An insider’s guide to the George Town Festival
As the famous festival’s copywriter this year, Kat Fatland is uniquely placed to give us an inside peek into the event’s past and its plans for this year
Headed into its sixth year, Penang’s George Town Festival (GTF) has never looked better or brighter. For the entire month of August, the rapidly growing event will make its annual return with its tried-and-true blend of local and global flavours. This year, Penang’s own citizens will take to the stage for a performance that shines the spotlight on their very own lives and lifestyles, and artists from all over the world will visit the mainland for the first time for the inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival. As usual, thousands of visitors and locals alike can rejoice in what this special event is all about: The unique sense of place that makes George Town so special to all of us lucky enough to have walked its streets.
The GTF has seen exponential growth since its inauguration in 2010, when just under 100,000 people attended the 54 scheduled events held. As the festival slowly began to receive international attention, audience numbers started to rise. By 2014 attendance more than doubled its debut run. Suddenly, GTF had become a real player in the international arts and culture scene, with newspapers such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera all suggesting that this was an event to keep an eye on.
While GTF continues to grow and mature into a premier Asian arts event, its vision has remained surprisingly clear: The festival has always sought to promote and showcase the city of George Town as a vibrant, cosmopolitan cityscape ready to own the spotlight on a global stage. During festival month, the city itself – with its vibrant community and colourful architecture – becomes a central event. Street festivals, complete with food vendors, dancers and artisans and not to mention the huge throngs of festivalgoers eager to take it all in, emphasise George Town’s unique sense of place. Art installations, like 2013’s ‘101 Lost Kittens’ which featured 101 paintings, sculptures and sketches of cats all around the city, invite
There’s a lot of pride in working for an organisation that’s doing so much to promote the arts in my hometown
locals and visitors to actively engage with George Town’s streets, nooks and crannies as well as the art itself. This is just one of the ways in which the festival puts its audience first. Another way the festival prioritised its audience was in 2014, when just 48 out of the 156 events were ticketed with the remaining 108 being completely free of charge.
Performances featuring Malaysian talent often provide locals a chance to reconnect with their culture: In 2012, the festival commissioned ‘Silat – Our Heritage for the World’ by Malaysian director Saw Teong Hin, for the opening gala. Hundreds of audience members were reintroduced to one of Malaysia’s most majestic and ancient traditions – silat, a form of martial arts that has been practiced by Malay warriors for over 2,000 years. The following year, the festival showcased ‘Arus Melayu’, a two-day event focused on exploring the complexity of the word ‘Melayu’ through language, literature, music, maps and more.
The festival’s focus on the city of George Town, and the greater culture of Malaysia, reflects the fact that it was first conceived as a celebration of George Town’s
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2015/16 Unesco World Heritage status. During the festival’s short history, Malaysian performers and artists have made up the majority of the festival’s events and programmes. However, GTF has also included an impressive number of international performers, and this number continues to grow. In a way, this too is a celebration of George Town’s heritage. Since its founding as a British colony in 1786, Penang has seen a continuous influx of international influences – traders and migrants coming upon its shores from all over the globe to enjoy its strategic location between the trading powerhouses of China and India. The GTF’s commitment to bringing dance and theatre performances from all over the globe is an appreciation of the island’s rich international history.
Joe Sidek, festival Managing Director since the beginning and mastermind behind its growth and success, is well aware of the importance of finding the right balance between local and international, grassroots and global. Mr Sidek worked for many years in the textile industry, but has always had a passion for everything related to arts, culture and heritage. It is because of his role as one of the city’s strongest advocates that the government approached him in 2010 to coordinate the first festival. ‘I never studied or received any training on how to curate or organise a festival,’ he comments, which is perhaps why GTF has such a refreshingly unique identity as an event by and for the people. ‘I approach my role at the festival as a community member who has created a people-driven festival – and I want to invite people to experience that sense of community.’
He sees the festival as a way to bring international recognition to the city he feels so passionate about,
I am drawn
towards performers who are interested in reinterpreting their traditions …elevating them into something
as well as an opportunity to educate and inspire the local public and to increase their awareness and appreciation for global art forms. ‘From the very beginning, I knew we would need to build both a platform and an audience who would be interested in seeing these fascinating international arts and theatre performances,’ Mr Sidek says. ‘I am particularly interested in fostering a culture of appreciation among the younger generation of Penangites who are still getting acquainted with what they like and what interests them.’
If his staff is any indication, Mr Sidek’s wish to inspire the younger population has been a success. The GTF office is full of twenty-something Penangites who have chosen to stay local because they feel as passionate as their boss about promoting the arts. Media and PR Assistant Tay Yi Lin recently moved back to Penang from Northern Ireland to work for the festival. ‘This is the biggest arts event in Penang, and maybe the whole of Malaysia. There’s a lot of pride in working for an organisation that’s doing so much to promote the arts in my hometown,’ she says. ‘The festival provides a place for locals to be involved in arts and culture. Being on staff here makes me feel like I am contributing to something big.’ Carey Ooi recently returned from working in Perth and Singapore to take on a public relations role in the festival. ‘There’s a really great energy in the office every day – every person on our team loves this festival, and feels passionate about working towards something that’s bigger than us,’ she comments. Then there’s the multitude of volunteers that come on board every year in numbers that continue to dramatically increase. From 2013 to 2014, volunteer numbers grew by 30 percent – an indication that local enthusiasm is skyrocketing as quickly as the festival itself.
Armed with an increasingly inspired community and a platoon of eager staff headed by a tireless director, George Town Festival 2015 is slated to be the brightest yet. Many of this year’s artists come from distinct cultures with vibrant histories, and their performances and exhibitions call attention to these identities while also reshaping them into something new and exciting. Highlights include several performances that offer a new twist on tradition. ‘It’s very hard to keep traditional art forms alive,’ says Mr Sidek. ‘I am drawn towards performers who are interested in reinterpreting their traditions in a way that is meaningful for a contemporary audience – elevating them into something thrilling.’
The all-male dance troupe of Spain’s ‘Titanium’ will combine their ancient flamenco heritage with modern forms of hip hop and break dancing, seamlessly blending the old with the new. Berlin art collective Rimini Protokoll’s ‘100% Penang’ will gather 100 Penang citizens to form a human pie chart on stage, with each individual representing one percent of the city’s population. They will answer questions and share their stories, giving the audience an intimate and tangible view into the living community of George Town. As in previous years, the festival will head to the streets with a day-long celebration of Malaysian culture, aptly named ‘ATM @ Beach Street’, or ‘All Things Malaysian’. The inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival will ferry GTF across the Straits and to the mainland with exhibitions, workshops and pop-up cafés exclusive to Butterworth.
With a strong sense of purpose, a tireless commitment to the city and its inhabitants, and a passionate group of young people working for the best possible results, the GTF can only get better. The world is only just beginning to see what the city is all about – and all it has to offer.