The Cultural Olympiad, the £40 million four-year programme designed to showcase the UK’s arts and culture in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, officially kicks off this weekend (26-28 September 2008) with the nationwide Open Weekend, with over 500 events presented by more than 160 arts organisations.

In London’s Theatreland, Open Weekend this year incorporates a special edition of the mayor’s annual Open Rehearsal scheme, now in its third year, which allows the public to go behind the scenes – via backstage tours, workshops and rehearsals - and take a look at what makes the city’s theatre, music, dance and opera world famous. This year’s highlights include backstage tours of the Royal Court, Barbican, Old Vic and numerous other West End theatres, a War Horse rehearsal at the National and a “write your own musical” workshop with the Come Dancing team at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

The thinking behind the Cultural Olympiad is that London 2012 is more than just four weeks of sport. Until 1948, medals were also awarded for sculpture, music, literature and art, just as in sport. The organisers of London 2012 view the games as “the biggest cultural, sporting and regeneration opportunity of our time”, with a focus placed on “celebrating youth, diversity and creating a lasting legacy”. In conjunction with that, the Cultural Olympiad celebrates athletes as well as artists, people, places and cultures of London, the UK and the world.

The Open Weekend will be followed by ten major projects over the next four years, designed to fulfil the “commitment that the London 2012 Games will involve and inspire everyone”. Of the ten, the theatrical centrepiece will be the World Shakespeare Festival, led by the Royal Shakespeare Company, building on its success with the year-long Complete Works Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006/7 (See News, 5 Apr 2007).

The World Shakespeare Festival will celebrate Shakespeare as a global property, with major collaborations between leading UK and international companies, as well as amateur dramatic groups across the country, and several large-scale premieres of international Shakespeare productions. The National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe have also signed up to participate. The Festival will run from Shakespeare’s birthday on 23 April 2012 until the start of the Olympic Games in July.

The full schedule for this week’s Open Weekend and more information about the Cultural Olympiad can be found online at www.london2012.com/get-involved/cultural-olympiad/index.php.

- by Terri Paddock