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A 21st century festival for a 21st century city

The country’s oldest arts festival, the Perth International Arts Festival, is celebrating its distinguished 60-year history in 2012. Taking the reins for the first time in this auspicious year is British born Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway. If you think that the milestone would intimidate him, you’d be wrong. And boy does he have big plans.
A 21st century festival for a 21st century city
The country’s oldest celebration of the arts, the Perth International Arts Festival, is celebrating its distinguished 60-year history in 2012. Taking the reins for the first time in this auspicious year is British born Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway. If you think that the milestone would intimidate him, you’d be wrong. “I think it’s probably easier than a non-milestone year because there’s a focus to it,” he explains to us over the phone from the Western Australia capital. There’s no flippancy in his comment, it’s just that coming from the UK, Holloway is no stranger to heritage. “The Festival I ran in the UK for six years was 238 years old when I left,” he says. The festival in question – the Norfolk & Norwich Festival – became Britain’s fourth largest city arts festival under Holloway’s stewardship. Holloway has his own dignified past in the arts industry. Aside from helming the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, he’s also worked on as the Creative Director of Elemental, a large scale theatre and musical spectacle at Chalon-sur-Saone festival in France. Before that, he had a successful career in theatre and from 1997-2004 he established and nurtured the National Theatre’s events department on London’s South Bank. His involvement in the arts seemed preordained. The son of a music journalist, Holloway commenced his career as a kid, “going to concerts” with his father before returning to the newsroom to “watch him write the review in the office.” While many of us visit our parents at work, we don’t always follow them into a particular career. So we inquired just what it was that made Holloway undertake employment in the industry. “It was the absolute pleasure of the music and the extraordinariness of the great performances,” he enthuses. “And not only watching it, but being part of it and just that sense of complete transcendence you can create with extraordinary art.” More than just the performance, Holloway is incredibly passionate about the ability of the arts “to raise the spirits and focus the mind”. According to the Brit, it’s the craft, inclusiveness and participatory nature of the industry that also lends the arts the ability to evoke inspiration. “I loved… the fact that the performance didn’t finish when the applause ended, that people were going away to write reviews and tell their friends or going away to think about it and that some people were going away just to rehearse for the next day,” he exclaims excitedly. “That idea that there’s so much more than you see, that people are working incredibly hard so that you get that one hour of exquisite performance… that’s when I realised the power of the arts to change and transform and uplift the world.” And it’s through his work with the Perth Festival that Holloway aims to implement his transformative vision of the arts. In the years up until 2015, it’s Holloway’s intention to take the festival “to the next level.” “Having nailed the essence of the 20th century festival in the past 59 years,” he explains, this year the event will be “exploring what it means to be a 21st century festival in a 21st century city." What he hopes to disrupt is what he sees as a “binary state, an analogue element” in the arts that signifies the past rather than the future. “Twenty years ago everyone turned up at 7.30, they saw the show and went home – word of mouth was how they communicated,” he tells us. Now there’s a digital element, “everyone is a published writer with Twitter and Facebook and social media, so people respond instantly to what you’re doing – as a festival you then need the ability to reply and respond.” This immediacy and connection has changed the way that festivals operate. The boundaries between organisers and audiences are slowly disintegrating, which according to Holloway makes the festival “a conversation [that requires] a circular programming method rather than a linear programming method.” “It’s about people being involved and engaged,” he explains. “It’s about communities and professional artists coming together to make their own festival”. In the 2012 edition of the Perth Festival there are “around 1000” people from the state performing within the festival, working alongside international artists to recreate and rework performances and exhibits to craft a program that’s specifically Western Australian. And it’s Perth itself that will define that progressive notion. “I’ve been fascinated [by] what it means to be closer to Asia than the east coast of Australia,” he muses thoughtfully, “and closer to Asia than Europe or the US, that sense of proximity to one of the fastest growing regions of the world and what it means to be incredibly remote yet tremendously connected to that part of the world.” Part of Holloway’s attempt to achieve greater collaboration between the festival and the community is implemented through a new program called Vital Stages. “It’s about making sure that the art that we bring and the companies we employ to come have a connection with WA professional arts,” he says. Holloway also tells us how when booking acts, he’s been asking every company, “What can you do that will involve the people of WA, the artists and practitioners and young people and future artists?” What you’ll notice when browsing the program, is the incredible amount of workshops and artist talks. It’s this connection that helps refine the assertion that the Perth Festival will be a 21st century affair. “You don’t just want a festival of arts were you just have international stars coming in and doing shows and leaving,” he says. Having a connection is “a 21st century idea.” The experience is “more than just a performance, it’s more what happens before and after you see a performance,” an idea which indicates the influence of Holloway’s upbringing and his perception of the arts. This extended association, as Holloway mentioned previously, and the collaborative nature of the industry is what revealed to him the transformative aspects of the arts. The workings behind the scenes, the extended community and the interaction with the public are “what it’s all about.” That power inherent in the arts “seemed as important as medicine or sports or politics,” quite a lofty idea that he clarifies. “You can’t cure major diseases in the arts” but eventually, “somebody will, a doctor will or a scientist will and I’m guessing that at the weekends they’re going to the theatre, and they’re reading books at night that relax and inspire them, and they listen to music when they hit that wall and don’t know where to go next.” “The answer is that the arts are part of something – yes we can’t cure an incurable disease, but what we can do is lift the soul and spirit up of the people who are going to do that,” he tells us. “I accept that’s incredibly grand but it’s something that we can aspire for and aim for – that level of importance,” Holloway pronounces. “Our job is to be part of society, not necessarily where we can save lives but we can make lives worth saving.” For full details head to the Perth Festival website and don’t forget to check out our Perth Festival minisite. http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/news/arts/death-cab-for-cutie-sideshows-announced-187158

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