On Festivals

Speech, Edinburgh Festival

"Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it's made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail."

So says the young architect Howard Roark in his rebuke to the Dean of his Faculty at the fictional School of Architecture created by Ayn Rand.
After 'The Fountainhead' was published it became a kind of a cult book. I don't remember when I first read it, or how often I reread it. There certainly was a time when I secretly dreamed of being Howard Roark, but as I matured, I also learned to express and live with my own standards. The quote simply serves to underscore the values which drew me repeatedly into that novel. Or, as Roark explains further on in the book, "What you feel in the presence of something you admire is just one word: Yes."

Roark's obsession was architecture. Acting on what he believed resulted in his instant banishment from the Academy. My obsession is theatre, and my first real ideas about it came when I was a student at Bristol University. Formally I was there to specialize in such worthy areas as economics and philosophy, with Spanish and German thrown in for good measure. But I spent my time at the Bristol Old Vic, the University Drama Department, the Student Drama Society and, finally, in acting as the public relations officer of the Sunday Times' National Union of Students Drama Festival. That job was certainly a festive end to my stay at that school. I was unable to express my views with Roark's clarity then, but the result was the same. I was kindly asked to vacate my position at Bristol University so a more promising British student might take my place. I hope that's what happened.
At any rate, the NUS was the first drama festival I experienced to the bursting point. That was in the mid-fifties, and I've been part of or a spectator of a range of festivals since then, perhaps a hundred or more. And, don't worry, I won't describe them all to you now.

When we look at festivals, when we're part of them -- either the making or the witnessing -- we too easily recognize them as repetitive structures, rather than as maximum efforts to achieve a unified ideal.
There are interesting dangers lurking around the corner. I don't think I would have been able to articulate them, had I not taken a number of DasArts students and staff to Wales to attend a conference last year. The conference was entitled 'Performance, Identity and Tourism', and was organized by the Centre for Performance Research, which is run by Richard Gough.
Before I go any further I should perhaps explain that three years ago I was commissioned by the joint Ministries of Culture and Education to develop an international post graduate drama training program in Amsterdam which I now direct. The school is called DasArts, and it offers training to directors, choreographers, set designers, and mime artists.
So a large group of us went to Wales, and almost before we knew what was happening, we'd been cast in the role of tourist and were henceforth treated as such. The conference moved all over Wales. We visited historical sites, beauty spots, lectures, parks, lecture demonstrations, and site specific performances. We were guided from place to place by tourist guides -- not real tourist guides, but people who were performing that function -- and they made sure that we swallowed our individuality entire, and generally treated us like the cattle we had become, or the nitwits we'd been cast as, or as a nice mixture of both. The conference was unique. The experience of it quite illuminating... also with reference to festivals of the future. Whatever festivals have come to look like in the course of this conference in Edinburgh, and with the exception of a lucky few, festivals will have ceased to exist as an identifiable activity in the near future.
Whatever a festival is will have been folded into a much larger marketing scheme. It will exist only as one function among many instruments which serve what is known as the Tourism and Heritage Industry.

With all due respect, the Edinburgh Festival is an example. It has built its own place in history, and is no longer something that can be thought of as good or bad, or as worse or better than it has been before. This festival is unstoppable in all its magnificence and glory, and you come to the Edinburgh Festival to participate in its latest version of itself. The yearly feast of creativity has more venues than can be visited, more spectacles than can be seen, more possibilities than can be chosen from: the combined force and energy of the official festival and its fringe can - and will - carry itself through until the end of time.
This is also the future, and it works. We're all here with hundreds of thousands of others. I don't think anybody has a choice in the matter any longer, when we consider a festival of this kind. It has a future because it exists. Because it's there.

Pride of program or ideological themes may still exist, but they will no longer be a matter of much consideration. We may not be particularly aware of this, but whatever is referred to as a festival is an activity that's been multiplied by the hundreds. Space to consider the ideology of origin is small, perhaps even nonexistent. Knowledge of the vital importance of questioning the festival's very existence will have disappeared. In all its splendor, the festival will have developed to further delight its public... as it was originally conceived, and no matter how the world, productions, art, or its makers have changed in the meantime.

But in terms of festivals in general, our commonality is expressed by the fact that we draw a crowd. And when we don't... we're out. We'll find ourselves in good company, alongside institutions formerly known as museums, concert halls, conference venues, and theaters, all joined in a theme park under varying names and titles. And, as co-initiator of the Centre for Performance Research, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes: "The tourism industry is a Business, and as far as the industry is concerned, culture is not."
Consider for a moment the monstrously hyped, managed, designed and marketed thing known as Year 2000. Among other things this will ring in the demise of anything individual. It will embrace everything that may be called 'arty' or cultural, never mind the quality of what it embraces... or quality's blatant absence.
Oh, I'm not talking about the disappearance of quality per se. Or of quality as an idea to be remembered and treasured for the fact that we've known it. Whatever artistic discipline we look at, quality will also exist in times to come. But we'll have to wade through an awful lot of crap to find it.
If we're willing to accept that the basic trend of the festival, in all of its manifestations, is slowly but surely blurring at the edges, it is easier to see why festivals are increasingly appropriated by the powers that be, rather than events which are thoughtfully argued by their makers.
In this process of examining festivals, has anyone come up with the question: WHY? Not why do festivals exist, filling the world with festivities in a profusion of shapes and forms. Rather, I ask this question: Why Do Another Festival? Why specifically here, or there... and for whom?

It's quite timely to consider reinventing the festival now.

In the course of this conference you will have been confronted with many aspects of past and present festival making, and many of those aspects may have tickled your fancy. But those aren't the key to the future. You are the key to the future. If there is a future for festivals, and of course there can be some form of individual future, it's really up to you. Only we must know that the rules of the game have been changed, largely without our knowledge or consent. We'll all have to apply our wits to attack the problem.

In June, I went to the Oerol Festival, now in it's fifteenth year. It's on the tiny island of Terschelling, just off the North end of the Dutch coast.
In the VIP train that started in Amsterdam to bring a group of 'cultural specialists' I sat opposite the French cultural attache to the Netherlands, GĂ©rald Drubigny. My French is reasonably bad so I was relieved and gratified when he addressed me in fluent Dutch. In rapid succession he was able to list some fifty events -- called festivals -- all taking place in the Netherlands. I'd never heard of them before, but he'd been to them all and even complimented the Netherlands for offering such a vast array of cultural goodies. Whether any of these 'festivals' would make the grade artistically, I have no way of knowing.
The point is that festivals have become a growth industry over the years. We're preoccupied with defining the best choices in theatre, dance, music, or whatever else we felt deserves our specialist critical interest and we've simply not noticed what was going on behind our backs. Culture, in whatever shape or form -- high art, low art and everything in between -- has become a tool of a whole new industry. The shift is almost complete. Performances, concerts and exhibitions are no longer specifically focused items on anyone's agenda; they've become elements in grand marketing strategies. And what can we do about that?

There are exceptions to this whole-sale enforced embrace by the Tourism and Heritage Industry. On the high end of the scale -- and it's the only one I'm able to identify -- there's the Salzburg Festspiele. Gerard Mortier, the festival's obnoxiously energetic and creatively intelligent director, could get beyond the fact of tourism because tourism was already so strongly in place. The heritage aspect was already heavily represented in the festival as he found it, and he could thus direct all his powers into transforming Von Karajan's personal monument and business into a living organism that functions on two levels. Mortier's found new ways of giving respected traditions a blood transfusion at the same time he's developed a vision for the future. He's executed that vision by challenging top artists and then supporting them up to the hilt. He does this with a degree of financial backing unheard of these days. (Should it be true that there are more budgets of the Festspiele's size out there, they're certainly not being spent with the same highly visible and ferocious focus.)
On the low end of the scale there's more hope for an identity to be expressed. Here energy, pigheadedness and perseverance can still be found for future expression. And, I remind you, you are the key to this.

The Oerol Festival gives some examples of how these questions are shaping now. At the same time it shows us the best of future festival potential, the elements for it's future demise are only too evident. And after fifteen years of existence it's reached a point where some serious decisions must be made.
Joop Mulder, the Director of the Oerol Festival, loves his island and its inhabitants. The festival was created for and with them. But the island had to develop industry to survive, so tourism became a major factor in the daily reality. Ever growing numbers of families schedule their yearly camping holiday so they may be in Terschelling at the same time as the festival takes place. They don't come because the festival gives them art (which it does). They come because it's fun.
The tourism and the art part are on the verge of fusing now. Mulder already calls the island "one of the best known stages in Europe", and there comes the rub. Should he continue in this direction, he'll loose all he had in spirit. It will become like any 'son et lumiere', a virtual reality of itself. And the islanders won't mind one way or another so long as trade continues to grow.

The yearly Victoria festival in Gent promises a future for itself in its periodic reinvention of its central idea. Dirk Pauwels, the festival director, is extremely aware of how success can kill. The work is site specific in the sense that it's site is not the beautiful city of Gent, but Gent's rich multicultural mix of inhabitants. Pauwels focuses on total informality combined with great generosity of spirit to stimulate the youngest generations to express their art, whatever that may look like. Atmospherically it combines the best I remember of Polverigi, or even the memory of Nancy as a meeting place for complicity.
Next year DasArts will, for the period of one block, move lock stock and barrel to Gent to work with the Victoria staff and Gent's population. Our students and mentors will work with them to try and redefine what Victoria (also) might be. In the autumn of '98 we've invited Michael Stolhofer, for 25 years director of Szene festival in Salzburg, to come work with DasArts students in an effort to redefine what a Szene program in 1999 might be. So -- quite aside from the fact that you are the key to remaking festivals for the future -- I've got a serious stake in what you or our DasArts students will come up with.

The small festival in Sibiu, Romania, might grow into something wonderful if it will realize that it's future does not lie in becoming world famous in Europe, but in concentrating on its own characteristics. It has student activity, site specificity, and an Eastern European tradition expressed by hosting and feeding a large numbers of guests. This way of operating is uniquely theirs. No western European festival is willing or able to do this on such a scale.
The eager curiosity of the locals to learn more about the outside world is almost more important than the theatrical events that are staged, and the festival is still an excuse for a meeting, rather than the focus of it.
Some DasArts staff and students were happy guests of Sibiu's most recent edition. I could smell new beginnings there, but its also possible to foresee dangers. At one hilarious dinner a number of Sibiu's western guests began a discussion of a theatrical theme park to exploit the possibilities evident in Dracula and Transylvania. It seemed natural enough to us, so natural, in fact, that it was a surprise that there were was no local mentions of the old legend. We couldn't even find a postcard.

Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblet has noted that, "Economies that have died stage their return as exhibitions of themselves as heritage. Heritage, the term and the concept, endows the dead and dying with a second life and an afterlife through the instruments of exhibition and performance, and in this sense, heritage productions are 'resurrection theatre'." She continues, "Heritage productions are defined by the value of 'pastness'. ... The value of pastness is not a value that can be assumed. Much that has passed is 'good riddance'. Pastness as a value has to be produced. It needs to be shown and performed which brings the value of exhibition to the fore -- castles, palaces, forts and mines must be endowed with exhibition value."
Not all concentration is on the past, of course. Kirshenblatt Gimblet has also identified a theme park in London's Gatwick airport. The brochure describes what's on offer: a tour through security and emergency facilities, a mock control tower where visitors can have a go at landing planes, and a 'white knuckle' ride through the replica of baggage handling systems. The very trials and tribulations of travel become an attraction in their own right.
These inventions and reinventions become the application of our fantasies and obsessions. They're a menace to festivals.... and to the future of festivals.

I don't offer the total demise of the idea of the festival as a threat. It's more of a promise, and it's something to be worked with rather than to be worked against.

And what, then, can we do?

As Howard Roark says, "Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it's made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail." He makes this statement within the first ten pages of the book. It sets forth the choices and the course Roark will take in his life... and the price he's willing to pay for them too.
Roark told his Dean, "Here are my rules. What can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike, no two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, and the material determine the shape."
If we internalize that idea, then we can save festivals in the future.

Consider some examples.
Los Angeles hosted two different kinds of festivals. In both cases, the first was followed by a second, and only the first of either version really worked.
Robert Fitzpatrick's first festival had the impetus of the LA Summer Olympics. He was able to arrange a world first by inviting the creme de la creme all the known creators of European theatre to be in one place at one time. Never before, and probably never again have all these artists been presented together in one festival. And without the Olympics as its incongruous backdrop, it seems unlikely that the fundraising for this festival could ever have been possible. Peter Sellars and his crew arranged something quite different. Europe was conspicuously absent; instead they selected work from what's known as the Pacific Rim.
Writing about this festival in her book 'Destination Culture', Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett asked: "How has the avant-garde prepared audiences to watch and value what they do not know how to react to?" She answers this question by observing: "The Los Angeles Festival located authenticity in a moment of reception, rather than in the performances themselves. ...By restaging as art what might otherwise be treated as ethnographic, the festival made possible the reception of Javanese court dance and gospel choirs as if they had emanated from the avant-garde itself."
Three hundred presentations were spread all over the city of Los Angeles: Sellars said he wished to show the citizens of the city their town, and that's what he accomplished: people were seduced into visiting neighborhoods they'd never dared to visit before, even if they'd known of them. Some fifty different cultures were represented, and whenever possible, each of these cultural manifestations were shared with their expatriate community in LA.

We must treasure the knowledge that both of these festivals existed, but neither of them provides a platform for the future. It would be impossible to remake them now, even if the money were there.... and it isn't. They were created in their own time and under the conditions that were right for them. In spite of the fact that their format cannot be copied, we may be inspired by them both.

I ran Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam for twenty-five years. Mickery could not exist now, and could not be remade now, but neither could it have existed as long as it did were it not for the fact that every time we had a whiff of success, I chose to reinvent the genre. I understand very well just how easy and seductive it can be to decide not to tinker with success when you hit a point where -- by God -- things work. (How does the saying go? if it ain't broke, don't fix it?) But every time Mickery hit that point, I deliberately chose to break it so it would have to be 'fixed' all over again. Those points where things 'worked' made me restless and suspicious, and reinventing the wheel came naturally to me, however little it may have appeared to need that. And it worked for Mickery. In retrospect I think this worked because success is never a static quality. Success is like a theatre production. A production exists in the moment you see it, and you'll never see that particular expression of that particular production again. What works in this moment, for this audience, with these players in that condition can never be recreated in the same way. Any form of success is of a moment. With an old and assumed format, it may grow. It will more easily wither and die.

Should your interest favor creating gems rather than circuses -- and don't misunderstand, there are gems of circuses too -- and you're willing to accept the premise that whatever you create will require reinvention the moment you've finished the latest manifestation... then the sky really is the limit. Which can be both terrifying and exhilarating.
When Peter Sellars and his artistic crew settled in LA, they already had a pretty good idea what their program would be, and they believed they'd be able to announce the program within a matter of days. Believe me, what they had at that point would have been a completely successful high caliber program. But the reality of Los Angeles hit them, was looked at, listened to and researched further. With the result that the concept they had became an impossibility. That's when the real work began, and that's how a unique festival was made.

I mentioned this before, but it's important enough to repeat. That LA Festival was also unique because there can never be a copy of it. Copying another's successful format a recipe for disaster. This goes hand in hand with reinvention of one's own format... which is vital enough. Making a pale carbon copy (even the technology is old and weak now!) will also deprive you, the festival maker, of essential opportunities to make the effort of understanding your own environment, and of generating your own analysis of the reality of your specific situation.

Over the last few days you've been inventorizing festivals as they are known in the Western world. Perhaps you've discovered that you like aspects of various formats, dislike others, and find a few ideas you might even be able to apply in another scheme. But I'd suggest that this process has more to do with marketing, and with positioning oneself within a context of what's available. It's good to know all this as background, but the real work starts elsewhere.

You may also consider using a festival format to do away with what you've been doing for the last quarter of a century. That's what I did with Touch Time, a ten day packed program which provided a dignified ending for Mickery at the same time it sowed seeds for a future. The program was designed to take place in a very specific area of Amsterdam: all central theatre spaces around the Municipal theatre in Amsterdam. It had a specific argument: to celebrate ideas and then get the hell out. It was made for a very specific time: the ending of Mickery. And the 'one-off-ness' of the occasion was very clearly built in. Although under other circumstances such a program would probably be suicidal, I'd like to think that Touch Time made a statement. Of course not everyone liked what Touch Time did or how it did it. Some hated it with a vengeance. That happens. A lot. It is unrealistic to make firm choices on the basis of your own vision of reality and then to expect that everyone agrees with you about it.

I've given you some examples of what are basically one-off festivals. I've suggested that I'm a firm believer in setting, executing and guarding one central theme. So far as the tourism, heritage, and city-marketing take-over is concerned, I've identified Mortier's festival as one which has gone beyond the problem, and I've touched on how a festival like Oerol is at the crossroads of its existence.
Aside from the money available to him, the greatest difference between the Salzburg Festspiele and the Oerol Festival is that in Salzburg tourism and heritage already had an enormous, not to say overwhelming presence in the city. Mortier has infused and challenged that tradition at the same time he has challenged the festival's traditional public. He's succeeded in incorporating the dangers and has managed to use them as tools to give his festival a provocative second life.
Oerol has a disadvantage in that the strength of its focus has developed parallel with the sorely needed Terschelling tourist industry. For Joop Mulder, the problem is to redefine the festival's roots and then expressing that. If he doesn't, Oerol will dissolve in the tourism industry.

At the moment we were engaged with it, our evening's brainstorm on the subject of Castle Dracula was simple fun with good friends. But for those equipped to undertake a project of some magnitude, that format might provide an exhilarating possibility to develop tourism and heritage in Romania, providing the local inhabitants would allow that. Such a project could also be quite exciting theatrically, theatre for fun, theatre with a twist.
But my heart lies in the direction of reinventing smaller units of artistry as exemplified by Victoria in Gent, by Polverigi in Italy, by what was the, now sadly defunct, festival in Murcia in Spain, or by the potential of Szene in Salzburg. Why else choose to work with Szene's director, who's struggling to determine the course of his festival in the shadow of its big uncle, the Festspiele. This is the direction that Sibiu might follow, if it's careful with its ambition, creating a time and a place to meet under stimulating circumstances, a place where we might be the best of ourselves, rather than the cattle we're willy-nilly programmed to be elsewhere.

It's necessary to be as personal about all this as you -- and as we -- can possibly be. You must be totally obsessed with your central idea. You must be well prepared. You must have done your homework and your background research. You have to be light on your feet and versatile. You need a strange mix of stamina and generosity. You must have the willingness to invest deeply in the creative talents you'll use to realize your idea of a festive meeting place. The locality and the local inhabitants must be incorporated so they feel a real 'pride of place' in your festival. Copy someone else's idea, and you're lost before you begin. Repeat yourself, and you're on extremely dangerous ground. And you absolutely must realize that only you can be the key to what you make.

Nobody, but NOBODY can tell you about the festival of the future. It won't exist if you yourself are not reinventing it.

Those of us who've been speakers in this conference are the Rabbits out of the A.A. Milne's story about the adventures of Winnie the Pooh. We're the self-appointed guides who are leading you, while we all walk together in a thick fog. We say we're taking you toward home, but in reality we're walking around and around a pit, and we're not getting you anywhere at all.
You must be the Winnie the Pooh of things. When Rabbit tells Pooh, "We'd better get on, I suppose, which way shall we try?" Pooh responds, "How would it be if as soon as we're out of sight of this Pit, we try to find it again?" To which the Rabbits of our time will of course grumpily mutter, "What's the good in that?" At which point Pooh -- as befits a famous Bear of Little Brain -- mildly tells Rabbit, "Well... we keep looking for Home and not finding it. I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find that, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which just might be what we were looking for, really."

You're the key. Be Pooh. Forget about the Rabbit questions.


Edinburgh (UK)


Edinburgh festival