After several years cutting her teeth as a festival organiser with the likes of Glastonbury and the Big Chill, in 2005 Fiona Stewart became the Managing Director of the Green Man festival on the Glan Usk Estate just outside of Crickhowell. By the following festival she was both MD and owner of what was to become, under her stewardship, one of Britain’s most successful and fondly regarded independent festivals. By 2014, Green Man is a 7 day event culminating in a weekend of bands, debates, theatre and art, with a reputation for intriguing line-ups, its passionate support of local business, and a warm, alluring atmosphere. (Not to mention, of course, the burning of the Green Man himself). This year Wales Arts Review will be launching its first ever Live Blog from the final weekend of the festival, and as part of our preview to our coverage, our Senior Editor Gary Raymond caught up with Fiona just a few weeks before it all kicks off.
Gary Raymond: It seems that barely a weekend is free of a festival somewhere or other during the summer months in the UK – that must make for an extremely competitive market. What makes Green Man stand out from the crowd?
Fiona Stewart: I can’t say exactly but maybe it’s because Green Man content, design and promotion has been carefully crafted by thinkers and dreamers, who pour their passion and ideas into the areas they are responsible for. Although I design and direct the different areas I think it’s important to enable and respect the programmers to have creative freedom in their areas. We do discuss the development but it’s in the spirit of collaboration. It’s a truly independent festival which aims to include content that is unique to Green Man alone. But running it this way creates a truly authentic experience, which is the objective to an ever increasingly sophisticated festival audience.
I wrote last year about how the feel of the Green Man festival, although modern, is really in tune with the origins of the British music festival (I talked quite a bit about Gustav Holst and Thaxted etc). Do you have a conscious philosophy in that direction?
Yes, I am very influenced by the arts and craft movement. Connecting the human spirit with the creative results in a unique outcome and reconnects us with the natural world. This ethos is an essential aspect of Green Man and imbues everything we do. For example even the brand font is created from hand carved wooden blocks and then silk screened to create the print. No machine can create that effect – it stands alone the result of human skills.
Green Man famously shuns corporate involvement. What kind of pressures does that bring to the organising of the festival as it seems to become more and more successful every year?
It’s certainly a harder financial choice, but sponsorship inevitably includes involvement in the program and the result of diminishing the festival and making it more mainstream and ordinary. It would also mean that the audience would be hassled or have food and drink which is of a lower standard than we offer at the moment. We are able to afford the loss of sponsorship because we are traditional festival organisers, not the newer group of festival promoters. That means that we run all areas of the event in house and do not hire service providers. Festival promoters book artists and market the event but have little or no operational knowledge of how to run them and hire service providers which generates costs. Saying that it’s still financially challenging, and it would make things a great deal easier. But protecting Green Man, and keeping it unique is more important.
You have some very interesting new collaborations this year, I’m thinking most notably about theatrical ones with No Fit State and NTW. How did they come about and how will they take shape?
I have massive respect for both organisations, and their work. I have known John McGrath and Alison Williams for a long time and have discussed working together for many years. Both are already successful and well known organisations but Green Man offers a way of reaching an international audience and media reach without leaving Wales. Showcasing brilliant Welsh talent is definitely something we are delighted to do and their work is going to add a lot to the festival and bring a lot of pleasure to the audience. There is a big surprise, so I can’t say too much, but what I can say it’s going to be fantastic and bespoke to Green Man.
There is a real community feel to Green Man, it has a pretty strong ‘folky’ feel to it. Firstly, is that your influence on proceedings? And secondly, how difficulty is it to impose such a personality on a festival?
I agree there is a community feel but I think the music offering is too diverse to consider it ‘folky’. Community and ownership by those who organise and attend has been directed by me but now has a life of its own. I am very against imposing mine, or anyone else’s personality on a festival. How dull would it be if it was just about an individual. A successful festival with any kind of soul, can only have any longevity or impact if the organisers are enablers not controllers. The sum of the right parts create a great festival, and that includes attracting a brilliant audience who are definitely essential in that mix. I may direct the festival but the rest is the result of the connected synergy from all the parts.
I saw an interesting debate with Michael Eavis a few years ago (at a festival), called ‘The Paradise Hunters’ where the meaning of the modern festival was debated. It was suggested that ‘a festival’ is the only way a person can be truly removed from the modern societal constructs, that it is a way to be truly free of the ties of that bind. Generally, what do you think is the big attraction of festivals in modern life?
Michael Eavis has his roots in a time when festivals were counter cultural events. Just by attending you made the choice of removing yourself from normal society. I come from a similar background and agree that is an attraction, although it’s difficult to retain this when festivals have become far more mainstream. Many people seem to get a kick out of the more commercial events overrun with branding and sponsorship so that philosophy doesn’t apply to all. With so many festivals and a much wider age group and demographic of attendance the festival audience is far more picky and sophisticated in their tastes. You can’t put it down to one view any more because the festival industry has changed much over the last ten years.
Perhaps an obvious question is how do you prevent Green Man from getting too big? Can it become too successful?
I don’t think a festival can become too successful unless that changes the festival ethos, and that will not happen. I put a cap on the size of the event in 2012 and I stop selling tickets when it gets to that point.
You’ve been in the festival business for a few decades now, and you cut your teeth on some of the big boys, as it were. What brought you and your family to Glanusk?
I knew the area well having stayed extensively throughout my life, and previously I had developed a few private estates into event sites. When I said I needed a new Welsh site in that area some of the estate owners put the word out. Glanusk was amazingly beautiful but literally someone’s back garden. It needed a lot of work to develop it from an agricultural farm into an event site but the result was fantastic.
What are your ongoing ambitions for the festival (your philosophical ambitions, if you like)?
I want Green Man to keep its central identity but to be ever evolving just as it is right now. I want to develop its international identity while offering a showcase for Welsh contemporary art. I have started running a few events based on the areas of the festival and if the situation is right that is something I might pursue. We do a lot of training and development programs, and engage with science and arts projects which have grown incredibly over the years. I have recently set up a charitable arm of the festival to operate the non-commercial projects so that they can develop and progress which is already proving successful. I can see myself getting more involved in this in the future.
You have passionate commitments to young artist and local artists. Would you like to talk about some of the projects you run annually that culminate at the festival?
The Settlers Pass is a ticket which entitles the recipient to stay in the Settlement for four days before the festival starts. This combines their festival experience with a holiday in Wales. We subsidise it to encourage people to attend as it generates a great deal of money into the local economy, as settlers are encourage to visit local tourist attractions and often dine out. But in the Settlement there are many arts, hobbyist and educational attractions which are all run by local arts or skills organisations. This area also has its own Settlement Stage which programs local Welsh artists.
Somewhere is the teenage area and has the Green Cloud Stage where teenagers perform throughout the festival.
Green Man Rising is an on-line competition which is now in its sixth year. It has gained a lot or respect in that time from the music industry who support it as it’s not just a marketing project, it’s not sponsored and the applicants do not have to pay to take part. The idea is not just to win but encourage musicians to understand how to promote themselves on-line as so many talented young artists lose opportunities through inability to promote themselves. As soon as they upload a film of their performance then they have an opportunity of being seen by talent scouts, and the first judgement panel are respected music bloggers which gives them greater visibility. There is a series of rounds and the final five acts perform live in front of a panel of music industry judges from the major independent labels and music press. The winner opens the Mountain Stage and the runners up play on the Rising Stage.
The Rising Stage is the Green Man Stage for talented emerging Welsh and English performers and it runs from Friday through to Sunday. The Rising Competition runners up perform on that stage with many others and this is the stage which often attract the large number of talent scouts who attend the festival each year. We also offer mentoring in the form of stage direction and technical support. Many of the artists have not worked with experienced stage technicians before and they find it helpful to get guidance on how to use their equipment, store it properly or advice on other equipment or instruments they might need to develop their performance. We don’t push this on them and many are very competent and experienced but the help is there if they need it.
It will be your tenth year at Green Man next year (ninth as festival director). What have been your highlights so far?
To be honest that list is far too long – I have had some incredible times and love what I do but my biggest joy is working with my friends and family and seeing people enjoy Green Man every year, that really is satisfying.
original illustration by Dean Lewis