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Reflections of a festival director

Be yourself: Jonathan Mills reflects on the most valuable (and obvious) advice that guided his term as artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival.


Be yourself: Jonathan Mills shares with Dione Joseph the most valuable (and obvious) advice that guided his term as director of the Edinburgh International Festival.

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Jonathan Mills, or for those who prefer the official title, Sir Jonathan Mills, is one of the most eloquent and imaginative of individuals. Five years ago when I first interviewed him on a miserable winter’s day in Melbourne I was struck not only by his generosity in sharing his opinions on a myriad of subjects but also the largesse of his ideas. I remember when I left the Wheeler Centre that day, I hoped I would one day get a chance to have another conversation.

Four years later (and a good 24 hours of flying time) I find myself making my way once along the uneven streets of Edinburgh to have that follow-up conversation. And as I dodged the countless festival-goers who seemed determined to stop, stand and stare… I recalled some of his remarks made at the time.

“New Zealanders and Australians”, he had said, “Know more about the rest of the world than the world know about us, and our positioning in this world gives us a unique perspective… [And then] the word multiculturalism is elusive, passive and vague, I want a city such as Melbourne not be touted as multicultural but as ‘cosmopolitan’ where moments of deep engagement could be created beyond the boundaries of culture… [and very passionately] we need more women in roles of artistic directorship. It’s as simple as that. But what I would like to see is a state of equilibrium achieved where like colour-blind casting it’s no longer noticeable.”

These and many other fragments of conversation came back to me as I waited in the reception of the press office, thinking I must confess, not of the imminent conversation but how despite being in the northern hemisphere the weather was remarkably similar to that of a chilly day in Melbourne. And how badly I needed a cuppa tea.

Soon however, the clock struck four and both Jonathan and a warm brew were available. As I settled back to allow this incredibly articulate visionary reflect upon his time at the festival (an appropriate subject of conversation as we neared the festival’s final days) I noticed the posters lining the walls: eight years, eight very different festivals. As always, even in his reminiscing, he got straight to the point:
“I’ve been here for two terms now and the good thing about me doing this festival was that I was thrown into the deep end. I didn’t have to time to let anything sink in. And while a certain survival instinct, a mixture of adrenalin and ruthlessness can get you through, it’s not ideal.”

Reflecting upon the initial monthly commute in the time leading up to his official residence in Edinburgh, he explained: 

“I was appointed in February and I was back here in April, in June, in August and in earnest in October and in that commute between Melbourne and Edinburgh the only luxury I had was lying on my back at 33,000 feet thinking - what do I do?”

It’s certainly not available as a retreat for everyone but for Mills this 24 hour meditation twice a month gave him an opportunity to focus.

“Sometimes the strangest circumstances can motivate you in ways that are enviable,” he smiled, “But is it the case that you come up with a very good idea through a slow gestation period? Sometimes, it is. But sometimes, confronting a certain element of terror, can force you to have it ready by tomorrow.”

Mills’ experience was most certainly the latter. As he brusquely summarised: “there was nothing languid about it.” But throughout his two terms at the festival (which included his insisting that before he took up the position for a second time he had a critical ‘audition’ to make it quite clear why he was an appropriate choice) Mills found that the most obvious piece of advice given to him was also the most useful.

“Be yourself. When you think about what that means it seems quite obvious. But it meant reflecting where I came from - it didn’t mean having lots of New Zealand and Australian work but having a perspective that was distinctly south of the equator - not north of it and there is a difference.”

“We have a different set of priorities, emphases and relationships,” he continued. “South-east Asia’s presence is much more immediately felt for us, and these networks were the sorts of things, the fragments of ideas and hunches and notions that would weave themselves into a programme.”

As Artistic Director for one of the world’s most famous arts festival, one of Mills’ unwavering commitments was to choose works that would speak not just to him but to the audience, and in addition would also “explore and amplify the journey we’re on.”

Those choices are reflected in his programming for the past eight years. Looking at the various posters impeccably aligned upon the walls he summarised:

“In 2007 it was a very European festival, deliberately so and its core, opera. A multi-art form work interpreted in very different ways, going straight to the heart of the hybridity of such a festival; in 2008 we were moving our centre of gravity to Eastern and southern Europe but our each extended to Iraq, Iran and turkey; in 2009 it was what was very international about Scotland and basing it around the enlightenment; in 2010 it was looking at the New World and at cultures with work from  Mexico, Chile, Bolivia but also Australia; in 2011 it was about Asia’s relationship with Europe; 2012 was a year of grandeur and peace; 2013 explored relationships with technology and art and now here we are in 2014  - but this year the festival is not just around commemorating the First World War – in fact it can’t be because the tragedy is more enduring.”

At this conclusion we both breathe in for a moment. For me I have, perhaps just for a moment, grasped a sliver of what these last eight years encompassed, not just for Mills but for the Festival itself, its artists and its audiences. And as we conclude our talk with pleasantries I return back to one of his earlier remarks in regards to programming work:

“Art-forms are inclusive,” he explained, “In many societies there is no possibility of drama without dance and no possibility of dance without music and no possibility of music without some form of visual art – and that’s where I started.”

With the time to now focus and write his next opera, based on Murray Gail’s novel Eucalyptus, as he retires from the position of Festival Director it’s easy to see why Jonathan Mills will be remembered as one of the Festival’s most inspiring artistic directors in years to come.

Not just for his strengths in programming a diverse range of work across cultures, continents and ideas – but for his ability to engage with art and audience in a way that has both heart and head – and the courage to combine them both.

Written by

JK Productions

2 Sep 2014

Dione Joseph is a writer, director and dramaturge.