Folk By The Oak Shines On
July 18th, 2021, Folk by the Oak took place one day ahead of the government’s delayed easing of tier lockdown restrictions, which meant the event had to adhere to tier three Covid guidelines.
Organisers Caroline and Adam Slough, JSL Productions, were determined to host the event this year. Two artists pulled out the day before the show – one in a motor accident, one Covid related – which added to the challenges of the day and highlighted the need for good contingency planning. The joy of being back on a live event overcame all - the sun shone, the audience partied to headliners Seasick Steve and Kate Rusby, while staying compliant with the social distancing measures-and a great time was enjoyed by all.
Folk by the Oak-located in the ‘Elizabeth Oak Field at Hatfield began in 2008 with one stage, adding a second marquee stage and growing to a capacity of 8,000. It was born out of the Battle Proms Picnic Concerts series began in 1997, running on Saturdays across a series of stately homes over the summer. Adam came into the family business, along with his wife, Caroline, keen to develop a folk event using the core infrastructure on-site at Hatfield House.
“We turnaround from Saturday’s proms event overnight, to the folk festival on Sunday with quite a small crew and we keep infrastructure light to make that possible . . . with a reduced night sleep!
“It’s a big transformation from a classical show, with battle recreations and half a dozen concessions, to the folk festival, with 60 concessions and a totally different vibe and audience. Hospitality tents become craft tents, the concert pavilion becomes a vintage tent and a family area, with a climbing wall, archery, recycled crafts and much more is added.”
In the 13th year, the additional challenge after an enforced pandemic year off was creating a Covid-safe setup and a great experience for the family-oriented show, which attracts many of the audience back year-on-year.
“We were confident we could adapt the site to make it safe within the parameters of Covid, having kept abreast of guidelines and advice during the winter and spring. We organised the audience into rows 2.5m apart, simply mowing into the grass rather than drawing on pods, which gave us more flexibility on the size of the groups. The audience wore masks when moving around the site.
“We knew we could safely socially distance 5,500 people on this site and that figure worked financially. It was frustrating that the government then announced the limit of 4,000 people, as that lower number made it really hard to break even.
“We were doing a balancing act between working out ‘could we go ahead’ against the backdrop of Covid and what the government said, so we kept planning under the assumption that we were going ahead.
“What gave us the certainty to push ahead was some help from the Culture Recovery Fund in March, coupled with the relief on the VAT (to 5%) which just edged it between us running at a loss and breaking even, so we pushed ‘green for go’ with more confidence once we’d received that.
“That meant we could employ our suppliers and artists, which was very important to us.”
“During the winter months we received some great information and assistance as members of the Association of Festival Organisers (AFO). Their chair Steve Heap was always supportive. We took advantage of the Recover & Reopen sessions, run by Symphotech, and at the AFO annual conference and that information underpinned our planning.
“Our production management has always been undertaken by Symphotech, who was there from the start encouraging us to add this folk event to the Battle Proms Show. They’ve guided us through the Covid event protocols and made sure we haven’t suffered supplier shortages through advance planning.
“With them, we stayed in touch with our supply chain through 2020/2021, which was also important and we forged some new relationships in response to this summer’s supply challenges. Here we are sitting backstage a new stage, which has come from Evolution (in Manchester). It’s a mobile stage with 180m² floorspace and hydraulic technology for safe working. The incoming production teams and artists are all loving it.
“We’ve also brought in new sound and lighting suppliers this year, Solotech and LiteUp, who also coordinated the lighting, which we wanted to be LED, as one of our steps towards reducing the festival’s carbon impact.
“They have been two new, substantial, members of our festival family and we’re delighted how well they’ve fitted in. Part of the reason we were determined to do this was to support the suppliers, who’ve had such a tough time and we feel are part of this festival family.
“Symphotech, having been with us from the start, has been a cornerstone of getting the event on. Their extensive experience across the industry coupled with an in-depth understanding of our events means they achieve what we want to deliver to our audience and artists. They are pivotal in creating this family-friendly, safe, relaxed atmosphere that permeates the whole site.”
Symphotech director Claire Feeney states:
“We’re (Symphotech) best known for our event health and safety services, but these Battle Proms Picnic Concerts and Folk by the Oak draw on our production management and artist liaison skills.
“I have managed artist liaison for all 12 of these shows, so this year my role kicked-in in March, the moment artist contracts were signed. Having the technical production know-how helps to ensure the artist’s requirements on stage are met. Adam and Caroline exude calm, so the backstage area is a very welcoming (Covid-friendly) space where the artists can relax and enjoy some lovely food.”
“This year John Gray has stepped into Julian’s shoes in the role of production and stage manager . . . and he’s fitted in perfectly, bringing all the various crews together on the day. Having our regular sound engineer Chris Madden, from Capital Sound, with us was great. He’s a master when it comes to mixing the live 35-piece orchestra on Saturday and certainly made sure the sound was excellent for all of the artists playing Folk by The Oak.
“The Symphotech team at Folk by the Oak also included Sophia Livett, who runs our Acoustech noise monitoring division, and two trainees in Dom & Alex. I’d also have to commend the local crew DNG supplied us with, they’ve been great.”
Claire summed up:
“It’s been a challenging run into the show this year, with all of the uncertainty around the government regulations and what might happen with the pandemic, and not to mention the knock-on production and supply challenges we’re all facing. But I have to say ‘hats off’ to Adam, Caroline, and the rest of the JSL Productions team for holding their nerve and putting on another unforgettable weekend of entertainment.”