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Running festival is fun - and hard graft

PUBLISHED: 05:55 21 February 2003 | UPDATED: 16:18 24 February 2010

RUNNING an arts festival sounds like a dream job – a chance to see all your favourite artists performing together and getting paid to do it.

But as Nick Wells, manager of the Bury St Edmunds festival explains, being the boss means you are also the dogsbody.

RUNNING an arts festival sounds like a dream job – a chance to see all your favourite artists performing together and getting paid to do it.

But as Nick Wells, manager of the Bury St Edmunds festival explains, being the boss means you are also the dogsbody. JO GREEN spoke to him.

A FESTIVAL director's lot seems a happy one – rubbing shoulders with stars, booking big acts, and getting paid to go to exhibitions and concerts.

But sadly the truth is less glamorous. For Nick Wells running a festival means he can book acts which excite him, but it also brings lots of other responsibilities, including booking the portable toilets, writing licensing applications and putting out the Danish pastries and wine glasses for the festival walks.

"It is a great job and I really love it, but there is lots of pulling together of things too and it can be a bit frantic," he said. "In January I start feeling sick, knowing what's coming up and that once things get started its just deadline after deadline."

The Bury St Edmunds Festival – sponsored by the East Anglian Daily Times – is held every year in May and attracts thousands of visitors, many from overseas, who book their holidays just to visit every year.

For a small market town event, the festival has steadily built up a lot of kudos and a large following and regularly attracts high-profile performers.

This year's highlights include Luminarium, a futuristic series of walk-in domes in the Abbey gardens, the OperaBabes , a Beatles and Rolling Stones Tribute Night and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tamas Vasary.

But when the three-week event is over, Mr Wells cannot just sit back and wait for the next oneas preparations have to be made months, even years in advance.

"People always ask me what I do for the rest of the year," he laughed. "But you have to plan ahead if we're working with an orchestra or a famous person or commissioning a composer.

"In summer 2000, just after I started here, I rang up Evelyn Glennie's agent thinking she'd be great, she doesn't live too far away and he said 'Right well there's nothing for 2001, nothing 2002, maybe 2003 we could do something'.

"But then you have the other thing, if you want a big comedian say, they're not even thinking about what they're doing in May till at least January – and of course our brochures have to be written by the end of December, so it can be a bit frustrating."

Planning the festival is a juggling act, trying to balance artists' availability with the demands of the audience, a limited budget and Mr Wells' other commitments to arts in the borough.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council funds the festival, so there is a responsibility to make the event appeal to as wide a range as possible.

With events going on every day over three weeks, festival-goers could be forgiven for thinking there is a team of people behind the scenes making it all happen.

But for much of the time Mr Wells is a one-man-band and there is a lot to organise – for example, buying about 50 litres of orange juice and water for the artists to drink, or going through the performers' contracts, which can often contain some unusual clauses.

The festival weeks often become a series of late nights and mad dashes from one show to another. Mr Wells attends every event, so much of his day is spent on foot, but although the schedule can be frantic, he still enjoys the buzz and the build up.

"Some of my friends think I'm mad, but when it's me doing most of it, then if something goes wrong I know it's my fault. I make a lot of lists, a lot," he said.

"Basically lots of little things go into making a festival and you have to start well in advance, so yes, it is hectic.

"This week I've got contracts coming in from all the artists and we're doing an art trail this year round the town so I spent a few hours the other day walking round Bury and checking all the places on the trail map were in the right place.

"Then last week I had an initial meeting with the technical people, then there's all the licence applications I have to get and book the walkie talkies and so on. It is surprising how many little things have to get done to pull it all together.

"It's like making a meal, although the basic recipe has the same ingredients every time, you can add different bits every year."

n For more information on the Bury St Edmunds Festival, which runs from May 9 to 25, log on to www.buryfestival.co.uk.


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