Wears The Trousers talked to Fiona about her hilarious political performance art past, the psychology, passion and logistics that go into crafting spectacular festivals, working with charities and eccentric land owners, Green Man’s near financial collapse in 2008, and her role as a consultant for the British Council and the commercial arm of the Foreign Office. She also gives some very practical advice for women who want to get started in events and organising.
You spent your formative years in Camden Town as a politically active punk in the ‘80s contemporary arts and music scene, and still live there now. Are you an original London lass or did you flock to the Big Smoke from somewhere else?
I was born in Windsor but grew up in Camden and have lived there all my life, so I really think of myself as a Londoner. I still think it is the most exciting city in the world and Camden is very much my home.
Do you still retain those punk values of your younger years and if so, how/have these filtered through into your work at Green Man?
Some of my values have changed and I am far less idealistic and angry than I was, but I have still retained many. Punk for me was about the individual, their human rights and personal expression – even if was challenging. It gave people a space to create and the opportunity of experiencing something new and inspiring. I think a great deal of those values are at the Green Man but I also like to put a little feral in the mix to bring out the “goose pimple” moment for those who attend.
We’ve heard that you spent some time as an avant-garde performer in the ’90s. Can you tell us a little about that?
I was in a band called the Toasted Tea Cakes as a backing singer with two other girls, mostly dressed as a scone. One other girl was dressed as a Chelsea bun and the other as an éclair. We presented the class system as cakes, with the éclair being posh, the scone being middle class and the Chelsea bun being working class. We performed mostly at political events with a poet who was greatly influenced by John Cooper Clarke. We were truly dreadful and horribly earnest. The costumes were good though, and were made from papier-mâché and chicken wire. But I used to annoy the other girls as my jam came away from the top half of the scone a great deal, mostly because I wiggled too much. Apart from that I seemed to get work from looking odd. I don’t have any Tea Cakes pictures and may have to kill anyone who has. But I have some pictures of me looking odd.
Green Man founders Jo and Danny are also famed for their musical projects. Have you been tempted to return to the stage at all yourself or are you now a firmly behind-the-scenes type of gal?
No, I am not a performer in that way, and in the past I sort of fell into that role rather than actively seeking it out. I do need to express myself artistically but am best suited to directing or designing the events I am involved in. The nearest thing I get to being a performer is the happiness I get out of seeing people enjoy what we do at the festival, and maybe that can be interpreted as a sort of third-party audience appreciation that performers need.
You worked in TV before becoming the first woman to run a UK pop festival when you took over as manager of Big Chill in 2000, developing it from a small gathering of 3,500 people to a whopping 35,000 capacity event. How did you make the leap?
TV production and festival production are quite similar in many ways, although TV is far more regulated and less risky. Because I had contacts with technical crews and theatre, I was asked to help organise friends parties and I quickly realised that that was what I preferred doing. Added to that I had, in a vain attempt to please my family and conform, undertaken a psychology degree and ended up specialising in group think and crowd behaviour. This lead to my navy blue lady-suit wearing years monitoring large crowds for organisations interested in crowd prediction and talking to men also wearing suits who wore, for bizarre reasons only known to themselves, their trousers very high at the front.
It was not a life I was best suited to, either in dress or lifestyle. But I did end up monitoring many events and gatherings of large numbers of people, which gave me a lot of insight into the issues involved. So when a friend of mine working at Big Chill asked me to sort out their license problems with the council I was able to do so. Following that, they asked if I would stay on as the Festival Manager. I was nervous at the time but the owners were great and allowed me to have free rein with the festival and incorporate all the ideas and systems I wanted. This was very attractive to me and so I made the leap.
Speaking to the BBC last year you said “It’s not that [Green Man] are totally against sponsorship. If we found a company that we really liked, maybe an eco-organisation, or someone who wanted to do things for one of the charities we work with, then we’d probably do it. But we have a loyal fanbase and don’t want to do anything that would destroy what we have.” Can you tell us about these charities and why you chose them in particular to work with?
Twenty-five not-for-profit organisations and charities attend the festival each year. They all represent good causes but the one criterion they all have to fulfil is that they need to do something that contributes to the festival, like face painting or secondhand book selling. Having a charitable stall just full of volunteers giving out leaflets brings nothing (except litter) to a festival. There are some charities I won’t work with because I am not comfortable with the way that they use their funding.
Mind is our charitable partner and they support people with mental health problems and lobby on their behalf. I wanted to work with them as mental health still has a lot of stigma associated with it. The aim of the partnership is to address misconceptions, which can leave people feeling isolated and lonely. I also work with students in Merthyr Tydfil, which is an area of Wales with high unemployment levels – a direct result of the mine closures of the ’80s. But I don’t want to paint to gloomy a picture of Merthyr as it’s an interesting place with a great music and boxing legacy, and it’s the home of the industrial revolution. Most people are working but some families have not been employed for four generations, and as with us all, confidence and aspirations can be damaged due to that. Work experience in a group situation with a common goal such as a festival can offer life skills to people. It will never be the answer but it can help.
You originally mastered in psychology. Have you been able to apply any of this subject area to your work as a festival organiser?
Well, put it this way: I don’t sit in a chair stroking a white cat saying “Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, and while you’re at it buy my tickets.” Part of psychology is about stimulation and the processing of emotions, which is very much part of how we all appreciate art and entertainment, so it is difficult for me to answer. How I organise the festival is a mixture of experience and instinct now. But the site design, personnel structure and marketing has had a level of psychological input. For me, a good festival should be unprocessed with a very freeing vibe, and it would be at complete odds if it were too formulated through some sort of psychological theory.
You became Managing Director of Green Man in 2006, re-branded it and found the festival the venue at Glanusk Park. Did you have any personal connection to Wales at all?
I have always been an admirer of Wales but I do not have any family connections. Once I started working there I fell, very quickly, in love with it. It is a pretty incredible place with layers of history and stories that slowly come to the surface. I have family in Scotland where all the tales of mystery and history are presented to the wider world like trophies, which is great. Wales has similar and possibly even more magical and spiritual histories and tales of heroic acts or bizarre stories, but I tend to find them out by accident. I have worked in Wales for six years now and I am lucky enough to count quite a few Welsh people as friends; they have given me further insight in the country, which I find fascinating.
The reason we ended up in Glanusk Park was because of the contacts I have made from redesigning rural country estates into event sites over the years. The world of country estate owners is a story in itself, filled with larger-than-life characters and charming, sometimes complicated, British eccentrics at their most magnificent. Within that group there are a few whom I help out and have become friends with over the years. Now, when I want a new site they seem to chat amongst themselves and come back to me with ideas, and Glanusk was one of them. I value their friendship but I do find myself giggling at this particular outcome in my life as an ex punk and Camden Leftie.
How would you describe the Green Man experience to someone who has never attended?
The Green Man is all about the individual and what they want. We create the opportunities and leave people to choose their own experience. It is still a small festival in relation to others, so it has that friendly intimacy about it. People of all ages and backgrounds attend, and what seems to bring people together is a collective interest in good music and good living (we are all very greedy and love our food and drink), and the desire to experience new things. You can have a leisurely time sampling the varied delights offered from the eight different stages, or maybe soak up the incredible scenery of the Black Mountains while eating fresh, locally sourced food from one of the traders, or you can be part of the vibe of the main stage watching a band like Fleet Foxes in the natural amphitheatre with thousands of other people, or stay up all night in front of the dusk-’til-dawn bonfires having a party night. The people who attend are lovely and the location is spectacular, but it’s the thread of quirky eccentricity and sense of the ridiculousness that is such a part of the festival which really does it for me.
Tell us about the Green Poll. How does it work and what does it involve?
The Green Poll has been running for four years and increases in popularity from year to year. It is really an old-fashioned battle of the bands competition, adapted for online. To retain its independence and authenticity it is not sponsored and people involved do not pay to apply, and none of the judges get paid either. The votes are followed closely and if people cheat then they go to the bottom of the list. Without those sorts of controls it would be a completely meaningless waste of time and winning would be worthless. I think due to this people really believe in the competition and it is growing from year to year. This year, 570 bands entered and over 20,000 voters took part, coming from US, Canada, Europe and Australia as well as the UK. The judges this year were Duncan Jordan from Bella Union, Michael McClatchey of Moshi Moshi, Jack Shankley of Domino, Andy Male from Mojo Magazine and Huw Stevens from Radio 1. Those who take part get a lot of visibility through the competition: the five finalists play live in front of the panel, and the winner opens the festival on the main stage. The runners-up have an opportunity of mentoring from judges and myself, and advice from the festival production team about any technical issues.
Can you tell us about the annual boutique festival you ran in Greece for three years?
I ran a festival on the Greek island of Naxos for 1,000 people. People had the option of staying for a week or for two. We hired a collection of hotels near a beach and set up a stage, sound system and a massage and therapy area with arts installations and film as part of the offer. It was a magic time and lots of my friends met their future husbands or wives at those gatherings. It was a lot of fun and quite bonkers at times; at one point we drank the island dry of tequila and a special boat had to be organised to get some more from another island.
Was it anything to do with handbags? We hear you’ve got quite a collection!
It’s true – I do like a nice bag and have a mixture of vintage and contemporary. My favourite is a Vivienne Westwood classic tartan bag I got a couple of years ago, but although I do think Ms Westwood is a genius, I am not a big label person and prefer quirky or classic designs. I love clothes and accessories and I see them as a way of expressing who you are. I’m a fan of British designers; they not only offer creative designs but they are irreverent too.
Outside of Green Man, you work regularly as a consultant for the British Council and the commercial arm of the Foreign Office. Can you tell us a little about that?
I first starting working for them in 2003 and since then they have sent me to China, Serbia, India and Brazil. The British Council aims to create cultural diversity and better understanding through the arts, and my role with them is to stimulate that in the countries they send me to. The Foreign Office has more commercial motivations so working with them is primarily to develop industry initiatives or evaluations. The overall aim for both is to develop British interests abroad, and my work is specific to events promotion and cultural exchange.
In 2010 you were appointed as a panel member of the Welsh Government’s Creative Industries Advisory Board. What does that involve?
The Creative Industries Panel is made up of myself and three other panellists who have a background in the creative industries, which is complementary but different. Issues covering all areas of the creative industries are raised by the Welsh Government Members or subgroups/organisations and presented to the panel. We advise on these issues but we have no powers of governance and ultimately it is up to the Welsh Government Members if they wish to take up our advice or not.
Festivals are changing. There are more of them happening in the UK and more of them cropping up abroad. Rising costs and competition means organisers need to work hard to keep their events interesting and innovative. Although you’ve expanded the size of the festival over the years, you’ve also spoken about maintaining the medium-size of Green Man. Do you think that keeping it a relatively intimate affair is part of what’s made it so successful?
I do think that having an intimate feeling at an event is important, and keeping it small helps, but ultimately the content, perception and vibe of a festival is the measure of its success.
Tell us why you’re proud of Green Man and any particular achievements or years that stand out for you as memorable.
Being involved in developing Green Man has been an incredible experience and it is difficult to pin down particular moments as there are so many wonderful memories. It has changed and evolved over the last nine years, and sometimes taken on a life of its own. I like what it’s become. 2008 was a memorable year for me as we nearly went under due to Lloyds Bank, who suddenly stopped advancing ticket income as a result of their own internal changes owing to the recession. This put us into an awful cash flow crisis as it completely came out of the blue and we had financial commitments of around £700,000.
I tried to sell my flat but no one was buying or lending and I really thought we would go under. I started to tell people what had happened and cancel orders and one by one they rang back and offered me credit. Then my nephew lent me £200,000 and I was able to negotiate with Lloyds to release a similar amount. Green Man is a small independent festival and business and there was absolutely no reason to think that we would get through this, but with everyone pulling together we were able to go forward. Although it was hell at the time, the kindness and support I got was incredibly memorable.
What makes your role at Green Man difficult?
I have a responsibility to direct the festival to profitable success and that has meant that sometimes I have to say no to people’s aspirations and ideas, which is wearisome and sad. Festivals can be very seductive places and sometimes the drive for people to be involved overrides the reality of what they can actually offer. A festival needs to evolve over time to keep it fresh and interesting, and to do that you have to have the right people at the right time with the right skills. That is not to say that you have to be brutal about how you do it, but in my experience not addressing this is the main reason why festivals go under.
What makes your role at Green Man rewarding?
There are loads of things I am crap at but organising events is something that comes quite naturally to me, and it’s the job I fit into. I work with some incredible people and the ideas and hard work they put into the festival keep it fresh and ever developing, which is a fun and stimulating environment to work in. But what I find most rewarding is the pleasure the festival brings to the people who attend.
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t just concentrate on knowing about production and talent. Logistically a festival is a city with a few entertainment venues and you need to know a little about every area to ensure that you don’t get ripped off and are able to monitor them properly. Organising festivals is very risky and if you cannot control all the area costs then you will go under. The best way of getting experience in events is by doing them. A promoter doesn’t wait for things to happen – you make it happen. Start a club night or a monthly party. It can be hard, but it’s a great starting point and a real indicator to see if you are cut out for this business. A festival is not about you, it’s about everyone else you bring in to run it and be a part of it, so leave personal vanity at the door. Festival living conditions can be quite basic so take something pretty with you when you work. I always take my pearls and a nice red lipstick. And of course, a lovely handbag.
For more information on Green Man Festival, check out the official website.