Rani Sanderson, Film Programmer

5 questions to...

After my ‘5 Questions‘ to the Manchester Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director and to the Toronto Design Offsite Festival executive team, I’m sharing insights from Rani Sanderson, Film Programmer at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Rani is also a video artist and an arts educator for children, specialising in digital storytelling and creative writing programs.

1. Hi Rani! Your next festival opens on 11th April. What’s a typical day right now?

Right now, since all of the films are programmed and set, I’m just preparing my introductions for the screenings I will be presenting.  Trying to remember what the films were about, researching any guests who will be attending and coming up with potential questions to get Q&As going.  It’s quite fun to relive all the films I saw so many months ago and remember why I liked them so much. In a few cases, I haven’t seen the films, so if I have time I will try to see those before I introduce them.  Otherwise, I’ll speak with programmers who have seen them for any input and insight they can provide.

2. You’ve been programming for TJFF for 3 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

I’ve been a full-on programmer for the past 3 festivals, but before that I was a junior programmer for a few years (with a 3 year break in between when I went back to school).  I don’t know if anything actually gets easier or more difficult…  I guess writing about the films gets a bit easier.  You could say my confidence is stronger each year, and my belief in my own opinions /critiques of the movies.  And perhaps, if anything, I’m a bit more picky about what makes a good film and what doesn’t, as the years pass.  Oh, and I always get nervous speaking in front of large audiences, so introducing films only gets easier as the festival goes on, but each year I’m equally petrified for my first few presentations.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Probably during the festival is the most fun and most rewarding.  I love the energy during the festival.  It’s a bit manic, but you end up running on adrenalin the entire time.  I love when people enjoy films I particularly love – especially when it was a riskier film to choose – when audiences appreciate those movies it’s worth taking the chance.

4. What other festival would you love to attend as audience member?

I’d love to go to South by South West.  Music and film together is a dream festival for me.

Other types of festivals – there’s a hot air balloon festival in Quebec (and one in New Mexico) that I’d love to go to because I love hot air balloons – a whole bunch of them would be so pretty (me and my camera would go crazy!) and I’ve always wanted to go up in one.  And I’d also love to go to La Tomatina one day.

(And of course, if there’s ever a dangerous foodstuffs festival* I’ll be there.)

5. How did you get into film programming?

I went to film school so I had the background, from an academic and technical standpoint.  Back then, I got a job at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, when it was a small organization with a very small staff, managing the box office and assisting the programmer. From there the film festival got much larger and my role there evolved.  I was always involved in one way or another over the past 15 + years and then, as I mentioned, I took a short break to go back to school and after I completed my master’s I was invited back as a programmer.


* This is an oblique reference to the recent UK ban on triangular flapjacks.

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The 21st Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from 11th to 21st April 2013. Artistic Director Helen Zukerman concludes her Welcome note with a lovely nod to the long tradition of festivals:

“Movie-going has changed, but the magical, larger-than-life communal spirit of a Festival has never changed.”

Deborah, Gelareh & Jeremy: the TO DO team

5 questions to...

This time, I’m asking my ‘5 Questions‘ to the Toronto Design Offsite Festival team, who  concluded their 3rd festival just a few weeks ago (21-27 January 2013). Deborah Wang, Creative Director, Gelareh Saadatpajouh, R&D Director, and Jeremy Vandermeij, Executive Director, created this platform to encourage local innovation and collaboration and to share their love of design with the Toronto public.

1. Hi Deborah, Gelareh and Jeremy! Your next festival is in January 2014. What’s a typical day right now?

Gelareh: A typical day involves research, gathering ideas, brainstorming, and reading about other festivals and design thinkers in the world. A big part of the research component is focused on the crowdfunding campaign that we are developing at the moment. Although March has been quite slow comparing to the month of January, it is an exciting time of the year when we stir the pot for ideas : )

Deborah: Things have definitely slowed down after the festival, but we are gearing up for our crowdfunding campaign and starting to get things going for 2014. The great thing about now is that we have some time to think about what we want to do next year and make some tweaks to what we already have before launching into production.

2. You’ve been organising TO DO for 3 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

Jeremy: Although it’s challenging, delegating tasks to team members and volunteers does get easier each year. As well, managing the sheer volume of work and learning to relax during the festival get easier. Keeping on top of the more mundane parts of production do not get easier over time, but I think (hope?) that I am successful at it most of the time. The key is to find new ways of doing things and creating new engaging parts of the festival.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Jeremy: I really love when I hear someone I don’t know personally talking about how great the festival is – and when event organizers and participants get really excited about what they’re producing and what they’ve accomplished. The most rewarding part by far is creating a space for this community and watching it grow.

Gelareh: Well, I love it all – the whole process of designing the festival, and the collaborative spirit that carries through the festival week in late January. February, March feels like “what just happened, let’s plant the seed for next year”. May, June, July: life is good — organizing thoughts and the game plan. August is “oh, September is coming”. September is “Hello world, let’s collaborate and make the festival happen”. October and November is “Wow, the list is growing”. December is too short, it doesn’t count as a month. January is when the whole city talk design, walk design, dress, eat, and celebrate design. It’s my favourite time of the year when all the pieces come together with every event and exhibition pulsing their creative energy to the rest of the city. It’s definitely an exciting part of the process.

4. What other festival would you love to attend as audience member?

Jeremy: I would really love to attend the London Design Festival, particularly to see their public space installations.

Deborah: We’ve been really inspired by the Design Week Portland video, and since they are a city of similar size to Toronto, it would be great to see what they are doing and how. Of course, I would also love to visit established Design Weeks in cities like London and Milan.

Gelareh: I would go to Copenhagen anytime of the year for inspiration. Visiting Amsterdam, London and Milan during their design festivals is like having a glance at the global design scene while each city bring their attention to their local community and their unique design excellency. Wanted Design happening in New York city is on my list for this spring.

5. Can you tell me a bit more about your plans for TO DO 2014?

Jeremy: For 2014 we’re expecting a huge amount of growth in terms of events and audience. We’d really like to produce our own event so we’ve been brainstorming a ton of ideas, including our own exhibition, a design market and self-produced talks, lectures or workshops.

Deborah: In addition to continuing with everything that’s part of the festival thus far, including our TO DO Awards presented by Herman Miller for example, we’d like to introduce a student component to the festival, and engage more cultural institutions, design businesses and independent designers.

– – –

I introduced TO DO in a previous post and I’m looking forward to sharing details of the crowdfunding campaign.

Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Steve Mead, Artistic Director

5 questions to...

For the first installment of my ‘5 Questions‘ to festival folks, I have the pleasure to share insights from my good friend Steve Mead, a veteran Artistic Director who’s been involved with Manchester Jazz Festival from the very first 1-day showcase, in 1996 (which, for the anecdote, was rescheduled at the last minute because of the IRA bomb that exploded in Manchester city centre that very same day).

1. Hi Steve! Your next festival is in July 2013. What’s a typical day right now?

You’ve caught me at my busiest time of year – I’m at the tail end of programming our festival (75 bands in 10 days) and just starting to write the copy for our brochure and website. So recently I’ve been having lots of phone calls and emails with artists about everything, ranging from whether a repertoire of Swedish folk songs is appropriate for a jazz festival (I think it is!) to whether a vibraphone, drum kit and sousaphone will all fit in one car… Putting together the copy – apart from the challenge of trying to find 75 different ways to describe music – really helps bring into focus the intense audience experience that a festival creates. Seeing the full schedule unfold before your eyes, one wonderful event after another, makes me feel enormously privileged to be just a small part of making it all happen.

2. You’ve been organising mjf for 18 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

Yes, it’s our 18th this year, and I wouldn’t say things get easier with time, the problems just become more familiar! One thing I do hear more of is how relaxed and well-organised the staff & volunteer team looks during the festival itself. Planning ahead and being able to anticipate potential problems (equipment or people not turning up on time, flight delays etc), and making allowances for tricky situations that may not actually happen, gives us more breathing space during the event if everything does go smoothly – so we’ve clearly got better at planning. The constant challenges are almost invariably financial: in the current economic climate, there can be unforeseen disappointments in any one of our income streams, which impact right across the organisation.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Seeing a band give an inspiring performance – especially if it’s an artist you weren’t sure about and were taking a bit of a risk on, or the premiere of new project that really delivers and connects with the audience. During many of the gigs I’m positioned alone at the side of the stage and often revel in some beautiful spine-tingling musical moments.

4. What other festival do you or would you love to attend as an audience member?

I love to see how other festivals work so can rarely attend just as an audience member. There are many jazz festivals like Molde in Norway that I can never get to because of our timing clash. I love going to other small festivals like One Taste in London – not jazz but a curious mixture of styles and settings that makes for a special festival experience.

5. Over to you – Steve Radio Presenter*, what question would you ask Steve Festival Organiser?

If you were to hand over the reins to your successor, what one piece of advice would you give them? I’d say: be yourself, be memorable and don’t just copy what I’ve done – make your own mark and take it in new directions.

* Steve’s other dream job – listen to him introducing each gig and occasionally on ALL FM and BBC Radio 3!

– – –

Manchester Jazz Festival has just announced its new commission for mjf 2013 – I wrote a few words about it in a previous post, and you can read more about it here.

Toronto Design Offsite Festival

Spotlight

Here’s a lovely little festival that already got big in its short 3 years of existence and has a bright future in perspective. The genre is design, in all its forms and disciplines – and interdisciplines -, the place is Toronto, the time is mid-January and the length is 7 days. Here’s how Toronto Design Offsite Festival is described on the festival website:

“Toronto Design Offsite (TO DO) is a not-for-profit, indie design festival happening annually at the end of January. TO DO’s aim is to provide exposure for local and national designers; to foster public understanding and knowledge of the practice of design; and to create an ongoing presence that promotes Canada’s creativity, drawing on great thinkers, practitioners, and educators to a deliver an innovative celebration of art and design.”

I got involved through Zahra Ebrahim, of ArchiTEXT and the Design Walkin – whom I first met in a cake-loving capacity, when she was touring West End bakeries for her Jane’s Walk – and ended up helping out with volunteer management. TO DO grew from 6 events in its first year to 20 in its second and over 40 in its 3rd. They just incorporated as a non-profit, and they’re doing a great job of collaborating with existing networks and organizations, such as BIAs and professional membership-based associations. The whole festival is a remarkable balancing act between creative control from the talented team and creative licence given to the participants – designers, artists, architects and retailers, as well as initiatives such as Trade School Toronto.

And why ‘offsite’ rather than simply “festival”? That’s because TO DO is the ‘fringe’ counterpart of Toronto’s Interior Design Show, an established professional fair now owned by event production company Informa Canada. Which makes me think that I should look at the Fringe phenomemon for a future post – and also that I’d love to get answers to my ‘5 Questions’ from TO DO organisers Jeremy, Deborah and Gelareh, to get their view on what it’s like to invent such a fresh and fun festival.

The art of commissioning

Programming

I’m just back from a wonderful evening of new music courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and their long-running New Creations Festival, which has just concluded its 9th edition tonight with its grand finale, Tod Machover‘s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. To create the musical portrait of the city, the composer turned over to its people, and not only listened to them, but invited them to participate in the writing of the piece. The festival’s theme was the celebration of the partnership between technology and music, and the technology in this case was provided by none less than MIT, in the form of a graphic notation software that could be used by schoolchildren and anyone else who wanted to contribute.

What was especially interesting about it was how visible the creative process itself was left to observe, and how intensely collaborative it had been. From MIT Media Lab, who provided their technological expertise and tools, to teachers learning to use the software to in turn guide their students through it, via the TSO Youth Orchestra who helped to transcribe city sounds recorded by Torontonians into musical notation, right up to the CN Tower, Toronto’s freestanding structure, that offered a special light show synchronized to the performance, there were many hands and minds at play, and Tod Machover did an extraordinary job of turning all these contributions into one piece of playable – and listenable – music

Of course the event was duly noted as a ‘World Premiere’ and ‘TSO Commission’ in the brochure, and this brings me to a common trait of many festivals: presenting new and recent works or instigating their creation.  Some festivals have made it into a distinctive feature – such as Manchester International Festival, self-described as “the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events”. In the same city, the Manchester Jazz Festival formalised their commissioning scheme a few years ago, making it an open application with clear criteria and naming the scheme mjf originals (I have some claim to the name, and produced the first two official selections in 2008, Matt Owens’ Ten and Olivia Moore’s Mask).

The next mjf originals commission will be premiered this coming July, and here’s a taster from the website: “a collaboration between Mike Hall and Deborah Rogers, a new and quite unique ensemble that will fuse early renaissance music and contemporary jazz, with a mixture of modern and replica 16th century instruments”, such as “crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornets, sackbuts, lute, gemshorns and recorders”. Pretty original indeed.

Right from the start, mjf originals has been an open application scheme, whereby artists can submit their project and be selected on clearly stated criteria (one of them being the connection of either the composer, the performers or the concept itself to Manchester and its region). Selected applicants are then invited for an informal interview to present their project in more details, and the fees and production budget and timeline are jointly decided with the mjf team. It’s an artist-led commissioning process, probably as transparent and collaborative as it gets, and following the creative process from first draft to performance was a huge perk of the job.

And as a post-scriptum, Tod Machover’s new commission has just been announced: he will be bringing his crowd-sourced symphony to Edinburgh International Festival, this time inviting contributions from all over the world, alongside 10 other premieres revealed here.