Directors of the summer festival flow

Four arts festival directors share their thoughts on what makes a great festival and recount their toughest challenges

Wed, Jul 10, 2013, 01:00

Rosemary Collier
Director of Kilkenny Arts Festival

What is your favourite festival?
West Cork Chamber Music Festival, not just because Francis Humphrys is a superb programmer but the location is idyllic, too. It’s incredibly intimate at Bantry House and audiences have the most extraordinary experiences of hearing the world’s best players as if they were in one’s own living room. I’ve had very powerful moments at gigs there and heard some perfect playing.

What is the most important aspect of running a festival?
Planning is key, but everything comes down to communication. In every aspect of managing a festival good communications can make great things happen. From dealing with the festival team to devising projects with collaborators to selling the festival to audiences to raising sponsorship.

What has been your favourite festival moment?
A director’s first festival is always nerve-racking but we had so many wonderful performances last year. I think though my favourite moment was Steve Cooney lashing into slides in polkas in a wild, tribal way to a packed St John’s priory at lunchtime mid-week with people not wanting to go back to work and roaring the place down for more at the end.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as festival director?
My first festival in 2012 was a dream, but the single biggest challenge I faced was probably weather-related. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company was performing 10 outdoor shows at Castle Yard and we did get one night of heavy rain. Globe company policy is to perform in all weathers unless it is dangerous to do so and they were determined the show would go on. We were sure the audience would say, “ah here” and head for the nearest bar but no, they stuck it out. It’s always a risk presenting work outdoors but we got beautiful balmy evenings too and 4,000 happy punters in the end.

Kilkenny Arts Festival runs from
August 9th to 18th
Seán Doran
Artistic director of Happy Days
Enniskillen International Beckett Festival

What is your favourite festival?

The Festival d’Automne à Paris. It leads through commissioning new work at a stratospheric level, is uncompromising in its tastes and has an exemplary world view in contemporary music, visual arts and theatre. The European avant-garde sits alongside discoveries from non-western cultures.

What is the most important aspect of running a festival?

Have a daring artistic vision, one that sees things differently to all else. With a five-day festival such as Happy Days the greater aim is to use those five days to alter the surrounding environment of the remaining 360 days. Break all the entrenched hidden rules that in normal life sink us daily. Be unafraid to be elitist but find the imagination to make it accessible to all. The best arts festival is one that backs those artists who are more interested in failure than success.

What has been your favourite festival moment?

In our inaugural 2012 festival the fiddler Tommy Peoples played back his work and thoughts from 30 years previous to now in The Peoples Monologue. It proved an event more Beckettian than Beckett and was the wonderful idea of traditional musician Daire Bracken.

But maybe the finest moment was arriving to see a sold-out audience embark on a ferry at 5.30am to hear Adrian Dunbar reading Beckett’s late prose piece Stirrings Still on Inishmacsaint Island under the grey Fermanagh skies.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a festival director?

The biggest challenge was for my last Perth International Arts Festival (2003) in Australia. We commissioned the sculptor Antony Gormley to install 51 sculptures across a 16km radius on a salt lake far into the Western Australian desert, 1,000 kilometres from the festival’s centre. It was the festival’s 50th anniversary and it begged for something of a permanent legacy for the festival to gift the state. It is now an Australian image icon and a tourist destination with over 20,000 visitors a year. It nearly killed us all in the process, but in the end the prize was priceless.

The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival runs from August 22nd to 26th

Paul Fahy
Artistic director of Galway Arts Festival

What is your favourite festival?

The festival I have been most surprised by was the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro in Bogotá, Colombia.

Its impact, accessibility and visibility are hugely impressive in so many areas of a sprawling city. While the quality of the many Edinburgh festivals may vary hugely, it is great to see a city in celebration during festival time and proud to be defined in such a way.

I really admire the philosophy and approach behind the Manchester International Festival, an artist-led commissioning festival presenting original and new works.

What is the most important aspect of running a festival?

Not to panic, good planning, even better colleagues and money. When programming a multidisciplinary festival you are constantly juggling the overall balance, shape and feel of a programme. This is an ever-changing thing. You always have to be prepared for projects and events to fall at the final hurdle and not to make the programme for whatever reason, no matter how hard you try. Get over the disappointment quickly and have options you can fall back on which you can make a reality.

What has been your favourite festival moment?

The opening night of Misterman at Galway Arts Festival 2011 was an absolutely extraordinary night. Both ourselves and Landmark Productions, were privileged to work with a brilliant creative team. Turning old warehouses into very beautiful galleries is always challenging and thrilling, and our Absolut Festival Gallery and exhibitions in 2011 and 2012 had a huge impact on Galway. I also love to see audiences satisfied; they are always foremost in our minds when planning the festival, so seeing them smile is joyous.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a festival director?

It is always a challenge delivering a festival. Resources are always limited. Cultural infrastructure in Galway is limited and 35 years later our two biggest venues are temporary – a tent in a field with no electricity or running water, which becomes our gorgeous Festival Big Top, and an imagined space in our heads, which we hope will become an amazing art gallery. Delivering both of these is a big challenge and that is before we programme them.

Galway Arts Festival runs from July 15th to 28th

Marie McPartlin
Director of Kinsale Arts Festival

What is your favourite festival?

There’s a festival called All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK which I love and is sadly taking place for the last time this year. Each one is curated by a different musician or band, and they programme their favourite artists. It’s been accurately called “the ultimate mix-tape”. When it started, it was such an original idea, and it’s a format that’s influenced a lot of promoters and curators since. It takes place in a holiday resort so you stay in a chalet with your friends. Even the stations are curated. I love the attention to detail.

What is the most important aspect of running a festival?

Knowing your audience is important, but so is a sense of adventure. You shouldn’t exclusively cater to people’s expectations. The economics of running a multi-event festival can be complex, but a good programme should introduce people to new artists and new ideas, and challenge as much as it entertains. Discovering something you love that you didn’t know existed before is one of the true joys of the festival experience and is why festivals remain integral for developing new audiences for the arts.

What has been your favourite festival moment?

We have an exhibition called Now Wakes the Sea that was an open call for emerging visual artists. Seeing that up and public-ready has been one of my favourite moments so far.

Supporting emerging artists across the art forms is important to me as a programmer, and bringing that project together was a real labour of love. I got to work with some great people on the selection, and there’s some brilliant work in there. We expect big things from some of those artists in the future.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a festival director?

Touch wood, there’s been no major disasters so far, but perhaps ask me in a week when we’re on the home straight. In a seaside town like Kinsale, the weather is always a challenge. But more so for us is the lack of any real arts space, concert venue or theatre. Attempts to address this in the past have included outdoor concerts in a fort and a deflating inflatable pop-up venue, with varying levels of success. You have to get creative with what the town has to offer.

Kinsale Arts Festival runs until Sunday

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