GEORGE TOWN, PENANG – On 9th July 2022, after two years of the pandemic, the annual George Town Festival (GTF) heralded a long-anticipated return to a fully-live format, as the Penangite capital came to life with a plethora of arts and cultural events, from music to film and performing arts.
At the head of the festival is Jack Wong, who has been organising the event with his team from events company TLM Event Sdn Bhd since 2019. Having overseen the festival through four very different iterations, we spoke to Jack to find out how the team’s been coping, the fine art of making a festival work, and the future of the GTF.
“From 2019 to 2022, we’ve essentially experienced four different versions of the festival. When we started in 2019, we were moving in a direction where we were gearing up for more outdoor events to reach out to more people, essentially, positioning ourselves as an arts festival for everyone,” says Jack. “But 2020 happened and everything went online. Even in 2021, there were still strict rules and social distancing, so we had to take the festival in a hybrid direction. This year, in my final year as Festival Director, we had to plan for the possibility of things opening, as well as in case things shut down again, and there was a lot of planning involved for both online and physical programmes. This year, in my final year as director, we’ve been planning for any possibility, and are ready with both physical and online programmes.”
Speaking about homegrown events company TLM, Jack, who is Managing Director of the company, explains the fine balance he has to maintain. “TLM has a number of divisions, including the commercial side, like organising expos and fairs, and we have our own team dedicated to the GTF,” explains Jack. “Even before the festival, we’re already trained in research and curation and marketing, and we then apply that to the festival itself.”
In terms of the festival’s KPIs and vision, Jack elaborates on how his team is shaping the new direction it’s taking come 2022 and beyond. “GTF aims to raise the profile of both the festival and the Penang artists involved in the festival. There are so many talented artists involved, whether they’re based here or overseas, and it’s about matching them with the right collaborators and the right venues to produce a show that creates maximum impact,” he says. “We’re always trying to explore new possibilities, such as innovative venues to stage theatre shows or act as a gallery, where the traditional meets the new, and craft programmes with strong artistic value that brings more benefit for the city.”
Funding and money is and always will be a concern for any arts event, and despite TLM being profit-driven, the team is mostly happy to do what they can do raise the profile of their hometown. “We receive a lot of support from the government, whether it’s in terms of money or access to facilities. We could always do with more of course, but we’re able to organise a lot of things while staying within budget and maximising it,” says Jack. “The box office is important of course, and this year, we’ve almost sold out. But TLM doesn’t really gain from it, because we put the money back into the festival, to help it have more and better programmes next time. Hopefully, that also helps to grow the audience, not just for us, but so the artists also gain more exposure and recognition for their work.”
“We can’t compare the GTF to say, the Hong Kong Arts Festival or the Singapore International Festival of Arts, but our goal has always been somewhat different – to engage with our audiences by showcasing our own Penang elements and culture, resulting in a festival that you can’t find anywhere else,” Jack continues.
On his own personal connection to the festival, Jack emphasises his love for music and concerts, particularly experiences that take place outside of a traditional concert hall. “I’ve always wanted to explore different ways of experiencing art that makes it accessible, and feel fresh, and it is the venue that can completely change the nature of a work,” he says. “Maybe we can do things like site-specific concerts, such as “The Senses” and “Mozart at the Mansion”, and other people get inspired to do something like that in future, and to know that we were the pioneers showing them it was possible to begin with. And really, we hope that we can get more people to love the festival, especially locals and domestic travellers from other parts of Malaysia.”
And as to whether he’ll continue? Jack isn’t sure yet, but would cherish the honour if it is given to him to carry on what he’s started. “To have had the chance to direct GTF is such an honour, being an iconic festival of Penang and the pride of George Town. To me, being given directorship of GTF shows how much trust the government has in me, and what I’m proud of is how my team has always pushed the boundaries, and took risks to do new things each time,” he concludes. “Even if others in the industry won’t dare to do it, we take that first step so that they can follow, and prove that them that it can work, and that they too can succeed from it.”
Photo Credit: George Town Festival