Jonathan Mills on what an international festival should be

Jonathan Mills was considered to have comparatively little experience when he took up the post of Director of the Edinburgh International Festival last year. The Skinny tends to favour the outsider, though, so RJ Thomson is pleased to find him abounding in ideas on how the face of the 61 year old institution is changing under his watch.

Feature by RJ Thomson | 28 Jul 2008

There are loads of folk out there who will readily make vague general statements about how inter-disciplinary practice, and breaking down the boundaries between things, are what they're 'all about'. But for Jonathan Mills, the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, there's a track record in place: this is the man, after all, who filled an early music recital at the Brisbane festival half-full of enthusiastic punks.

There is a story behind the achievement, of course. A punk DJ on the local grass-roots radio station, 3ZZZ, was already a fan of early (medieval) music, and allowed Mills to appear on his show to promote this 'alternative' event to his listeners. But you still need to acknowledge the fact that it all worked out for various reasons: that Mills, himself a passionate fan of early music, was able to convince a broadly punk listenership to try something very different; that the pieces that had been commissioned - by Mills - were of a sufficient standard to impress traditionalists and newcomers alike.

This kind of pedigree bodes well for his tenure as Director here in Edinburgh. And, sure enough, one of the successes of his first year in charge, 2007, was that the range of early music performances he added to the spread of opera, theatre, classical music and dance, were all well-attended and enjoyed. Mills was off to a good start.

While enthusiasm for a particular genre should work as a strength, clearly there is much more at stake in the business of running an international festival than just throwing together what you like. In the context of this series of Hyperculture interviews, I wanted to catch up with Mills to find out his perspective on the state of culture today, from his unique and elevated position.

I was particularly interested by his observation that the way we receive information - the suggestion being via the internet - has changed the way festivals ought to perceive and present themselves, and also enjoyed his implication that much of Fringe culture now has more to do with a mating ritual than the art itself. He touched on that many subjects, though, that I've just structured his comments under headings relating to the areas he spoke about.


"For the International Festival, there is a real opportunity to reposition ourselves in relation to the audience you’ve spoken about [young(ish) and culturally adventurous - Skinny readers, like you]. And I think what I'm trying to do gradually and carefully is say that it’s not about one thing or another. In 1947, it was very much about the Fringe and the main festival. There were kind of opposing views. I don’t think that’s the case these days for a fundamental reason: the way in which we receive information is completely different, and comes from so many more sources. You cannot simply say that the web is counter culture to writing on a blank piece of paper. It's not the way the world works. And I think, more fundamentally, that [change] has lead to both a democratisation of the way in which culture is perceived, and a few fragmentations."


"Michael Billington,(1) who is very critical of the Fringe, has often said that he sat in things that were really edgy and really experimental in the main Festival, [things that were] the counter culture if you like, and they’ve been half empty; and he’s seen things that have been incredibly conservative in the Fringe that have been full. So, is this a mating ritual or is this actually for people who are interested in art? If there is a genuine interest in the art, if there’s a genuine interest in exploration, then I think we [at the International Festival] have every opportunity to claim that audience for ourselves. And I think you need to be confident, you need to be robust in the way you programme in order to achieve that.

"I think the challenge for us is to be open, and to say to our audience: 'look, come to a couple of these shows - they’re at least as interesting as anything you’ll see at the Fringe and the tickets aren’t more expensive. Try us out.'"


"I think what a festival can do, and what a festival is uniquely well placed to do in the world today, is have its own narrative. Have its own journey. And if one allows a festival to have a narrative in the way that I hope I've encouraged this programme to do, we’re not having a narrative about a performer in Poland or a company from Sarajevo or a group from Palestine. [...] What I think it does is attempt to encourage different artists to tell stories that all resonate with each other. They don’t tell the same story, by no means do they tell the same story, but I think there is coherence to that story and even at times a contradiction. But that story is about issues beyond the arts and that question is, 'what’s our world like?'

"For me, the most fundamental opportunity that an international festival provides is asking, 'what does it mean to be international?' And what I hope to be able to do is interpret precisely what that means in a number of different ways over a number of different years. So I think what that means in 2008 might change in 2009 or '10. So it's not static in any way. I’m not saying that in 2008 I'm going to new parts of Europe and then in 2009 it will be some other new parts of Europe. I'll be on a different journey."


"When I came to Europe from Australia two years ago, I thought I would come to a place that was very staid and very hidebound and very strong in its embrace of its traditions - where things were not transformational and where the pace of change was fairly slow.

"It’s not true. Europe today is an incredibly different place from what it was 5 years ago. I guess you can chart the beginning of that seismic change to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But [it's important] to ask that question of artists, of 'what's it like to be in Europe today? What are your boundaries? How do you define your territory?' and to think about how in the end one comes up with the conclusion that, actually, artists can go beyond boundaries and borders."


"What I’m trying to do with the programme and the theme of the programme is say, 'this isn’t just about the arts. This is not about how marvellous Beethoven is. This is trying to speak about how the arts reflect the world you live in and how they can speak to you directly about your experiences in that world. And they might give you some sense of insight, some sense of order, some sense of priority in terms of you coming to terms with the world that surrounds you.' The world can be very frightening and very hard to know. Our festival runs over a period of three weeks: the more you go to the more you will get out of it; the more you will see connections between various disparate elements.

"I don’t believe that the territory of the Fringe or the International Festival or the Book or the International Festival is as cut and dried as it used to be. I think all festivals are about ideas and I think all festivals need to understand that we can have relationships that are more osmotic, more organic."


"We are not funded to do an enormous amount of commissioning, [but] we have a big audience. They might not take the sorts of risks that one has in a show like the Kunsten Festival in Brussels, but we have [at least] 5 times the audience of the Kunsten festival.(2) So it’s a question also of how you make this work in a practical sense. How do you make all of the money, all of the artistic ideas, stack up? That’s a very complex logistical exercise. But it's one that we’re very good at here, and very experienced at.

"I'm not programming to be everyone's best friend. I'm programming to give enough work that is accessible, experimental and challenging. And that to me is the secret of the balance of the festival programme. I want to make sure that some of our more conservative audiences end up going to some radical things - for them - and vice versa."


If that vice versa means punks going to early music recitals, then so much the better. But though Mills is promoting his own agenda here, he is also in the right: though there is a lot to celebrate in the sheer size and diversity of the Fringe, for quality and, increasingly, excitement, the International Festival is the place to look - the theatre programme in particular. As Mills professes, festivals should be about ideas. And if it's intellectual inspiration you're after, well, why settle for less?

(1) Michael Billington is Britain's longest-serving theatre critic, currently with the Guardian.

(2) The Kunsten Festival is a three-week festival that features leading contemporary work in a range of fields, taking place in May. It specialises in commissioning top-quality artists who are not yet widely known.