George Town Festival: Where Do We Go From Here?
By Miriam DevaprasanaSeptember 2023 FEATURE
Miriam Devaprasana is in charge of Marketing and Communications for George Town Festival. In this piece, she muses about the challenges and direction of the 13-year-old festival.
IN 2008, the inner city of George Town (along with Melaka) was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in cultural diversity as embodied in its living and built heritage. Two years later, George Town Festival (GTF) was mooted under the George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) umbrella to “actively engage the people living in the World Heritage Site, and to be a catalyst in creating a sustainable and liveable city.” Existing literature shows other complementary objectives of the festival over the years.
For the past 14 years, GTF has brought art lovers together to bask in the delights that art brings. It is the pinnacle of festivals and celebrations in Penang.
The festival can be broken down into two main directions:
• Engage with residents of the inner city
• Be a catalyst for a sustainable and liveable city
• Improve the quality of life
• Promote connection and belonging
• Increase residents' ownership of the programme
• Highlight the unique diversity of local culture and heritage
• Enrich Penang’s cultural environment with local and international performances
• Encourage public interest in the arts
• Promote cultural exchange
But from the standpoint of an observer and creative practitioner, I wonder if something has gone amiss? Is there a widening distance between stakeholders due to a lack of clear, informed and purposeful direction from the key institutions managing the festival?
As a brand, the festival is well-received worldwide primarily due to its inclusion of many world-class performances and exhibitions by international artists. However, since its initial iterations, some of the local audience and art practitioners have cautioned about the noticeable lack of local representation. These criticisms prevail, i.e. lack of works by Penang artists, a heavy emphasis on ethnic Chinese performances and artists and thus an imbalanced representation of works by ethnic Malays and Indians, and of indigenous and peripheral community voices.
The festival has also led to a distinction between local and international works, with varying perceptions of them. One long-term effect is that festival goers are willing to invest more for shows and events by international artists while exhibiting hesitation to spend more than RM50 to watch local productions. This dynamic affects ticket pricing, resulting in the lowering of ticket prices and the distribution of complimentary tickets just to ensure that people come to watch the show.
This issue presents GTF (and art practitioners) with a dilemma — how can the audience be better consumers, allowing for ticket prices to be raised and providing increased compensation for those who pour their hearts into their productions? The consequence has compelled many artists to juggle multiple jobs and roles just to make ends meet, and remains a poignant reminder that they deserve support and recognition.
A distinguishing feature of GTF is its use of heritage spaces for live performances. While this has brought about unique experiences, when GTF closes their curtains, we find that Penang still lacks an established and fully-equipped performing arts venue that can connect practitioners and audiences, create community well-being, and function as a hub for the creative community. Despite the state government listing the PACE: Penang Arts and Culture Enclave and the Tanjung Performing Arts and Cultural Extravaganza as signature projects in the Penang Tourism Master Plan (2021–2030) along with the proposed built site for Penang Art District, the development and progress of these remain unknown.
As the festival gears up to welcome a new organising team and artistic director, healthy critical discussions are needed to improve the ecosphere for the arts. It is time for GTF to get back to its aim — advancing arts and heritage education as well as the role of arts and heritage in George Town.
Thoughts and Opinions on GTF
After conversations with arts practitioners and enthusiasts across various disciplines, noting perspectives from the visual arts, literary arts, music, dance, theatre and multidisciplinary practitioners before depositing my views based on my experience as a part of GTF 2023’s organising team, I was able to gather thoughts and opinions for consideration as the festival moves into a new era. Of the 12 I talked to, seven held roles as curators, producers and directors alongside being artists or creatives, and nine were participants involved in previous iterations of GTF. Most have been practising art for almost a decade. All agree that there has been an increase in local representation in recent years and that they would still support GTF as audience members or volunteers even if their works were not included in the festival. However, when asked about inclusivity, I received mixed responses, with the majority wishing for increased inclusivity in the festival, and:
• To include differently-abled and indigenous representation in the artist lineup and audience members.
• To feature works from Arts-ED which foster more local engagement with the community and their work.
• To include marginalised and underrepresented voices.
• To facilitate new art activities, for example, art & design exhibitions, visual art talks and traditional arts talks, and promote unsung heroes (to enable the arts among youth).
• To increase opportunities for new or other ensembles from Penang.
They want to see more capacity building, education and awareness of the arts, so that even when the annual festival is over, there continues to be demand for the creative arts from practitioners. One also observed that there is still room for improvement in making its offerings accessible to everyone, including individuals with disabilities. This would involve physically accessible, sensory-friendly programming, coupled with different communication styles that suit their needs.
The festival can invite local communities to actively participate in order to better reflect the region’s unique character. Addressing language used by GTF shows is also crucial as the local community is linguistically diverse. As of now, GTF seems geared primarily towards an English-speaking audience, with some room for Mandarin-dominant folks.
To maintain GTF’s relevance, the new team should look into improving inclusivity. Perhaps the representation of Penang-produced works should be increased when compared to practitioners from Malaysia (most of whom have been from KL) and international artists. Some points on the relevance of GTF, as shared by one respondent, are as follows:
• It brings awareness of projects by local artists and collectives and of what questions are currently being asked in the broader society.
• It is an extended invitation (i.e., more than one day) to the general public to experience art through many mediums.
• It challenges artists to adapt/tailor their performances to Penang venues and locations, further localising art-making and appreciating the experience.
As for recommendations for the future, participants want to see:
• New media with traditional/classical/ music/theatre/dance productions.
• More interactive shows for children and teenagers.
• Local schools (marching bands, etc.) to be a part of the festival.
• The collaboration of local and international acts in a single performance.
• Workshops, discussions, experimental art, work in development grants, and process-based sharing.
• More compositions that highlight Penang culture.
• Fewer repeated events, performers and performances with the same concept.
• Discussions on the state of humanity and socio-cultural environs.
GTF can potentially expand, not just as a stage but as an avenue that fosters critical debate, grassroots engagement, global artistic exchange and conversations. To succeed, the key stakeholders need to veer from the “as usual” capitalising for tourism, but instead amplify the role and purpose of the festival instead.
is a dabbler of creative expressions and a budding researcher rooted in sensitivity, vulnerability, faith and human connection. Check out more of her writing on mdev16.wordpress.com.