KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — The George Town Festival is back! The annual, month-long celebration of arts, culture, heritage and community is in its seventh year and promises more world-class performances, installations and collaborations from international and local artists.
Inaugurated in 2010 in honour of George Town’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the festival presents over one hundred unique events each year and draws thousands of visitors each year to Penang, according to Joe Sidek, the festival organiser.
“George Town Festival has always been about people,” says Joe. “It’s the humanity that surrounds us that inspires me. I feel it keenly. I remember, in 2013, when I was losing money, there was a collection box put out and everyone contributed what they could. Even a little orphan boy gave all the pocket money he had to help out.”
Ultimately, George Town Festival functions as a platform to connect the arts to the community. Joe says, “Our duty is to make people inspired, to get them asking questions and to react. What we are trying to send across is the message that you don’t have to be highly educated or have a degree in arts to appreciate the arts.”
There is also the danger that the arts may have been disconnected from the communities that they are supposed to be serving. Joe explains, “These days, you ask a 13-year-old kid ‘What is arts?’ and he’d be confused. Arts to him may be popular culture — the Kardashians or the latest K-pop release. It won’t be a play, it won’t be a Mak Yong performance. Why is this so? Well, progress has been mostly development of the economy, but not of our souls.”
With participants from around the globe, George Town Festival certainly promises to be both eventful and good for the soul. Among the highlights lined up are Kaash, named “Best Modern Choreography” by The Critics’ Circle National Dance Award in 2002 and produced by world-renowned dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, and Canadian-based Les 7 doigts de la main’s Triptyque, a spellbinding show where circus acrobatics meet contemporary dance.
Ever experienced an “interactive” play? Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, written and directed by Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua, is staged on-site at the present-day E&O Hotel and the audience will follow the actors around the hotel as they perform. The tale itself is of a young lady butler, Pearl, who encounters ghosts and guests of the hotel’s past and present.
Penang presents a constant source of ideas for Lim. He explains, “There are parallels, for me, between Singapore and Penang. Both are islands and Straits Settlements. My father was born and grew up in Penang before moving to Singapore. So though I was born in Singapore, I always had a connection to Penang and this play is an opportunity for me to explore that link.”
The duo had previously presented the sold-out play 2 Houses at George Town Festival in 2014. Working with Joe Sidek has left an indelible impression on them. Tan recalls, “I first met Joe during the first George Town Festival when he invited the entire cast and crew of Blue Mansion to Penang. We were introduced through my childhood friend, the director Saw Teong Hin. Joe and I clicked immediately; never underestimate the chemistry between artists.”
Lim agrees, adding, “Our relationship with Joe is such that we talk constantly with him; there’s always a casual exchange of ideas. Once he sent me an email with just a single link – I thought it was spam. I clicked on it and it was a Wikipedia page, just something he wanted to share with us. But from reading that, I got more ideas and now this will be a future project for us that we are very excited about. That’s how we ‘work’ with Joe. It’s a very scintillating and productive relationship.”
The feeling is certainly mutual as Joe appreciates their indefatigable work ethic. He says, “Some artists get angry that they don’t enjoy more recognition, but I see this as a dangerous sense of entitlement, of ‘You owe me a living’, but no one owes us anything. We have to make ourselves relevant and keep asking ourselves how.”
Artists should ask themselves how they can make their work and vocation sustainable, says Joe. He adds, “Most artists don’t know how. It’s not enough to talk about your art, your work. Again, you have to stay relevant to the communities you are serving. You are not making art in a vacuum.”
In the overwhelmingly positive response to the George Town Festival, Joe sees both vindication for his vision and strength to keep striving. He says, “We have to be inspired and try to inspire. Art is for the people. We are a small festival, but we are a voice for so many things.”