IN three decades Stockton’s International Riverside Festival has gone from a “slightly shambolic” homespun big top show and perilous pyrotechnics to world-renowned status... even if this year’s South Korean and Australian performers might have a problem finding Tees Valley on the map.

“The character of the town completely changes when the festival is on and it has helped the development and thinking of the town. Stockton has been able to retain its sense of humour at a time of austerity and cutting its cloth. Audiences have been brought up with SIRF and people who remember shows from way, way back are now bringing their own children,” says Jan Doherty, the artistic director of the event which runs from Thursday, August 3 to Sunday, August 6.

One setback has been the shadow of Brexit putting up costs because the value of the pound is dropping against the Euro. “I’m literally just doing the budget again because the last time I did it the price was 87p against the Euro and now it’s 89p. We spend a lot of Euros and that’s become a real concern,” she says.

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To support this festival celebration of street theatre, circus, music, comedy and cabaret, Stockton Borough Council have made another £100,000 available to SIRF – an amount matched by the Arts Council – on top of the event’s £600,000 annual funding. “This is just extraordinary, and the council has done it to show the Arts Council that is was very serious about the long-term future of SIRF. We have submitted our four-year plan to the Arts Council and we’ve managed to get funding from them as well. It’s a big responsibility on my shoulders and the reputation of the festival involves making it different every year while ensuring high quality and commissioning new work as well,” Doherty says.

Bringing through new talent is an important part of Stockton’s programme, alongside inviting back familiar names like the Whalley Range All Stars, from Bury, who will be presenting Ye Gods at Stockton’s High Street Fountain on August 5.

“I think we have two shows that we can be really proud of this year. The opening show is a collaboration of artists from South Korea and Australia in a show called Frameshift at Riverside on the nights of August 3 and 4. I was lucky enough to see the performance in Korea in the autumn and you have no idea about the logistical challenge involved. I’d wanted to work with the Australian company, called Stalker, for years and it’s the kind of moment you only get with SIRF.

“The finale is an amazing piece by Cirque Bijou, on Trinity Green, involving four walkers on two high wires, one of which is then set on fire and walked by Jade Kindar-Martin - the only artist to perform this astonishing daredevil feat. He did the stuntwork in the film The Walk about the high wire placed between the Twin Towers. People like that old-fashioned-style of dangerous entertainment. There are also a lot of local volunteers involved, 35 dancers with Led umbrellas and 35 more in a choir,” Doherty says about the Bristol-based company.

Outdoor summer performances and Teesside are a risky mix and last year’s finale went to the last minute before the organisers could give the go-ahead because of high winds. “I think it was five minutes after the show that the heavens opened and my production manager was delighted because it cleared the area very quickly,” jokes Doherty.

And like any festival, the artistic director is still seeking a car park-sized space for one show because a hotel is now being built on the original location. “Le Collectif G Bistaki, from France, are jugglers who use tons and tons of popping corn and move it around and dance with it, but the company needs three locations,” says Doherty, who has already started the hunt for acts to bring to Teesside in 2018.

“Companies need to know well ahead otherwise they can’t get the funding… and we’re a good name for anyone to put on its application. I think around Europe, SIRF has a very good reputation. People say, ‘You’re from Stockton’. Not many know where it is. We always tell people where to fly to, or to get off the train at Darlington and we send a taxi.

“This isn’t a bad place to get people to. My sadness is that public transport ends so early in the evening that visitors find they have to leave before they can see the late-night shows. There is talk of the Tees Valley trains improving, but whether this will help places like Newcastle and links to Darlington I’m not sure,” says Doherty, who questions whether the world’s first passenger trainline should become the worst trainline.

“Tees Valley is working towards applying for City Of Culture for 2025, but I think the local authorities are going to have to do some improvements to transport to win that. The application has to go in by 2020 and that’s not long away and SIRF is already thinking of how it can help the application process,” she adds.

Former Dovecote Arts Centre and Arc boss Frank Wilson was the genius behind SIRF and modestly called it beginner’s luck as he tracked down Dutch, French and Spanish events, before the days of the internet, to finally land Compagnie Malabar, from France, as his first “international” entertainers.

Wilson admits that SIRF’s launch with Circus Burlesque, in 1988, was “slightly shambolic” with a giant locally-built swan, launched on the Tees, being the highlight. Wilson recalls that a boat loaded with fireworks, in 1989, all went off at once as it drew level with the VIP area. “The result was a ringside seat at something akin to an amphibious assault,” jokes Wilson about an incident which would have been regarded very differently in the 21st Century.

Doherty started work at Stockton in 2005 and recalls a mind-boggling Israeli show on water by Clipa Theater and has a lovely memory when she took over as artistic director when a French company took 15 gigantic bright red giraffes through the High Street.

“That was mad and 30 years has been wonderful,” she laughs.