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After a two year hiatus, WOMAD eases back onto the festival scene
Suzanne Porter, CEO of the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT), returned to the role of Events Director for WOMAD 2023, delivering an operationally slick festival that received rave reviews. With seventeen years’ experience in the events industry and seventeen as TAFT CEO, she knows how to put on a festival, and with the support of Technical Director and industry veteran Neil Penno, succeeded where many others struggled this season.
Operations: tick ✔
WOMAD 2020 was quite literally the last festival to go ahead in the world, the weekend before New Zealand went into lockdown. TAFT made no attempt to hold the festival in 2021 but with the Government’s underwriting scheme for events in place by 2022 they went for it, only pulling the plug in January as uncertainty spread following Omicron’s arrival in New Zealand. Inevitably the two- year hiatus meant that valuable WOMAD know-how was lost, “I stepped in as Events Director as I felt we needed someone with a solid skill set who could make decisions quickly. With so much going on in 2020 no one had collated our post-event reports, so I went back to the 2019 feedback and spent hours talking to the campsite team, marketing and communications, and all major contractors looking for any potential fires.”
Suzanne’s nightmare scenario was grid locking New Plymouth and site access became a priority. With 15,000 visitors converging on a narrow road just off the state highway, the team needed to avoid any queues. Emails to all attendees highlighting the option to pre-sticker vehicles and collect wrist bands at locations away from the city centre, in Stratford and tiny Urenui (population about five hundred), resulted in a seamless stream of arrivals heading straight into the racecourse that hosts the festival, “This was one of the big success stories of the festival, not just for avoiding traffic chaos and hour long queues but for the impact it had on the two towns. Visitors spent money buying a coffee and a cake.
Urenui even put on a fete and held a fundraiser for local charity groups and schools.” In conjunction with time invested on tweaking the campsite layout and extra resourcing on the gate, WOMAD completely avoided the transportation and queuing issues that dogged many other festivals and events this season.
This Summer’s extreme weather saw Laneway cancelled after Western Springs flooded, Splore turned into a mud bath, and Shapeshifter, Elton John and many others called off, some at the very last minute.
WOMAD was luckier in comparison, “Pack in was tough but the rain cleared Friday and apart from the mud, we had a beautiful weekend. I had emergency call out staff like our plumbers sitting bored at the Park House. The site looked absolutely beautiful and there were few issues. After three years off, it was a huge achievement by the whole team and the satisfaction level of the punters was through the roof. We had flushing toilets, and soap and no rubbish. I don’t do grunge!”
Line-up: tick ✔
Suzanne’s aim was to keep it simple whilst still delivering on everything that a pre-Covid 2019 festival goer would have experienced, “We delivered the full festival experience and it was no mean feat to get artists to travel from all over the world. We had all our usual stages and a full programme.”
UK WOMAD is the mothership and the New Zealand and Adelaide events share the costs of international artists meaning that three Artistic Directors work together to curate the programme, “The real people pleaser this year was Meute, an eleven strong German techno marching band, whilst my personal favourite was Fantastic Negrito.”
Other big name international stars included Sampa the Great and her all-Zambian band and Romany supergroup Taraf de Caliu. Kiwi acts Avantdale Bowling Club with frontman Tom Scott, Deva Mahal and Wellington three-piece alt-psych pop act Kita all made an impact.
Suzanne leaves the musical production side of things to old hand Neil Penno, “It is a high trust model that reaps rewards. He has a strong background in large events and excellent relationships with our key stakeholders.”
Production: tick ✔
Neil Penno has been involved with TAFT for fifteen years as technical or production manager, or supplier in his capacity as Director of local AV company Taranaki Sound Hire (TSH), “I applied for the role of WOMAD’s Technical Director when it came up last year as I really wanted to keep it local.” Once in the post, Neil rewarded the loyalty of previous suppliers as much as possible, “After the hardship of the last few years I made a real effort to use our mainstays on the major stages and support local businesses on the smaller stages.”
As a result, TSH continued to supply the video and lighting, with Wellington’s MJF Lighting as subcontractors; Oceania the audio with TLL Events on the smaller stages; and Metro Productions provided the Gables stage, Norwest/Oceania provided the Brooklands stage and TLL provided the smaller stages, with TSH staging and risers based on artists’ requirements, “My business partner Paul van’t Hoff (Goff) and I also run The Production Company located only a stone’s throw from the Auckland suppliers which makes everything really easy.” The big difference from previous years was a shift to predominantly moving lights on the main stages, “We wanted more versatility for the different styles of music, and to give the lighting operators travelling with the acts more flexibility.”
The main challenges for Neil aside from the weather’s impact on the site, were the logistics of working across eight stages, managing any potential sound bleed, and the unique nature of the backline requests of some of the artists, “WOMAD is a bit different from your regular festival wish list of amps, drums, keyboards and everyone bringing their own guitar. The artists are an unknown quantity. Ever heard of a cimbalom?” According to Google it is a piano-esque stringed instrument native to Hungary, and it was a requirement of Taraf de Caliu, “NZ Backline who sourced everything for us did a wonderful job. Luckily Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra had bought a cimbalom in 2022!”
Another issue that doesn’t generally come up at your average festival is an instrument at risk of melting, “One of the Indian acts were using a wood instrument with ridges made of hard wax in lieu of what I’d call a fretboard. On Saturday the artist was really concerned as the temperatures soared. Luckily there was no direct sunlight on that stage at the time of their performance.”
Melting instruments aside, the festival went off without any technical issues, “Bar the mud making pack in and pack out a slow process, it was an awesome event to be involved in. There was a lovely sense of community. Everyone on site was just so happy to be there – the audience, the acts and the suppliers.” Dashing from one stage to another Neil only caught glimpses of the artists, “Every act offered something unique and they were incredibly proficient musicians. WOMAD doesn’t just curate artists because they are quirky but because they are actually phenomenal in their own right, even if they are not well known over here.”
What can we expect next year? Suzanne will be returning to her CEO “day job” and focusing on sponsorship and taking care of the festival’s private sector partners whilst supporting two new members of the team, “We are recruiting a new Events Director and we’ve Sally-Anne Coates stepping in as the new Operations and Logistics Manager, as our wonderful Tetsu Garnett is leaving us after nine years. At this point I’m thinking about a new, more efficient site layout.” Suzanne’s inner events organiser obviously just can’t resist.
For Neil, the priority for 2024 is to maintain the quality of the music, “We are here to serve the artists. Being part of the international WOMAD brand, we can’t enact any major changes singlehandedly, but I am looking at things and we’ll work within their guidelines and with their artists to deliver the best show we can here in New Zealand.”
WOMAD 2024 will be held 15-17 March.
Photo Credit: Photos by Vanessa Laurie TDN
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