New Zealand

22 Feb 2021

Festival of Lights

by Jenny Barrett

No Stopping New Plymouth’s TSB Festival of Lights – Council determined to deliver iconic forty-four day festival.

The 2020 New Plymouth TSB Festival of Lights opened to larger crowds than ever before. Perhaps the audience were enticed, not only by the promise of live music from The Warratahs, a new feature of the opening night, but also simply because they could.

Taranaki was out in force celebrating still being able to connect in person, whilst the rest of the world faced strict holiday lockdowns.


The roots of the Festival date back to 1953 when a fountain was installed in Pukekura Park’s Fountain Lake and the Poet’s Bridge and Main Lake illuminated to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Two years later the Queen came to see it in person and lights were added to the fountain.

In the 1970s music and entertainment became a feature, and in 1993 it officially became the Festival of Lights. Since then, New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) has lit up the park at the heart of the city every year, regardless of storms, global financial crashes, and can now even lay claim to battling on through a pandemic.

The free event spans 44 days and nights, and this year includes fifteen new lighting installations, many still sourced from overseas, no matter the logistical complexities.

That the Festival went ahead at all is testament to the stakeholders’ commitment and the core event team’s hard work. When asked if the Festival was ever in doubt, Hayley Olliver, Festival Manager, chuckles, “Oh yes, but only if the Government’s restrictions had prevented it.”

Hopscotch by Logan Sutton & Steve Beck. Background: Shish Ka Buoy by Angus Muir. Photo Charlotte Curd

Hayley and her team, Lighting and Operations Manager Fraser Ross, Entertainment Curator Lisa Ekdahl, as well as the key stakeholders NPDC, the TSB Community Trust, MJF Lighting and the Toulouse Group, spent the majority of lockdown planning for every eventuality, determined not to let New Plymouth down.

“Whilst waiting for the government guidance for events, we pulled together Plans A to G! It soon became clear that running an event in an open park meant that we could only go ahead at Level 1.

“We focused our planning and covered every Level 1 scenario, with options to scale the event as appropriate.”

Hayley admits it wasn’t easy, “It is really difficult to plan for something that is an unknown quantity, and once we returned to Level 1, we had a much shorter duration than normal to pull it all together.”

The usual request for Expressions of Interest quickly went out for lighting artists around the globe who wanted to be involved, stipulating that this year they would need to rely on the local team to set up the lighting installations, due to New Zealand’s travel restrictions, a big ask for some of the big names.

Each year MJF Lighting and the Toulouse Group work with Hayley’s team to screen the submissions to ensure that they will last the distance, over fifty days outdoors. In some cases, a few polite suggestions are required to substitute some materials but this annual to-ing and fro-ing paid dividends,

“Fortunately over the years we have built up strong relationships with the artists and they were comfortable trusting our team on the ground… although there were a lot of Zoom calls.”

The Festival requires twelve hundred fittings and over sixteen kilometres of cable, all of which is tested and tagged, so MJF Lighting get to work two to three months out.

Five weeks prior to opening, the team begin work at the park on the base lighting, this year working through four days of torrential rain to keep the programme on schedule.

Hayley and her team rely heavily on the feedback collated from the annual customer surveys to achieve the winning formula for the Festival, “A few years ago there was a clear desire for more immersive and interactive designs, and so we moved from solely aerial to include more ground based installations.”

This year they have continued with this push, with Renzo B Larriviere and Zara Pasfield’s (Peru & Australia) ‘Wise Monkeys’ installed in trees teasing passers-by with their chattering.

Will Smith’s (NZ) overhead firework installation is accompanied by bangs and wooshes, and Simon Watt’s (NZ) ‘Bassline’ laser beams allow you to create your own DJ breaks.

Hayley’s favourite installation also encompasses audio, “Six years ago when I first worked on the event, I wanted the lighting installations to complement the natural surroundings of the park, and this year I really feel that has come to fruition.

“One piece achieves it perfectly, Renzo B Larriviere and Zara Pasfield have created ‘Lilypads’ featuring spectacular frogs singing away.”

Lilypads by Renzo B Larriviere and Zara Pasfield. Photo Charlotte Curd

Other standout pieces include ‘Shrooms’ by Australian light sculptors Amigo Amigo, channelling Alice in Wonderland with stunning colourful mushrooms.

Kiwis represented include artist Anton Van Dorsten, who helped the event team with the international installations. His piece, ‘Full Spectrum’ features a tunnel of seven hexagonal light sculptures.

Full Spectrum by Anton Van Dorsten. Photo Charlotte Curd

Angus Muir, renowned for his permanent and temporary commissions, provided ‘Mountain of Light’ which comes to life with a dramatic repertoire of lighting effects culminating in a simulated eruption of colour and movement.

NPDC and their Festival team, supported by over fifty volunteers, should be proud. They have pulled together not just a visual and experiential spectacle on par with every other year, but perhaps more importantly have provided an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to mix and mingle and celebrate.

And let’s not forget the economic spin off for hard hit audio-visual, lighting and event companies who are involved too. Hopefully, COVID levels permitting, the Festival makes it to Day 44, and inspires other Councils to do the same.

For any budding lighting designers who would like to apply to be included in any future TSB Festival of Lights, keep an eye on the Festival’s social media channels for requests for Expressions of Interest.

TSB Festival of Lights

CX Magazine – February 2021   

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