Karen Poley

ISAN Member in the Spotlight:

Karen Poley, Independent Producer

Karen Poley

Karen talks about her many al fresco experiences, from her accidental beginnings as a volunteer and seeing the (sadly now defunct) Cie Jo Bithume in Brighton, to bringing her passion for cycling to the world of Outdoor Arts with constantly evolving Bicycle Ballet. (First published: Dec 2013).

How did you get involved in Outdoor Arts? 

By accident. I’d been volunteering at the Brighton Festival and someone suggested I go and talk with Zap Productions. I volunteered there for a couple of weeks on the second Streets of Brighton, looking after Scarabeus and a show based around a giant shoe on the seafront. After that, they offered me a job and the rest is history…

What and when did you first experience Outdoor Arts? 

At the first Streets of Brighton in 1995 and still the best show I’ve ever seen: Jo Bithume’s Oceanos Satanas; an epic tale of good and evil, an ocean of audience, strange creatures charging around and the hero maneuvering his boat through it all on wires above our heads. An epic show.

Why is it so important to you to be involved in making Outdoor Arts happen? 

Outdoor Arts really are for everyone. They take art experiences and artists to people in their ordinary, everyday places. They bring a bit of magic that can change people’s perceptions of where they live and what happens in their neighbourhoods. And the possibilities are limitless.

What is the power of outdoor arts to you and how does it communicate to audiences? 

As above. There’s also the close up and personal aspect, with artists looking audiences in the eyes and audiences rubbing shoulders and sharing experiences in the street.

Outdoor Arts also leave a trace. You can walk past a corner where something magical once happened and remember it even years later.

What inspires you? Where do your ideas come from? 

For me, at the moment at least, its all about the cycling and people’s relationships with their bikes; green issues and the environment; being healthy and outdoors.

Ideas kind of pop up, perhaps during a conversation or in something you see or read. Often in totally unconnected places on days off!

Bicycle Ballet, The 7 Deadly Road Sins, RECYCULTURE. Photographer: Raysto Images   The Mass Show, Bicycle Ballet Co © Raysto Images

What piece of artwork, artist or company, indoors or out, would you recommend? 

KompleX KapharnaüM, an inspiring French company who mix projections, sound, live music, live performance with community engagements – moving it all about on and around their bus. Its epic and intimate. Lovely bunch of people too.

Where do you place the value of Outdoor Arts? 

The fact that its outdoors and free. It brings people and communities together who wouldn’t necessarily mix, it takes art to people who wouldn’t necessarily experience art or theatre and it can go anywhere.

What’s the best thing about being professionally involved in this sector? 

The work, the people and the audiences.

What’s your funniest Outdoor Arts experience? 

Dealing with police who’d received a call about a tortoise on Guildford High Street wielding a gun.

What have you found to be the biggest challenge to working in this way? 

The weather.

What’s the biggest blunder you’ve ever made in your working life and how did you resolve it? 

Eek! Long boring, technical story about wallpaper covering the side of a Grade Two listed building…

What’s the best artistic advice you’ve ever been given? 

That its 99.9% about holding your nerve.

What’s your top tip to someone wanting to work outdoors for the first time? 

Go to France, see work, festivals and creation centres.

What’s the most recent Outdoor Arts experience that has really made an impression on you? 

KompleX KapharnaüM’s Figures Libres; brilliant. Epic, yet personal and local. I never look at the buildings near where I live without thinking about it.

What’s your current / future new work that you’re really excited about? 

Everyday Hero – an everyday adventure to get out the house and go to the park for a tandem ride. The show is based on asome work in 2011 with visually impaired participants, and was created with, and performed by, an integrated cast of visually impared and sighted performers. The everyday becomes epic, through the rich, lyrical language of the descriptive narrative and contemporary choreography which lead the characters on their journey; through the dark internal landscapes of ‘fear’ and ‘frustration’, into chaotic city streets and the inevitability of getting lost. Eventually they find their way and are transformed by realising their dream. Everyday Hero short film.

Strictly Cycling – a new ‘cycle-about’ show; visual performance, choreography and improvisation. The show plays with the everyday events and experiences of riding a bike, adding a hint of the surreal and comical to change the way people think about cycling. Very modern, self-contained, can go pretty much anywhere and, most of all, WATERPROOF!!! Strictly Cycling Strictly Cycling short film.

When did you join ISAN and what’s the best thing about it? 

2007, when I first became freelance. The end of the season meet ups, when it’s great to relax and catch up with what everyone’s been up to.

How has ISAN been most helpful? 

Networking’s the key thing. But also the support from other members – who understand what you’re talking about in a way your mates just don’t!

What do you think has been the legacy of 2012 to the Outdoor Arts sector? 

I think its raised the profile of outdoor work and created lots of opportunities for disability arts. Most of the biggest outdoor shows in 2012 were from international companies, so I hope there’s more interest in developing home grown, large-scale work.

What do you think are the opportunities available now for the sector over the next 4 or 5 years? 

There appear to be a few more pots of money around – eg. Spirit of 2012, Unlimited; but the biggest funders of outdoor work are the seriously squeezed local authorities.

How are you planning to face the current challenges and make the most of future opportunities by rethinking what you do? 

I keep saying that I promote cycling these days! But its obviously health, green issues and inclusion as well! I’m looking to make partnerships in all those areas to continue producing and presenting work and we aim to get more ambitious.

How do you follow what’s happening in the world – what blogs, websites, forums do you recommend? 

TED Talks are my faves and PechaKucha too. But I’m addicted to the news: Guardian, Independent, Facebook and Twitter.

What’s the best book you have read in the last 2 years? 

Sooo many. I like really good storytelling. The ones I’ve passed around most are: City of Thieves by David Benioff – staggeringly good, based on the siege of St Petersburg, I had no idea; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – the second of the trilogy, the final book is just out; Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – still waiting for the sequel!