Festival director in search of space

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Jonathan Holloway has moved from the National Theatre to become the new director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Shaun Lowthorpe spoke to him about his plans.


It's been a hectic week. Sponsors to talk to, the great and the good to meet and greet, and not least of all a festival to organise. And now, almost pausing for breath, Jonathan Holloway sits in the comfy brown leather sofa at the Playhouse in Norwich and sets out his vision for the future.

His hands fly in all directions and you sense the excitement he feels as the curtain rises on his tenure as the Norfolk and Norwich Festival's new director.

Most of all he thinks about space – and how to fill it with performers and artists during 11 days in May.

At the National Theatre he worked alongside Trevor Nunn and his successor Nicholas Hytner running the events department for seven years.

The role saw him in charge of organising the 10-week Watch This Space festival where he tried to put on shows in unusual venues and make the most of open spaces for crowds of thousands down to two.

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It is an approach he hopes to build on in Norfolk.

"I really want to find spaces in the county and the city which people do not think about," he explains. "Every time I look at a space I can think of the events that we could perform. I walk around the Cathedral Close and I know there is a company from France that performs the story of Faust at night, which would be absolutely beautiful.

"It would be great to present something at the Hippodrome in Yarmouth, it's a stunning space. And it would be great to work in a disused site in North Norfolk and find places which will draw people in."

Moving from the capital to succeed Peter Bolton, the 34-year-old is convinced he has a sound foundation to build on.

"It's been very much a music festival with excursions into dance and comedy over the past two years," he says. "One of my passions is the theatre side and I would like to try and expand that side working with the Theatre Royal and the Playhouse, who already do tremendous work.

"Norwich has got everything Edinburgh has in terms of the spaces and I find it terribly seductive.

"The template is there and that has been built up by the previous directors and festival team."

Before arriving at the National he was a resident director at the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell, Berkshire, working as Jack Holloway to avoid confusion with another director who shares his name.

A former chorister at Sheffield he decided on a career in the arts as a teenager and left Exeter University with a degree in drama.

But he is looking forward to the new challenges after moving from the National.

"They were so good at what they do you just have to be on top form all the time," he says of Nunn and Hytner.

"Everybody at the National is a specialist. If you've got a prop that needs making it will be made by the best prop maker in the world.

"But I have a sense that if you took away any festival in London it doesn't matter. London is vastly overrated and everybody thinks if it is in London, it must be worthwhile. But most of the great festivals are outside London in places like Leeds, Nottingham and Bristol.

So what should we expect next year?

"Talks are ongoing with the Britten Sinfonia, the Tallis Scholars, and City of London Sinfonia," he confides. "But we are also in talks with a lot of other companies and artists.

"One of the things we hope to do is an outside performance of the Magic Flute. It's by Les Grooms in France. It's an absolutely beautiful production and the audience moves from site to site. It will bring people to opera who have never seen opera.

"I'm also in conversation with a French company who have a large show involving 15 drummers and a crane which goes up above the audience.

"If we can find the money to do that it will double the audience of the festival overnight!"

While a sponsorship deal with railway company 'one' is in the pipeline, raising the funds to meet his ambitions will be key to the festival's success.

"The difficulty is that it costs money and finding the sponsors willing to sponsor work they haven't seen before is difficult, but it's looking promising.

"If this is a world class festival, the work must be first class," he insists. "It should be a place where international artists and performers go and professionals are travelling to see the work."

He also wants to create a buzz around the festival and persuade everybody in the county that it's an event for them.

Things are largely in place for 2005, but he feels that in two years' time he will have a blank canvas from which to work.

"My sense is that 2006 will really feel very different," he adds. "What a festival should do is say 'this is the place to be and this is the time to be here'".

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