The Festival of Debate is returning to Sheffield this year, bringing with it over 60 public events all aimed at exploring the key political, social and economic issues of our time.

The festival will feature a range of big speakers as well as smaller events from talks, panel discussions and workshops to film screenings, spoken word and stand-up comedy. This year’s Festival Strands are ‘Who We Are’, ‘Living Together’, ‘Our Democracy’, ‘Our Planet’ and ‘Looking Forward’.

Running from 19 April, the festival is coordinated by not-for-profit company Opus Independents in collaboration with over 40 partner organisations across the city.

We spoke to Sam Walby, Festival of Debate programmer and producer, to find out more.

When did the Festival of Debate start and why?

Opus started Festival of Debate in the run-up to the General Election in 2015 because we felt there was a lack of public events focussed around discussing the key issues of the day. It was a collective idea that came out of chats we were having about what was missing from Sheffield, given it’s famed activist and radical history. We wanted it to be a real forum for all the great groups and institutions based here, but also to bring big keynote speakers to the city who might not otherwise visit, like Yanis Varoufakis at 2018’s festival.

How is this year’s Festival different from the previous ones?

Although it’s 60 events across a six-week period, believe it or not that represents a scaling down of the programme. Last year we had 80 events across 10 weeks, which was fantastic but also a colossal undertaking for the Opus team and our many partner organisations, without whom Festival of Debate couldn’t happen.

Another key progression for this year is three day-long events featuring a number of sessions, each themed around a different festival strand, which we are calling ‘hub days’ – Our Democracy (Sat 27 April at The Circle), Our Planet (Sat 11 May, Theatre Deli) and Living Together (Sat 1 June, Millennium Gallery).

How has the festival changed over the years?

We’ve learnt what we’re doing a bit more! Like many things we do as a collective, it tends to start from an idea or vision and then work backwards to, ‘Er ok, how are we going to do this?’ We know what we want to achieve a bit more this time around, and as well as the commercial pressures of running a festival we feel a great obligation to make Festival of Debate a constructive forum.

What were the reasons for this year’s chosen strands?

This year’s festival strands arose from last year’s, but we decided to reframe them a bit. We feel they cover most of the key topics we are hoping to tackle through our events. The hope is that they give another way into the programme, which at 60 events and 90 individual sessions can be quite overwhelming at first glance.

What do you aim to achieve from the Festival and why is it important – for Sheffield specifically as well?

During the six-weeks that the Festival runs for, we want to create the impression of a city constantly in discussion. We want people to bring new ideas to the table and share them in an open, non-confrontational setting. But most importantly we want people to see the importance of these issues – for the city and the whole world. Things don’t change unless we talk about them, make some noise and generate momentum. Doing that offline, in person is also incredibly important because it means encountering people we wouldn’t otherwise have a discussion with, listening with empathy and perhaps changing our mind about things.

What is involved in making the Festival happen?

We usually start planning the festival about nine months before the first event, which means we only really get three months downtime once one programme finishes. In between we are also documenting and evaluating what we’ve done.

The first step is putting in funding applications, brainstorming ideas for keynote speakers and larger events, and putting out an open call to potential partner organisations. Then we start approaching sponsors, booking in events and slowly building the programme around some core bookings. We’re a small team so it’s a real group effort. It can sometimes feel like taking turns pushing a boulder up a hill, but it’s really rewarding to see the programme finalised and the events happening.

What obstacles have you faced in creating and running the Festival, and how have you dealt with these?

We’re never short of ideas, so often it’s the practicalities that are the biggest obstacles. Funding is one of those, because many investors look at what we do as overtly political, whereas we look at it much more from the perspective of encouraging active citizenship and community cohesion. We’re an enterprising bunch, so we get out there, talk passionately about what we want to do, work hard, and often opportunities present themselves that way.

What are your hopes for the festival’s future?

To become more embedded in Sheffield’s many communities of geography and interest, and be seen as an open platform for local people to run their own events, get involved and do something constructive. Running a festival might not change the world, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Our Top 10 Festival of Debate Picks 

Building For The Future
Monday, 29 April, 2019
6.00pm – 7.30pm
108 The Moor
Teflon Trump’s Toxic Tactics: How To Understand The Psychology of Autocratic Leadership
Thursday, 2 May, 2019
6.30pm – 8.30pm
Council Room, Firth Court, The University of Sheffield
Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish) – On Race, Identity, and Belonging
Monday, 13 May, 2019
6.30pm – 8.00pm
SU Auditorium, Sheffield Students’ Union
Writer and Journalist Afua Hirsch.
George Monbiot. Photograph credit: Dave Stelfox.
George Monbiot & George Marshall: How To Break The Silence On Environmental Collapse
Thursday, 16 May, 2019
7.00pm – 9.00pm
SU Auditorium, Sheffield Students’ Union
James O’Brien: How To Be Right
Saturday, 18 May, 2019
7.30pm – 9.00pm
Pennine Lecture Theatre, Owen Building, Sheffield Hallam University
Radio presenter and podcaster James O’Brien.
Roger Mcgough. Photograph Credit: Nick Wright.
Roger McGough & Stan Skinny
Tuesday, 21 May, 2019
7.00pm – 10.00pm
Abbeydale Picture House
The Guilty Feminist: Live
Thursday, 23 May, 2019
7.30pm – 10.00pm
Sheffield City Hall
Comedian Deborah Frances-White, host of The Guilty Feminist podcast.
Writer and broadcaster Paul Mason
Paul Mason: Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being
Wednesday, 29 May, 2019
7.30pm – 9:00pm
Pennine Lecture Theatre
Live Late: The People’s Palace of Possibility
Friday, 31 May, 2019
7.30pm – 10.30pm
Millennium Gallery
Festival of Debate does Question Time
Saturday, 1 June, 2019
7.00pm – 8.30pm
Millennium Gallery
Journalist Ash Sarkar, one of the guest speakers at the Question Time- style event to close the festival.
Festival of Debate is on from April 11 to June 1.
More information about The Festival of Debate and access to the programme can be found at https://www.festivalofdebate.com/

Featured Image Credit: Festival of Debate

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