MY STORY The lady of Holt

After a long career as an actor and producer, Anwen Hurt, widow of the actor Sir John Hurt who died last year, is taking on a new challenge, as artistic director of the Holt Arts Festival in Norfolk

You’ve had a successful career as a producer. Why switch careers?

Why, thank you! I’ve never really got on with the idea that you should stick with one thing. There’s a whole world of choices out there and I’ve spent my life taking different and sometimes meandering paths as they presented themselves to me. As a child, I played the piano to a pretty high level and went on to study at the Birmingham Conservatoire, the School of Music as it then was. I left there and worked as an actress/singer in musical theatre for a number of years, not at all the original plan which was to continue with the piano as a soloist and accompanist. Incidentally, that’s when I met Tony Britten, the first artistic director of the Holt Festival, although neither of us can remember precisely where. I’m fairly sure that I auditioned for him and he didn’t give me the job so I make sure I give him a hard time…just occasionally!From theatre, it was an oddly easy move into film production. I job-shared in a small commercials production company with an actress friend. Actors are always being offered permanent positions when they temp, something to do with getting intocharacter, I suppose, and doing whatever it is to the best of their ability. Again, I elected to go down a different route when I was asked to join them asa production assistant. Becoming artistic director of the Holt Festival kind of feels as if all those paths have finally joined up.

What is special about Holt, and why does it deserve its own annual arts festival?

Well, it clearly does as it’s in its tenth year and we wouldn’t still be going if people didn’t support us, so they definitely deserve it!  Art, in the broadest sense, is what makes the world bearable on the days when it doesn’t seem to be, and it should not be reserved for bigger cities and bigger organisations. Many people in North Norfolk are quite isolated and the Holt Festival helps to provide the opportunities that they may not otherwise have.

When and how did you first get involved with the festival?

When John and I first moved to Norfolk in 2008, our solicitor invited us to the launch party of a new venture - the Holt Festival. Although we weren’t particularly looking for artistic involvement at that time- Norfolk was very much a get-away for us, a place where John could relax, be private and paint- we were intrigued enough to see what it was all about. I was delighted to see Tony Britten again (having no idea of his Norfolk connection) and John had a number of conversations withRhu Bruce Lockhart whose brain child the festival was, and Adney Payne, both of whom are still involved. John was actually so impressed that he insisted on making a donation there and then. We went to events at the festival whenever we could but John’s work frequently took him away from home so it wasn’t until Delaval Astley succeeded Tony as artistic director that I really became involved and was asked to join the board. John appeared at the festival on a couple of occasions, most notably in the play “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” by Nassim Soleimanpour in 2014. This is a piece for a solo performer who is presented with the script for the first time on stage,at the beginning of the performance, in front of the audience. Pretty scary stuff.

You will succeed Stash Kirkbride as artistic director after this year’s 10thanniversary festival that starts in three weeks (July 21-29). Is this a year-round commitment for you?

Absolutely, it has to be. The festival runs for a week and there are around 30different events in the main festival plus children’s events and a thriving fringe FESTIVAL, not to mention the excellent fine arts programme directed by James Glennie which I have been very involved in this year as I one of the judges of the Sir John Hurt Art Prize, and am also holding an exhibition of John’s paintings. I don’t expect to be taking a break after this year’s festival and indeed I am already planning for 2019.

How has the festival changed in the time you have been associated with it?

Inevitably, it’s grown over the last ten years and I think it’s true to say that its personality has changed depending on who is programming it. We all have our particular likes and dislikes, our own artistic vision…if that doesn’t sound too pompous!

Are you competing with other festivals in the region, such as the Norfolk & Norwich, or can you work together?

One of the first things I have done since being appointed is to meet up with various arts and cultural organisations in Norwich and North Norfolk.  I’ve already had very positive conversations with the Theatre Royal, Norwich Arts Centre, Sheringham Little Theatre and the National Writers Centre. I’m Pro-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts and a trustee of Cinema City Limited and I think it’s vital that we all work together rather than seeing each other as competitors. The larger the audience for arts and culture, the better it is for all of us and for the county

How is the festival funded?

The festival is currently funded by sponsorship from local businesses and individuals which is quite remarkable. It also couldn’t function without the amazing volunteers for whom I have huge admiration.

What changes will we see in the programme style?

It’s early days and I am committed to providing a programme that works for our core audience who have supported us over the last ten years but at the same time, I intend to push the boundaries out to attract a wider audience. I’m going to be meeting various local organisations and groups and actually finding out what people would like to see during the festival. I can’t promise to please everyone but I certainly intend to listen to what they have to say.

What would you like to add in future, and can it expand?

It’s hugely important to me to try and attract young people into the festival, and one of those organisations that I will be seeing in the next week or so is the Holt Youth Project. I would very much like the festival to have a presence in Norfolk during the whole year, so I intend to plan a series of events across the arts, and I think this is particularly where the connection with other arts organisations will be invaluable. By attracting a larger and more widespread audience, the festival will naturally expand as the demand for different events grows. My job is to feed those demands and, just as importantly, to give audiences the opportunity to see things that perhaps they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. I would also like the festival to establish a national profile, so I’m delighted to be talking to Arts Industry and I hope we can tempt at least a few people to come up and see what we’re about.


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