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A boutique city festival

24 Aug 2016
Nicholas McBryde is one of NZ’s longest serving arts festival directors. He tells Dione Joseph how he programmes Arts Festival Dunedin for a boutique city.

Arts Festival Dunedin director Nicholas McBryde says there are advantages and challenges programming for the nation’s boutique city.

“Every market place has its own challenges and in some ways we have even more – but nevertheless we have a metropolitan vision ourselves.

“We’re not here to look good in comparison to any other festival and accordingly I must cut the cloth according to the coat to ensure we look good for ourselves.”

After five years in Wellington at the Centre for New Zealand Music, it was in 1999 that McBryde found himself faced with the exciting, but daunting task, of becoming the founding artistic director for what was then known as Otago Festival of the Arts.

“I had to start from the bottom,” he explains. “I had to design and set up a constitution and do all the boring legal stuff and then run the damn thing!” 

McBryde’s stewardship includes more than 30 years of experience and stints at Canterbury Opera Company and Court Theatre, as well as performing in Australia. He also has a background in ballet but explains that has nothing to do with the fact that under his direction the festival always ran a tight ship  - and this he says is no coincidence.

“Over the years I have acquired the skills to design a lean festival,” says McBryde. “It’s a small catchment so we need to spend as little as possible on the overheads. As a result, the finance I can generate can support local or international artists and give them the best experience possible.”

In regards to programming, McBryde explains that “it’s not just what I like or don’t like – it needs to work financially as well as artistically.”

“I’m perfectly comfortable talking opera, orchestras or fine music or anything to do with genre and I can make those artistic decisions with confidence,” he says. “However, my mix varies from others and is coupled with a motivation to make the programme as broad as possible with changes according to what’s hot at the moment.”

But programming isn’t simply about finding outstanding work, argues McBryde. A large portion of the viability has to do with the potential for creating touring circuits and having partners to shoulder the cost.

“I find work that suits this particular market place and as soon as I’ve done that I’ve got to go out and look for someone who can partner with me,” explains McBryde. 

“Most festivals are smaller so while Nelson and Hawkes Bay can work together because of their scheduling in the year, their venues and population base are half as small again as mine - and this can limit their ability to take some of the bigger shows.”

“Basically I’m a promoter for shows to get tours,” he adds. “My programming is dictated by my ability to convince programmers in others cities to join me, but also engage with the artistic sensibilities or current flavour of those venues.”
Arts festivals may be perceived as exclusive and catering for those with discretionary income, however McBryde argues there has been a shift.

“We have 120,000 people in Dunedin and I need to cater for more than just the over 40-year-olds who have expendable income,” he says. “This year the festival is also during school holidays and as a result I’ve got four children’s shows and also street theatre. I’m changing the aesthetic to make it less highbrow without lowering in any way the integrity and quality of the performances.”

The 2016 festival programme will see 38 events staged over ten days and nights from September 30 to October 9.

McBryde is looking forward to the Dunedin season of The Devil’s Half-Acre by Trick of the Light which is a heady mix of opium dens, gambling and machiavellian undertakings set in the slums of Dunedin during the gold rush. 

“It’s a local story for local audiences,” says McBryde, “It has had to have some tweaking but it’s fantastic show and the creatives were very willing to make those changes so that it has the potential to be picked and toured.”

Another highly anticipated show is Songs for the Fallen.  “This is a cabaret style music theatre piece of the life and time of 19th century courtesan Marie Dupleiss who rose from the gutter to the highest echelons of powers,” says McBryde. “I must admit it’s quite raunchy and I’m confident audiences will love it.”

Less than a month away from opening night on 30 September, McBryde and his small team are working non-stop in the lead-up to the festival. It promises to upholds its values  as a “boutique festival for a boutique city” but this time has made efforts to broaden its kaupapa and its audiences.