Women in Events: Interview with Liz Pugh

Liz Pugh co-founded Walk the Plank 15 years ago. The company has recently worked on the City of Culture celebrations in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, which took place on 7 and 8 June. Here, Pugh tells Event about Walk the Plank's work on The Return of Colmcille - part of the two-day event that involved 30 hours of street theatre and a river spectacle.

Liz Pugh, Walk the Plank's co-founder
Liz Pugh, Walk the Plank's co-founder

Why was Walk the Plank chosen to produce The Return of Colmcille in Londonderry?

 The company produces work of scale, quality and ambition, with community engagement at its heart - for example the opening ceremonies of two previous European Capitals of Culture: Liverpool 2008 and Turku 2011 in Finland.

Last year John Wassell - my fellow co-founder and producer - worked with three cultural partners and director Mark Murphy to create The Land of Giants on the Titanic Slipways in Belfast. The project was a key part of the festival 2012 programme and one of just four major Legacy Trust projects.

The company has been creating firework shows and theatrical bonfires in Northern Ireland and Eire for the past 15 years, so we have a track record of delivering work that has a resonance in terms of time and place. It also means that we can draw on a fantastic pool of skilled people in Northern Ireland, including theatre makers, designers, stage managers and pyrotechnicians. 

How long did it take to plan and how many members of staff did it involve?

The first meetings with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, myself and John as creative producer began in September last year, where we started to imagine how to tell the story of this wayward saint. Kathy Hayes, associate producer, and Patricia Murray, production manager, were key appointments in the initial stage – both are based in Northern Ireland and both had worked on Land of Giants. Without them we couldn’t have made this project work. 

Designer Dan Potra is based in Australia, so time in his company was limited; and Graeme Stewart, composer, came on board without a flinch at the enormity of the task ahead - 30 hours of 
performance all scored with original music.

Next came lynchpins recruited locally – Wendy Blemings and Shauna O’Neilly responsible for participation; Steve Bamford, in charge of the workshop in which the processional images were made including giant prams, a killer whale, and a galleon; and Diana Ennis, costume designer - whose team made more than 800 amazing costumes. In total we had more than 100 paid staff on the project.

What were the main challenges you faced during its production?

There’s a huge complexity in making a piece of work that is actually five very different shows over 30 hours. Firstly a small project on the Scottish island of Iona, led by carnival company Luxe, to create a contemporary illuminated manuscript and a ceremony to send a Curragh on its way, rowed by 12 people back to Ireland.

Then the Arrival of the Curragh and the craning off of the crate, which contained a giant book; then simultaneous outdoor performances in several locations around the city involving casts of up to 60 people for each show; next, onto a procession involving 800 dancers and performers; and finally through to the finale.

Designed for an audience of up to 30,000 lining the banks of the Foyle, this culminating spectacle featured a 75m fire-breathing Loch Ness monster, which came up the river for a spectacular showdown with the city and its saint. A packed waterfront stood united in the face of attack from this enormous pyro spitting beast.

Is there anything you would have changed about the weekend?

I don’t think so - we were blessed with six glorious days of sunshine, unheard of in Northern 
Ireland, and the city really felt like it was in the middle of a magical festival. The BBC covered the celebrations on national news, and every hotel bed was occupied.

The day after a taxi driver told me that it wasn’t the best thing he’d ever seen in Londonderry. It was the best thing he’d ever seen in his life. You can’t ask for better feedback than that, and it’s a joy to know that our work has such a profound effect on people and places.

Where did the inspiration for outdoor events come from?

We like playing with fire and fireworks, of course; and we like being inspired by fantastic locations – bridges, castles, historic docks - but it’s about making work that can enrich the lives of our audience through shared experience - encouraging a sense of place, a feeling of pride, and well-being.

From the closing ceremony of the 2002 Commonwealth Games to the Fire Garden at Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion, from intimate performances to ground-breaking large-scale spectacles, our aim has remained the same – to make sure as many people as possible have access to the life changing experiences that our work has the power to provide. 

When you first started Walk the Plank, did you have a vision for the company in 2013?

Our history of taking artistic performance beyond the confines of traditional theatre space began in the early 1990s, and for 16 years we toured the UK’s only theatre ship, taking productions to ports and harbours around the UK.

Then we began staging large-scale performances that used fire and fireworks as well as boats and lights and special effects, initially in docks and harbours and then increasingly on land. Working in the public realm teaches you, above all, to be flexible and comfortable with changing your plans to accommodate the unexpected – be it the weather or a last minute road closure issue or the unexpected arrival of a pleasure craft in your site.

Does Walk the Plank benefit from having both a man and a woman at the helm?

I think that divergent thinking is important if a company is to remain innovative and sustainable. So teams that involve people who think differently for whatever reason – and it’s not necessarily a gender thing, it might be about cultural background, or just a different way of viewing the world – are a good thing.

Do you think there are enough women in the event industry who have or are taking the same leap as you?

I think the event industry is definitely built on people doing a good job under pressure – and most of the teams that I work with include men and women in equal measure who are good at collaborating and supporting their colleagues to find the best solution as quickly and safely as possible.

I think that women are sometimes less confident about leaping into the unknown and making the best of it. We actively encourage a sense of confidence and taking ownership at Walk the Plank.

What can the industry do to encourage more women to set up their own companies?

Running your own business requires immense dedication, resourcefulness and ensuring you have a great team. Creative development is the cornerstone of what we do: we try to form the conditions that allow talent to flourish – a safe, supportive environment that encourages artists to take risks and to innovate.

Many people – including women - who have begun work with Walk the Plank have gone on to establish their own companies and I’d like to think that our approach was a key part of that process. I’d encourage more companies to trust in expertise and allow people to showcase their talent, rather than being too prescriptive about development opportunities.

Which females within the event sector do you admire or look up to?

Maggie Clarke, who runs Xtrax which promotes opportunities for UK companies and artists; the women at Articulture, who are trying to raise the bar for outdoor events in Wales; Stella Hall, independent producer, who delivered an amazing Preston Guild last year; Carol Bell at the NewcastleGateshead Initiative who quietly supports a wide range of dynamic events; Billie Klinger and her team at Walk the Plank who produce the Manchester Day Parade; and Ellie Turner, one of Walk the Plank’s Project Directors, who works tirelessly to support her team and ensured the procession in Londonderry was one of the highlights of the weekend.

What would you recommend to any female event professionals thinking about starting their own company?

Be prepared to work extremely hard and think creatively about all aspects of your business. Get your head round the financials so that you know where you are in terms of your cashflow as well as your profit and loss.

Ask for help – women seem to be better at doing this. Make time to reflect on what you’ve learnt – that cliché about learning more from things going wrong than when things go smoothly is a cliché because it’s true.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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