A "rural arts festival" is a disquieting notion, often resulting in the urban and avant-garde descend- ing on a community and alienating it. Ideas and concepts are freeze-packed and flown in, and the locals, not knowing what has hit them, run for cover. Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, director of "home", the live art and performance production company, has taken an altogether more sympathetic approach with the St Margaret's Church Ale Performance Festival, the UK's first rural residential festival devoted to the performing arts, which takes place this month.
Come Friday, the sleepy Suffolk village of Rishangles will be resounding with live music, performance and spectacle. There will be a film and video event. The beer will flow. There will be children's workshops, music by the urbane Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and a piece by Forced Entertainment. The neighbouring field will be lined with tents. It may sound like some-thing you might encounter at the South Bank, the Institute of Contemporary Arts or somewhere off the M4; happily it is not. Godfrey-Isaacs wanted to have an arts festival in the village that has been her part-time home ever since she bought the deconsecrated medieval church of St Margaret's in 2002.
The tradition of "the church ale", banned during the Reformation, gave her the local focus which she knew from the outset must be at the heart of a successful - and meaningful - festival. "I wanted to do an arts festival using the medieval church as the framework," she says. Research uncovered a medieval form of event that would have happened in the churchyard, called "the church ale".
"The 'ale' had all the elements you would want in a live-art festival: music, art, entertainment, dramas and game-playing, which is the medieval practice of going through hoops, stilt-walking and so on. Plus it had food and the sale of ale, brewed by the church warden. Ales were bawdy events, but they raised money for the upkeep of the church. You also had specific ales, such as bride ales, to raise money for a bride, or a bid ale, if a family was in need. It was a fantastic framework for a festival because it was indigenous and happened on site. Ours is an ancient building, so anything that happens here has to feel appropriate."
And locals have to know it's appropriate, too, which is why, four months ago, Godfrey-Isaacs invited a local historian to give a talk in the church about the tradition of the church ale. She wanted to draw them in. Rightly so, according to Michael Morris of Art-angel, whose most recent project is "Towards a Promised Land": banner photographs by the American photographer Wendy Ewald of children who have fled the horrors of war, and whose faces now hang across the cliffs of Margate. "Laura is right: you need to think of ways to engage local people, so they don't think the event is imposed on them by a bunch of metropolitan trendies," says Morris. "People can smell that a mile away. You've got to dispel the view that you're arty-farty. That's why we always have a policy of inviting local media to become partners. You want local people to hear about the event first, so they have ownership of it before everybody else."
Although nearly all the pieces were commissioned especially for the church ale festival, they have a delightfully local, authentic flavour. Even flower-arranging, that stalwart of what now feels like a bygone era of church and community, has been included - and invigorated. Jyll Bradley has worked with the High Suffolk Flower Club on a piece which, says Godfrey-Isaacs, "references medieval forms of decoration. The theme is rites of passage, particularly in relation to a church, such as funerals and baptisms."
An understanding of context is everything, as Jon Bewley of the Newcastle-based contemporary arts agency Locus+ points out: "Most people decide to bolt contexts on to an idea, whereas Godfrey-Isaacs has looked at a historical performative context - the history of the village - and amplified it, rather than para- chuting in and digging up the worms. That's what some people call context-related, but it's imposition; Godfrey-Isaacs is doing it the proper way around. This is how people once lived. She is inviting artists to make a qualitative work that is sympathetic to those people and their history."
No festival is complete without food, something church ales were particularly good at. The performance artist Miche Fabre Lewin will close the festival with a super-sensory, improvised medieval feast involving a masked guest. It's not just any medieval feast, but one that might well have been enjoyed in Rishangles. Fabre Lewin calls it "paying respect to the host venue" - even though, as she says, all her events and installations are edible. "My work is about sourcing local food and giving life to what exists in the area I am working in." There will be an edible sugar sculpture that celebrates St Margaret, whose feast day falls on 20 July. St Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of Rishangles's old church, was gobbled up by a dragon, only to be disgorged and drowned in a vat of burning oil. Fabre Lewin is creating a symbolic dragon using marzipan, local honey, lavender and mustard flower.
The feast is indigenous, of course, but Fabre Lewin's improvised performance is a modern phenomenon. She hopes her audience will warm to her interpretation. "People might not understand, initially, how performance art can go together with rural and community art, but they will see that the intention is good. It's about my relationship with the history and the mythology of the foods, and about reconnecting people to their taste buds, to the soil and to the soul. I am trying to bring as little as I can from outside, and finding ways of paying homage to the place itself."
Avoiding imposition and the parachute effect is one thing, but an arts festival, like any artwork, won't succeed if the idea itself is flawed. Michael Morris agrees. "The quality of the idea is everything. Too much community art isn't good enough. At Artangel, we never call the work we do community art; we are working with the best possible artists. Quality will not be compromised." Intellectual rigour and artistic vision are no barrier to working at a local level, argues Morris. "The best kinds of artists have a confidence that makes them able to work alongside anybody. Working with the artist Jeremy Deller on The Battle of Orgreave [filmed near Sheffield in 2001, it re-enacted one of the most violent clashes of the 1984 miners' strike], they made fantastic collaborators - even though art was not at the centre of these people's lives. Some of the most sceptical at the beginning became our staunchest allies. If that project or any project works, the sense of ownership is so great. It's no longer about Artangel, or even the artist."
And for Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, there is no precedent. "There is nothing I can compare this festival with; it's a new concept, or rather, an ancient concept made new." Ambitious in scale and two years in the planning, the idea, she says, is simple enough: "It's a celebration of local history and the culture of the church: the church ale is a lost cultural form."
The St Margaret's Church Ale Performance Festival is at the Old Church, Rishangles, Suffolk IP23, from 22-24 July. Booking line: 01206 500 900. www.colchesterartscentre.com