d be performing there for ten hours straight as the priest. We got massively involved in it and it was hugely popular. We called ourselves The Church of the Sturdy Virgin and that’s where the company The Dank Parish was formed.
Boomtown had always been my favourite secret little festival (…) It smacked of Bristol and had that creativity and chaos running though it that really appeals to me
‘Boomtown had always been my favourite secret little festival. I used to go there just for my own naughty little rave up, solely as a punter for the first three years. It smacked of Bristol and had that creativity and chaos running though it that really appeals to me. So in Chapter 4, we decided to take Dank Parish there.
‘It was the year that Arcadia were at Boomtown, so in their story at the time aliens were landing and effecting Boomtown. Which was great to explain a stage, but it didn’t really feed out further than that. So Dank Parish put on a big spectacle at the end of our funeral shows, where we raised the Sturdy Virgin and she came down to save Boomtown. We set fire to our set, burnt it in this massive grave, hit the lasers and then the virgin came out to save the rest of Boomtown.
I actively wanted to get involved in the story and start pushing it further, because it was obvious to me that this was a world that could take this overarching narrative
‘The idea was that I actively wanted to get involved in the story and start pushing it further, because it was obvious to me that this was a world that could take this overarching narrative. So I did all that and documented it and sent it in to the guys at Boomtown and said, “We’ve had a great time here at your festival, but I want to go a lot further with it. This is my vision of what you’re doing”. It was similar, I think, to where they wanted to take it, but they didn’t have anyone in place, so I just kind of shoehorned my way in.
I worked the first year for free, because I was pretty certain that it was going to be a game changer. And most importantly, I knew that no other festival could come close to achieving what we’ve done with Boomtown.
‘From Chapter 5 onwards, I took control of the story. I worked the first year for free, because I was pretty certain that it was going to be a game changer. And most importantly, I knew that no other festival could come close to achieving what we’ve done with Boomtown. I chucked everything at it and from then it’s grown and grown and grown, and now I would say that the storyline is the unique selling point of the festival. Even our major trailer that went out in February is completely storyline based. It has nothing to do with the music, nothing to do with anything else, it’s all about the immersive world that’s being created.’
While Martin still dips his toe into the world of stage acting, usually taking up a couple of roles with touring shows each year, his work with Dank Parish and Boomtown is where his head and heart is at. He tells us that it takes a core crew of around 30 people working all year round to put on the four-day extravaganza that is Boomtown.
my biggest passion in the world is creating new audiences for theatre – playing to people who don’t normally go to the theatre
‘What really drove me down this line is that my biggest passion in the world is creating new audiences for theatre – playing to people who don’t normally go to the theatre. Especially in the fringe scene, you’re always playing to your friends and family or the same old crowd, no matter how good the work is. Whereas at festivals you’re suddenly creating really in-depth, playful content that’s putting the audience at the heart of it.’
In terms of how music and immersive theatre go hand-in-hand, they don’t, says Martin. And Boomtown doesn’t try and force an unnatural relationship where there isn’t one. Boomtown and its residents celebrate both aspects of the festival uniquely. Its endless sideshows and secret rooms mean that you can lose your friend for half an hour, only to find out that they were hoisted several feet in the air taking part in an aerial boxing match with inflatable gloves. It’s also where I’ve seen many of my favourite live sets.
One of the things I find really annoying is the amount of events that call themselves immersive – anyone that throws a night, sticks a DJ on and puts a little bit of wanky decor up
‘One of the things I find really annoying is the amount of events that call themselves immersive – anyone that throws a night, sticks a DJ on and puts a little bit of wanky decor up, claiming “four rooms of immersive experience”, when there might just be someone on the door in a lab coat checking you in and that’s it. It’s reached the extent that immersive has now become a bit of a dirty word because it’s been so bastardised.
‘What most people tend to create is a music night with some theatrics around it. And to my mind, that’s not theatrical because it’s got no real content to it – it’s just tits and teeth. Which is all fair enough, but there’s not so much of an art form around it in terms of story telling.
Fatboy Slim has been desperately trying to make himself a character in the story for ages
‘It’s great when the two do marry, but it would be impossible for us to be too heavy handed with that at Boomtown. We try to programme the music to fit the districts and then each district obviously has their own storyline. But we can’t book acts and tell too many of them to direct themselves towards the storyline – although you’ll be surprised how many artists are now trying to get involved. Fatboy Slim has been desperately trying to make himself a character in the story for ages.’
Boomtown has naturally fed back into Bristol’s creative and music scene year round
Being based out of Bristol, Boomtown has naturally fed back into Bristol’s creative and music scene year round, with parties popping up from the likes of Barrio Loco, Boomtown’s hip hop district and The Invisible Circus – another of the core theatrical influencers at Boomtown, who also look after Bristol’s The Loco Klub.
Although this winter, we may be about to see an even more direct link up, with Boomtown taking over a space in Bristol for more regular events.
‘We’re looking to start throwing some bigger Boomtown events in Bristol through winter – to be confirmed,’ says Martin. ‘We’re hoping to throw events that are theatrically led, with music around them. So you might get a secret headliner at the end, or some big finale piece. But it’s a theatrical experience where music works around the theatrics, rather than the other way around.
We’re looking to start throwing some bigger Boomtown events in Bristol through winter
‘We’ve got our own premises that we’re working on. We have all these sets that we build that only come out in the summer, so the idea is to throw these big parties and give these sets new life. Then hopefully from that we can build newer sets that can transfer to the festival. So that’s our big aim outside of the festival itself and that should all be coming soon.
‘The thing I love about Bristol the most is that the horrible sense of industry that I so hated in London, just doesn’t feel like it exists here. We had a really great community of us in London, all of us with our own companies and we’d come together and share each other’s work, but there’s still a sense of industry hanging over it. Whereas here, I feel like we just have this wealth of artists and if anyone’s got a project, no matter how big or small, everyone will lend their skills to it and everyone is up for it. There’s a plethora of skills available and everyone’s really generous with their time and their art. Bristol feels like a community rather than industry.
There’s a plethora of skills available and everyone’s really generous with their time and their art. Bristol feels like a community rather than industry
‘You do need to know your worth, and quite often, especially as actors, you end up doing those horrible, corporate shitty jobs that you have no real interest in, but if three of them pays your rent, that’s justified. Then you have those jobs that are all about the work and the passion and making art.
‘The best piece of advice I ever got was, “Don’t think of this as your career, keep it as your hobby – no matter what”. And I definitely live by that. If I get paid, that’s a bonus. Obviously you can only give so much time to something before you have to make sure you’re getting paid, but as much as possible, keep it as a hobby. The minute it starts becoming about counting your time, you won’t enjoy this industry. If you’re not having fun then you’re doing it wrong.’
Photos by Martin Thompson // @instagram.com/thefacecollective