Irish festival fixer Fergus Linehan’s first crack at Edinburgh

Linehan has built an unusual career as a festival director, but he had to be persuaded to take on the Edinburgh International Festival – the ‘grandaddy of them all’ – so soon

Fergus Linehan announcing his first festival programme as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Fergus Linehan announcing his first festival programme as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

 

‘I tried to stop,” says Fergus Linehan, “and I failed.” He says it like a man finally owning up to a compulsion. He is speaking about the business of directing an international festival, a relatively difficult habit to acquire and a trickier one to maintain.

In August, he will present his first programme as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, “the grandaddy of them all”, as Anne Clarke, his long-time colleague, puts it.

That should count as the apex of any festival director’s career (if you could consider being a festival director a kind of career).

“The arts used to be one of the few places where people who didn’t absolutely fit into the straight and narrow of life could go,” says Linehan, a trim figure in jeans and a T-shirt, unlikely to strike anybody as a misfit. “That’s not the case any more. There was a certain type of person who became a festival director: someone who might be a little bit mysterious, who sat on the job for ages. It was something you did at the end of your career or just for a while, and then went back and did something normal.”

Linehan’s has been an unusually consistent progression, perhaps because he started so early. He took the reins of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1999, at the age of 29, having served first as its general manager and then deputy director. In 2004 he left Dublin to head the interdisciplinary Sydney Arts Festival from 2006 to 2009.

Both were transformed during his tenures. The DTF had been a sprawling event of up to 40 or 50 productions, which he distilled into a more concentrated festival of 15 or so productions. If Sydney’s summer festival had expectations of light fare for a party city, Linehan sought a blend between fun and artistic credibility, something he was prepared for by an upbringing where vaudeville and high seriousness never felt mutually exclusive.

 

A canny operator

He’s a canny operator, working to understand the architecture of each festival before rebuilding it. “I always start by being really honest about what a festival is, and what it isn’t,” he says. The next step “is to be really honest about the infrastructure you’re working with and the expectations around it. You programme into the environment, both in terms of the cities and the venues you’re working with.”

Where does that leave Edinburgh International Festival, which, now in its 68th year, has never seemed like an organisation in a hurry to change? It was founded in 1946, in the aftermath of the second World War, to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”, and it is an august festival, famed for classical art forms, which stands quite aloof from the wilder, erratic and more vast Edinburgh Fringe.

Linehan’s programme has already made some significant departures and refinements. He moved the dates of the festival, so that its three weeks now overlap with Edinburgh’s concurrent fringe, film and book festivals. It always struck him that Edinburgh’s audiences, keen for music and theatre, were not equally served; that while such heavy hitters as conductor Claudio Abbado would grace the Usher Hall, theatre equivalents such as Peter Brook or Deborah Warner were absent.

This year’s theatre programme, with work from Simon McBurney’s Complicite, Robert Lepage and Ivo van Hove, seems like a statement of intent. The festival’s very invested music audience might hope to see virtuoso violinist Mitsuko Uchida performing Schubert and Beethoven, the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mozart or the San Francisco Symphony performing Mahler and Tchaikovsky in the programme.

However, for the first time, they can see pop music in the shape of art rock from Sufjan Stevens; and Franz Ferdinand’s collaboration with Sparks, FFS. “Pop and rock are within people’s cultural reference,” Linehan told the Guardian in March. “We’re the last cabs off the rank in this.”

Now he sounds more cautious. “It’s not about trying to please everybody,” he says, “it’s about trying to hold an alliance together in a way that you find satisfying.In popular music, I deliberately tried to programme things that would not overwhelm the rest of the festival. Does it work or does it compete?”

In another exploration, Linehan has extended the runs of a few shows, so audiences can still catch the previous week’s hit in a festival that has previously favoured early bookers. “People naysay with such passion,” he says of making such changes. “Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong.” We will wait and see.

Linehan is in Dublin to present his programme, one that includes two musical projects from Ireland. The first is The Last Hotel, a new opera from playwright Enda Walsh and composer Donnacha Dennehy, co-produced by Landmark and Wide Open Opera.

The second is Celtic Dialogues, an exploration of the origins of Scottish and Irish folk music led by Irish violinist Martin Hayes and Catalan viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall. (The project was initiated by Kilkenny Arts Festival’s Eugene Downes, who also presents it at his festival.) The Dublin launch had a dual purpose – to promote the festival to Irish visitors and to acknowledge Culture Ireland’s assistance – but it was also a homecoming.

Seeing several familiar faces in the bright and ornate function room of the National Concert Hall, Linehan says: “This is really like looking at a synopsis of my career.” Present are Anne Clarke and Michael Colgan, with whom he first worked as a teenager at the Gate. Jim Culleton is expected, a co-founder of Pigsback, the precursor to Fishamble. Tony O Dalaigh, his one-time boss at Dublin Theatre Festival, is typically already conducting business, booking tickets on behalf of a group of visitors.

 

A fascinating time

“It’s a really fascinating time to lead the Edinburgh International Festival,” Linehan tells the gathering. “It’s an event that was founded to rebuild a sense of community, shared heritage and humanity immediately after the second World War. It’s always been understood by the people of Edinburgh to be an international organisation. In that sense it celebrates and investigates what it means to be an Edinburgher, to be Scottish, to be British, to be European and then to be a citizen of the world.”

Despite his professed reticence, such festivals of flux – always evolving, questioning, reaching out internationally – seem to be where Linehan is most at home. After Sydney, he decided he didn’t want to run another festival and focused solely on programming, first as head of contemporary music at Sydney Opera House, then by setting himself up as a sort of freelance cultural scout.

His company, Warehouse Arts, provided artistic programmes to a range of arts organisations. He also held an advisory role to the Edinburgh festival while living in London and once maintained an evocatively named Tumblr account called Festival Truffle Pig (now sadly defunct).

When he was approached to direct Edinburgh, arguably the most respected arts festival in the world, he initially demurred.

“Maybe in five years I’d like to do this,” he thought. He was reminded that some previous directors had held the position for as long 16 years. “So I absolutely had to go for it. For 20 years I’d been going to the festival,” he says. “If, for 20 years, you’ve been sitting in those bars giving off about things, you kind of realise, ‘Well if I don’t give it a go, I’ll have no right to give out’.”

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