Mention Penang to any Singaporean and the first thing they'll bring up is the Malaysian state's seemingly endless list of mouthwatering local delicacies and eateries. In the last few years though, the conversation has grown to include feasting of another kind: For the eyes, mind and soul, thanks to Penang's burgeoning art scene. The event largely responsible for this exciting new narrative is the annual George Town Festival (GTF), started in 2010 to commemorate George Town's appointment of a UNESCO World Heritage site status. It's since become an international showcase of art and culture, and a mainstay arts event for the region.
The month-long festival invites artists from diverse fields to use George Town's charming streets and its many heritage sites as a giant canvas. From street art and theatre to dance and puppetry, there are over a hundred performances to catch. Most of the programme highlights are held over the weekends to accommodate for more visitors from home and abroad. Now in its seventh year, George Town Festival continues to host a good mix of award-winning international productions of varying scales as well as works by the spirited arts community, who includes members both born on the island as well as those who have adopted Penang as their creative home.
The one name that is synonymous with George Town Festival since its inception is that of Festival Director, Joe Sidek. We speak to him about what it takes to grow a successful arts festival, what makes Penang so unique and the performances he's most looking forward to this year.
You've been leading the charge for George Town Festival (GTF) for the last seven years. What does it take to run a successful festival?
Two tonnes of patience and a pinch of madness. Every year, managing GTF is the most difficult and enjoyable journey of my life. I've never found so much happiness in discovering new things, working on new things, meeting new people and finding staff that are brilliant... I've been very lucky with people.
My passion is people. I love the creative side, I can't deny that. But over the years, I have discovered that the nicest thing GTF has given me is connecting with people. And that's the most important thing about a successful festival. Whether it's the artists, your staff or the people who see the festival, everyone needs to feel included and welcome.
With a festival of this magnitude, you can never predict the challenges that are going to crop up at the last minute. It's all about dreaming big, but taking responsibility for turning these dreams into reality.
The lineup this year looks great. How do you go about deciding on who to feature?
I think 2016's lineup is our most exciting one yet — the universe keeps sending me ideas! We have the Strandbeests coming in, the revival of world-renowned dancer Akram Khan's first full-length show, Kaash, making its Southeast Asian premiere; our commissioned show and there is also this unknown French artist, Matthieu Robert-Ortis, who creates the most intriguing wire sculptures that morph into different animals depending on which angle you look at. One of his recently shared videos on Facebook received 80 million views!
How do you strike a balance between promoting locally based talent and foreign acts?
I don't pick programmes based on whether they are produced by locals or internationals. Most people here don't get a chance to watch world class acts. Which was why, for the first few years, I wanted to instigate the locals to be inspired by watching international shows at affordable prices. I believe that we are almost ready, and am very proud to be supporting Moved by Padi this year. I also hope to be able to commission another local show that can be brought on tour around the world.
GTF has grown substantially year after year. What are your ambitions for the festival?
I'd really like to develop the festival's identity as a connected festival with links to other regional fairs such as Spotlight Hong Kong. We signed a partnership with the Adelaide Festival last year so I hope we can partner more events with them next year. We launched the A+SEAN showcase this year to play a larger role in integrating the ASEAN collective.
We have always given out community tickets because to me, the festival isn't only about the arts, it's about humanity. It's about meaning something to ordinary people and the role that art is able to play in improving the local and regional community.
This year, we have formalised our efforts to launch the Arts for Humanity project, where we will crowdfund our initiatives. It's difficult to get funding from corporates, but it's a lot easier for someone out there who believes in what we are doing to give us USD 1 each. It's definitely going to be a journey, but if we don't take baby steps we'll never know.
Is there anything you would have done differently with hindsight?
Lots, but I look ahead instead of behind.
What have been your proudest achievements so far?
Being able to make an impact on the lives of everyday people, I would say. When ordinary people step up and thank me for the shows — it's like a drug! We had a show called 100% Penang last year where a hundred, ordinary Penangites went on-stage and shared their thoughts on everything from politics to same sex marriages. It wasn't even a political show, just a platform that gave the citizens a voice, which was very empowering. Someone introduced this word to me recently, "ubuntu". It means I'm happy when I make you happy and it describes me perfectly.
What are the five acts you're most personally most excited about this 2016?
1. Triptyque, by Les 7 doigts de la main, which combines circus acrobatics and contemporary dance. Its cast has performed at the Academy Awards in 2012 as well as the Sochi Olympic Games.
2. Missing, by UK-based physical dance theatre company Gecko, a deliciously warped journey into the human psyche via a series of images, choreography and a multilingual vocal landscape.
3. Kaash (If only, in Hindi) is by Akram Khan productions and is a bold combination of contemporary dance with the Indian classical dance form 'kathak' that explores themes like Hindu gods, black holes, Indian time cycles and the very nature of creation and destruction.
4. Moved by Padi, spearheaded by Aida Redza, Malaysia's leading choreographer and dancer, is a site-specific multi-arts collaboration at a paddy field that will be grown specifically for this in the middle of town.
5. Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, a commissioned work by Singaporean husband-and-wife team, Lim Yu-Beng and Tan Kheng Hua, who have written and produced a site specific production at the renowned Eastern & Oriental Hotel in George Town.
Which Penang artists need to be on our radar?
Visual artist, Ch'ng Kiah Kiean and performing artist, Aida Redza.
What do you think makes GTF such a unique event and why should people travel to see it?
George Town Festival is ambitious in its head, but connected to our roots at the same time. Since its inception, the festival has managed to attract some of the best internationally acclaimed acts, while inspiring and providing a platform to unique local talents.
We believe in the importance of telling stories. The city itself turns into a giant canvas for a month in August, inviting locals and foreigners to soak in some culture and perhaps get inspired to create art themselves. It is this combination of international and local that makes the George Town Festival a truly unique treat that should not be missed. Moreover, the festival has as its core philosophy the wish to promote arts and culture in the local community. That's why, the tickets are affordably priced. Where else can you see an award-winning international show for as low as USD 10?