Since its first iteration in 2010, the George Town Festival has grown into one of the premier arts festivals in Malaysia—and in the region, for that matter, drawing more than 80,000 visitors to the UNESCO-listed capital city of Penang for a month of performances, talks, exhibitions, master classes, and community events. This year, with the festival gearing up to start August 1 and run through the 31st, we talked to its founder and director Joe Sidek about all that’s new and notable on the agenda for this year.
What makes the George Town Festival unique?
The place. I’m from Penang, yet I’m still intrigued by it all the time. Walking around, everything feels like a photograph, an artwork, a piece of history. For the festival, we use the city as a canvas. Most of our events are outside, in the street or in front of one of the many famous street art murals. George Town doesn’t have big halls or theaters anyway, just one civic auditorium. But that’s been a blessing, not a handicap. More people can see our shows this way.
What are you most excited about for this year?
We’re opening this year’s festival with a show called 100%. It came out of Berlin in 2008, and now it’s been held all over—New York, Paris, Tokyo. I saw it on Youtube and thought, oh my god, how powerful. One hundred citizens go on stage—all non-performers—and they show and discuss statistics. It sounds very boring. But when you see people moving around, acting out what’s usually shown in pie charts about issues like same-sex marriages and socio-economics, the numbers take on a very different effect. We’ll be the first ones to stage it in Southeast Asia. It’s a very unglamorous opening, to be honest. But for George Town, the festival belongs to the people, so I thought the people should open it.
What do you hope the festival accomplishes?
I want it to make good art accessible. Here in Malaysia, things like Saturday Night Fever and Grease set the benchmark for culture. GTF tries to bring better choices, and about 80 percent of our programs are free. We also work with local schools and orphanages to get more kids involved.
What are some of the highlights of this year’s lineup?
We have a Polish act called Broken Nails, which is a puppet show about Marlene Dietrich. There’s The Metamorphosis, Android Version, a brilliant Japanese-conceived show that performs Kafka with robots. We also have Spanish male dance group Titanium coming, which mixes hip-hop and flamenco dancing—very cool, mixing the traditional with the contemporary. And we’re running a series throughout the month called Trees that incorporates exhibitions on trees, heritage trees of Penang, talks about trees, products made from trees … and then I saw this book, Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time, by this Australian lady Beth Moon who spent 14 years photographing the world’s oldest trees. It became her journey. So she’s coming too.
How has this festival impacted you?
There’s this special needs child who always volunteers for us. This year, I wanted to get to know him, and it turns out he loves animals. A couple of years ago, we did a project about cats, and it touched him so much that he kept coming back. Now he comes to just about every event in addition to working for us. This year, we have a new program called Festival Favorite Person, nominating 12 people who have been instrumental to getting the festival to where it is now. They get invited to the official opening and after parties, basically treated like celebrities. He’s one of them.
What else is new this year?
We’re doing the Butterworth Fringe Festival for the first time on August 15 and 16. Butterworth is just a ferry ride away on the mainland, and I’ve always overlooked it. But this year we’re bringing in 500 vintage Vespas, pop-up stores and bookshops, artists, and performances and throwing a street festival there for two days. We are also hosting supper clubs for the first time this year, working with local businesses and restaurants that showcase Penang’s famous cuisine, so people who are hungry after shows can go to a local restaurant that would usually close too early. It shows a layer of food we’ve never promoted before.
What about other things for visitors to do during their time in Penang?
Actually, we also started this year a charming little thing called Directors’ Top 10. It has nothing to do with the festival, but rather with everything else to do in Penang. I’m picking my favorite 10 things, and then my staff is picking an alternate 10.
What’s on your list?
You have to go up to Penang Hill at sunset. It’s magical, and it isn’t terribly touristic either. Have coffee at Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion in the morning. The place is empty, and you feel as if you’re the owner of the house. And ChinaHouse as well—it’s three shophouses interconnected into one big web of restaurants and galleries and shops and bars. It has scratches on the walls, it’s not perfect, but it makes you comfortable, and everyone goes there whether you’re a rich doyen or an old Chinese clan-member. It’s exactly the kind of place that symbolizes Penang.
For tickets and more information, visit George Town Festival.