Heaven and Hell: Joseph Ballard of Norwich Fringe
- Credit: Contributed
Joseph Ballard is a theatre producer, performer, and playwright based in Norwich. His career spans theatre shows and establishing charitable organisations and festivals, to teaching and working with the production team at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. During the pandemic, Joseph has led online creative and wellbeing programmes and he has relaunched Norwich Fringe, which will take place online from March 18-21.
What’s the impact of Covid-19 and how are you adapting?
As someone working in the theatre industry, nearly all our work disappeared overnight, shortly followed by postponements which eventually became cancellations.
For many freelancers there has been no support available, so it has meant we have had to be more innovative in our approach.
As a performer, I thought best to entertain by presenting my online live show for the first 12 weeks of lockdown called Sunday Night at the Interweb.
Inspired by the variety shows of bygone days, I think the silliness and nostalgic nod to the TV variety shows of the 60s provided some light-hearted fun.
Each week I would have a new challenge to complete or a song to sing, randomly selected live on air from audience requests each week.
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I’d like to think it helped connect audiences, both familiar and new, near and far in a funny harmless way.
As a creative, with many of us relying on project-by-project work, it means we don’t have regular teams we work with and some of us work on our own.
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I’ve tried to reach out to many people, to check in, share some optimism and give support or a listening ear when needed.
The creative sector and theatre workforce are some of the most resilient and out-of-the-box thinking people I know and the past year has meant this has all come into play.
I’ve been very grateful to still produce some exciting projects during lockdown, such as Shakespeare Nation with Norwich Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where we have explored online ways of working and creating new theatre online.
I had the idea of setting up Norwich Fringe a couple of years ago and lockdown fuelled this idea further, knowing that there are talented people across our region who longed for feeling more connecting with one another.
We have run a number of online events so far focussing on training, development, connecting and networking.
We’ve now switched to festival mode in preparation for our first Fringe Festival for 18-21 March.
What advice can you give to our readers?
Right now, we can only really focus on the here and now, appreciating what we have whilst slowly building for better days – when we know we will be able to reconnect with each other physically and visit the places and people again who bring joy and inspiration to our lives.
For some, just getting through each day is enough and that is completely fine.
I would also reiterate the message of keeping connected with one another, even if it’s just the odd message now and again.
Providing assurance others – and just letting them know you are there for them – has benefits for everyone involved.
What is your connection to East Anglia?
I grew up in North Walsham, Norfolk and aside from university and working away on specific projects, I’ve lived in different parts of the region.
I established March Town Hall (Cambridgeshire) as a new arts venue, I was director of the Peterborough Festival and other events there for a few years, my Olympic job took me round the region regularly, and I’ve worked with many different theatres and organisations here in Norfolk.
I now live in the wonderful city of Norwich.
What is your East Anglian Heaven?
I love the fact that most of our region is surrounded by the coast.
The landscape changes so much across the area from the fens to greenery and woodland, from the city to villages, heathland, dunes and the beach.
Since being a teenager, I’ve headed to the coast and stared out across the North Sea many times.
What is your East Anglian Hell?
Well, I wouldn’t be as harsh as to call it hellish, but the distance from other places, as we are out here on the ‘bump’ of the country, adds a lot of time to travel around; but I would also say that it’s a Godsend as well.
What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?
I love the countryside and the coast but to choose right now, it would be the cityscape of Norwich, as viewed from the top of Mousehold Heath, as the sun sets.
From that view you have see the city’s rich history, the life within it and the future being built as well.
What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?
Of course I’m now biased to the new addition to East Anglia’s calendar - Norwich Fringe Festival!
This year it’s online, which has meant we’ve had to adapt on how we programme the work – as well as supporting all the different artists and theatre companies in a different approach to their performance.
This year’s Norwich Fringe Festival will celebrate a great team effort, supporting the creatives with an outlet whilst giving audiences locally made (with guests from further afield) work.
But there are many different festivals all across the region from music, to arts and theatre to history. These festivals are happening all year round too – not just in the summer.
What’s your favourite film?
A classic one - It’s A Wonderful Life.
The film explores the sense of belonging and hope and that everybody matters in our own way; and we all need reminding of that sometimes.
What was your first job?
I worked in a newsagent as a teenager, learning that hard work, graft and loyalty pays off.
I remember exercising my creative flair when doing the window displays (the Christmas ones were always fun) and I also helped run summer schools for younger children.
In the professional sense, my first big acting job was in a filmed piece for an opera project that toured around Europe – although it was much more Avant-Garde than expected, as there was literally no costume!
My other big job was establishing March Town Hall, as an arts centre. I was young, fresh-faced and I’m guessing didn’t need much sleep.
On my first day, I was given a set of keys and an alarm code written on a post-it note, six months later we opened as a multi-use arts centre.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandad made me a replica 1930s Marconi radio for when I was co-directing a play when a student at Paston College (Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa).
My grandad was always so clever with making things, paying attention to detail and improvising with the resources at hand.
I think the radio prop will always be special – it’s also been used in many shows since!
Both my nan and grandad have been supportive of me and my theatre efforts ever since I first got up on a big stage at the age of 6.
Their stories and warmth has always inspired me to keep going, to entertain and make people smile.
Who do you admire most?
I worked on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games for a few years, working across the region and also on the significant milestone events.
I enjoyed meeting so many inspirational people, from the communities we engaged with to the athletes, their teams and the creatives.
I have to say that I was genuinely inspired by the resilience of the Paralympians
and creatives with disabilities that I worked with.
I remember their bravery and passion for making change and challenging unfairness, thinking outside of the box and making their own opportunities.
What do you like about yourself most?
I like smiling - smiling is infectious!
What’s your worst character trait?
Early in my career it took me a while to realise that you can’t change the world alone.
In fact changing the world for whatever reason is a huge task!
But we can help change attitudes for the better and this is done when working with likeminded people who you can trust.
Best day of your life?
It sounds cliché, but with these trying times, I’m trying not to focus on the past best days but to try and have them right now.
Why isn’t today your best day; and then tomorrow another one?
What’s your favourite breakfast?
Anything with blueberries, from yoghurt and granola to pancakes and waffles. Always with proper coffee.
What’s your favourite tipple?
Locally made gin, I always go for locally made independent producers from here in Norwich and Norfolk including St Giles (Norwich) and Black Shuck (Fakenham).
What’s your hidden talent?
I like to show off and when working in variety theatre, it means you get the chance to show off most things!
As a performer, you never want to keep anything hidden. I think I have surprised people when I perform as Titania Trust (coined Norfolk’s very own diva) – it’s more old-school, akin to the great Danny La Rue.
I often perform this character in cabaret, variety and music hall sometimes when I am also performing as myself in the same show!
Tell us something people don’t know about you?
As a playwright, I enjoy reading and sometimes my research goes off into a tangent to some strange niche void… but I’m currently also training as a psychotherapist.
I love exploring the psychology behind us all, observing behaviours and what is nature and nurture.
I think this interest comes from being a playwright, when I’m always analysing a character and their next move.
Theatre is about understanding people and the world around us, so understanding how our minds work has really helped put this into practice.
What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?
I came back to Norfolk very briefly after university and someone, quite high up in the ranks of Norfolk things, told me that ‘Norfolk is the graveyard of ambition’.
I recognise that Norfolk is beautiful place to live, but the county, as does other parts of our region, has always had ambition beyond its borders.
Norwich alone is a powerhouse for science with the research park, where they are working on world-changing initiatives, including with Covid-19 in mind; the festivals across our region are hugely ambitious, presenting our region on the international stage; and we have the UEA which produces our most valuable exports.
We’ve seen how the communities in our region have pulled together in these trying times – we all have ambition that is uniquely different to each of us.
What do you want to tell our readers about most?
Firstly, here in East Anglia we look out for each other and I would want all readers to be reminded of that and to ask for help when needed.
A close second is to encourage everyone to support their local theatre and creative scene now and when it is all up and running.
Lots of arts organisations and creatives are finding ways to continue during lockdown – so please consider offering to support them now and in the future.
One way people can do this is by checking out and supporting Norwich Fringe Festival 2021, which runs online 18th-21st March.
For more information go to: www.norwichfringe.org.uk
For Joseph’s other projects including free wellbeing sessions, go to: www.josephballard.co.uk.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephballard
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