Glastonbury's Shangri-La boss talks to eFestivals

exclusive interview with Debs Armstrong

By Scott Williams | Published: Wed 17th Oct 2012


Wednesday 26th to Sunday 30th June 2013
Worthy Farm, Pilton, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, BA4 4AZ, England MAP
£205 (secured with a £50 deposit) - SOLD OUT
Daily capacity: 177,500
Last updated: Mon 24th Jun 2013

Debs Armstrong, is the Creative Director of the Shangri-La team who have been organising the late night area of the site of Glastonbury Festival since 2008. The area covers over 40 acres or three large fields. Each year the Festival sees the area have a narrative and full-field film-set that, when animated by the performers and audience, creates a wholly immersive world for the audience to lose themselves in.

Layers upon of layers of talent come together to achieve this creative vision, from scaffolders, to chippies, to admin staff and production people, lighting engineers and almost 900 artists.

The evolving storyline develops year by year. In 2009 it was a pleasure city run by a corrupt dictatorship. In 2010 the ruling administration was overthrown and the city opened up to rebels and chancers. In 2011, the population had given up trying to save the city and were off to colonise a new world, they'd packed up and were prepared to flee before the end of the world in 2012, 2011's Festival was the last party before they went, a rave to end all raves.

Despite there being no Glastonbury in 2012, the Shangri-la story did continue. It was a tragic tale, though, as the population died and the colonists were betrayed and eventually eaten by their alien friends.


Shangri-la is starting fresh for 2013 with a new series of shows, introducing a new set, new venues and and a new theme which we will develop over the next 4 years. The late-night area's theme for next year's Festival will be One Man's Heaven is Another Man's Hell - the first part of the Shangri-la Afterlife series. The image of 'Sheavis' (above) is part of the 'Believe' series of Eavis iconic graphics for Shangri-La. Debs reveals, "We're going to have more, there's quite a wealth of inspirations of things to do with Michael's head when it comes to religious imagery. Emily (Eavis) is my taste guide, I run it by her as I never quite know if I might be offending anybody's sensibilities."

Festival organiser Emily Eavis recently revealed that the late night areas were splitting up, Debs confirmed this saying, "Arcadia's moving. It just means a little more space for people. It's that classic thing of not putting all your attractions in one place and thus making everyone in your festival go to one area at the same time. That's why they had to have that one way system, I think that moving Arcadia over to Dance will just mean that there's a bit flow for people."

In reply to the big question about whether the queuing system will be gone, Debs answers, "I suspect it will be, but things change, councils and licensing and everything else often make decisions change, but I don't think the queue system will be there. That's the key part of moving Arcadia."

The current Dance Village is also undergoing a transformation it's to be re-named and there are big plans for the area next year, the location means there's often noise issues, it's a bit of a surprise that Arcadia is moving there. "It might not be Dance exactly, I know it's moving along." Debs discloses, "But, Block 9, The Common, and The Unfairground, and us, are going to be in the same places, and the Arcadia Field is going back to camping."

Update: eFestivals has since spoken to Emily Eavis (interview to be published soon) and it looks like all the ideas are very much up in the air, and nothing is finalised yet, and that the Arcadia move (or where it moves) is not a done deal. The ideas now may be totally different by spring time, and what they are talking about at the moment may not necessarily happen. The main thing was I think that organisers want is to make it as 'de-congested' as possible.

Debs has already revealed on Facebook that next year's new beginning means the end of The Hub, Club Dada, The Alleys, The Snakepit, and Hotel Slumbarave. She confirms the news, "Yes, goodbye, well they all died didn't they! In the tale of Shangri-La they were all on the annihilated place that was. So, they have all gone, but they're all in Shangri-Heaven or Shangri-Hell in one form or another. It won't be exactly as it's seen before, they're died, they've changed, and it's a whole new series. But, all the people who were involved before are involved in creating it. They're all just changing their venues and freshening it up."

Debs was keen to change the concept of Shangri-La before it became a bit stale. She clarifies, "I feel quite strongly that after a four year run, you almost need three years to get it to be good, certainly if you're doing a new theme. If you keep doing it and you don't change it then the audience can get, a bit familiar with another apocalyptic wasteland."

It's also started to be a theme that other events are using, Debs expounds, "Obviously BoomTown has done a Shangri-esque city, and good on them, it's great to see the next guys developing what we do." Debs has always wanted their ideas to be an influencing factor at other events. She adds with a smile, "That's part of what we want to do, is be inspirational, and set the bar a bit higher for people, that's good, and it always keeps us on our toes, with the young'uns snapping at our heals creatively."

The evolution of Shangri-La has always been a very important aspect for the Creative Director, and she is already looking at a four year run which will run until 2016. Debs enthuses, "The fact it evolves every year means it's almost a series of shows. This next four year run will be based on the Afterlife, and all the different places that takes you to. The theme of the Afterlife is massive and you can go in any direction, and we'll develop it. It took a few years for us to get The Hub and all the video mapping exactly where we wanted it, and it does take a bit of time to push new ideas. But this will be a new series, and after that we'll do something else, we'll get reincarnated or something else completely."

Having such an open theme means that everyone involved can be very creative, Debs explains, "Rather than just a theme, it's something that all the artists, all the contributors, and everyone who builds it takes on the story and then develops their own sub-plot to it as well, and that's where you get the layering and layering of artwork that just stacks up to create this total experience."

With no Festival this year the creative team are already at the stage where they have already planned out the area for next year. Debs divulges that, "We are now at the stage where we've redesigned the field, redesigned the venues, and the concepts, and everyone is on board with it. But, there are still those annoying technical production things that we need to work out, like whether we need to build an enclosure that will go until 6am, and therefore how many nanos (venues) we can have, so, it's not final yet. But, it's well formed. There will still be a central hell stage, and that will be the central stage."

Nanos are the small venues that explorers of Shangri-La would discover at random, sometimes they would be hidden and only open at certain times, containing wild themes like mermaids, U2 themed Irish karaoke bars, or teleportation machines. Next year will see the numbers of these reduced. Debs break the news, "We probably won't have as many. There was a ridiculous amount. In 2010 there was a lot and that was part of what it was. We wanted that intensity of things there. But it's going to be a bit different next year. I think the key thing that we do keep is the sense of exploration for people, and the walking through different environments and finding different places. It's important that people still get lost in it and can't find their way out easily."

With Shangri-La always being such a popular place to explore at any time of day, but will it be open any earlier next year. Debs makes it plain that it would be unlikely, "It's a very difficult to say, not really. The thing is that we aren't ever ready until Thursday afternoon, and some areas around us aren't open until Friday night. In reality I can't see us opening the whole area before that. I don't think they are even licensed for us to open before that. I think the license kicks in on Thursday, but they are allowed to open the site for campers and for people to wander around on Wednesday. What we did last time was open bits of it as they were ready. So the alleyways stayed closed off until Friday. It's a practical thing."

Next summer may seem a long way off but for Shangri-La and Debs a lot of the design work is being carried out now. She reveals, "I'm aiming to have the concept and the artistic brief, and the site plan, and the budgets all done by the end of the first week in November. Then it will be lot of production planning. The organising of it, the building of it, the whole art department and everything like that." Shangri-La always displays a lot of contemporary art, but there are no artists on board yet. "It's early days for that, it's still only October, I'm frustrating people by not telling them where their venues are going to be and stuff like that yet, because we haven't figured it out."

The site is then built from scratch in a field in Somerset with the team arriving on site at the Festival in mid-May. "It's a five or six week build usually, and we generally build everything on site." She tells me, adding, "This year will be a bit different because we are doing a total rebuild. So, there will be some bits we will have to work on. There's going to be a lot of stuff that we are going to have to use, that we've used before. But there will be some totally new sets, that I would quite like to get built off site but we shall see."

For the first time Shangri-La are letting Festival goers in on the process of creating 'One Man's Heaven Is Another Man's Hell, as Debs explains, "I think we're going to have quite a lot of fun with the graphics, and the posters again this year, and you can expect more images to be released. It's easy to get a picture of Michael Eavis and some iconic Leonardo Di Vinci god image. People can play, and we are enjoying a much more creative open process this year. It's been really good that we've been able to develop our creative interaction with our audience. So we're having really good creative dialogues on Facebook, just putting people's ideas out there and getting feedback, and we've also made our creative mood board public for the first time. Before we've turned it all into the brief, in the really early stage of design, we just hurl ideas at each other for about four months, and that stage is what we've made open with our mood boards on Pinterest."

eFestivals can't wait to explore, seeking out hidden realms, lose ourselves (hopefully not too badly next year) in the layers and layers of artwork, discover secret venues, and watch the secret big-name acts.

To find out more, click here to visit Debs' blog, and to look at Pinterest click here.

Glastonbury Festival takes place from Wednesday 26th June until Monday 1st July 2013 across over a 1,000 acres of beautiful countryside at Worthy Farm, Somerset and, as ever, includes a free programme. Once again, the Festival will be raising funds for Oxfam, Wateraid, Greenpeace and a host of local charities and causes (in 2011, more than £2m was raised).

Tickets for Glastonbury Festival 2013 have sold out. The resale of cancelled/refunded tickets is expected in Spring next year.

Anyone aged 13 or over (when the Festival starts) who wishes to buy a ticket must be registered. Registration involves providing contact details, a valid e-mail address, and a passport standard photo.

Online registration can be carried out by clicking here.

For more detailed registration and ticket information click here.

As well as standard Festival tickets (priced at £205 + £5 booking fee), there will be a number of Combined Coach and Festival Tickets on sale. These tickets include either single or return coach tickets from a range of locations around the UK.

interview by: Scott Williams

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