Much to do about everything: A day in the life of Jonathan Mills, EIF director
JUST how tough can a day shadowing Jonathan Mills, Edinburgh International Festival director, be? Claire Black runs to keep up through a whirl of meetings and greetings
In the Lowland Hall at Ingliston it’s 10:45pm and the 70 members of Theatre du Soleil are eating a dinner of beef casserole and green beans. I am too. They’ve just finished their first performance of Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores) – a three hours and 45 minute epic – and the buzz of having the first night over and finding that the audience loved it is as palpable as the smell of red wine stew. I’ve not done anything quite so exuberant, although in my own way I’m exhausted and in need of the sustenance.
“Do you want to shadow Jonathan Mills?” is the question that led to this feeling. The offer was that I could tag along with the director of the Edinburgh International Festival to get the measure of an average day. I’d get to see what it’s like to be the man who has curated the 65th International Festival, personally inviting each of the artists, orchestras and companies taking part. That’s more than 3,000 artists from at least 47 countries.
A few months ago, in March to be precise, the Edinburgh International Festival 2012 was a daunting list of events rattled through with trademark brio by Mills as assembled journalists munched bacon rolls and drank coffee. This year’s event is Mills’ sixth, so there was a practiced ease in his presentation of a programme that included world premieres of Scottish work and celebrated international artists and events, small scale specialities and large scale wonders. MSP Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, welcomed it as a “wonderful platform” from which to celebrate Scottish talent, and Ruth Mackenzie, director of the London 2012 Festival, did her best to reassure everyone that the sporting extravaganza taking place in London wouldn’t negatively impact audience numbers.
Now, of course, we know those speeches weren’t just warm words. The Festival doesn’t actually finish until tomorrow, but we know that the Lowland Hall, which Mills promised would offer a “different kind of theatre experience”, has done exactly that, while Scottish artists have fared well under the international spotlight and audiences have been as busy as ever, with an 8 per cent rise in ticket sales so far.
But how does all of that happen?
A day with Mills tells part of the story – there is the meeting and greeting, the networking and schmoozing, the culmination of plans laid several years ago. With his turquoise plastic specs and ridiculous energy, there’s a Puckish quality to Mills, a sense of mischief that’s as evident in his dealings with those he works with as it has been in his programming choices. Mills has a glint in his eye. But if once he was seen as an upstart, he’s delivered the growing audiences and statement appointments, such as Maestro Valery Gergiev as the Festival’s Honorary President, that have added substance to his swagger. He breezes through the attendance of dress rehearsals and performances, planning meetings and international phone calls to discuss future years in days which are dizzyingly busy, with apparent ease. Short car trips seem to offer the only respite, and by that I mean the chance to check an ever-present Blackberry or chew through the contents of the Waitrose bag that sits in the footwell.
The other part of the story though, is the team that works alongside Mills – the concert planners and fundraisers, the techies, artist liaison staff and press team. Some of them work year round, others are drafted in for the busiest period; the open plan spaces of the offices in The Hub being rearranged and stretched to capacity.
It might be a cliché to say that if you live in Edinburgh it’s easy to take the festivals for granted, but seeing how it’s kept on track – the work, the chaos, the luck – does change things. It’s why the Standard Life-sponsored Festival Backstage short films are so interesting; it’s also why, at noon on a Thursday mid-Festival, I’m nosing through Mills’ ‘to do’ trays and wondering how he can keep his desk so tidy or stop himself from gazing out at the view from his office which takes in the rooftops of the old town across the north of the city to the hills of Fife.
At the other side of the office the table is set for lunch. Trays of sandwiches, bowls of salad and crisps, are laid out for the gathering. Harriet Harman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be in attendance, as will Margaret Curran MP. They’ll have their advisers with them, of course, and then there’ll be several of the Festival trustees as well as the heads of the Fringe, Kath Mainland, and the Edinburgh Art Festival, Sorcha Carey. Mills will preside over proceedings.
An hour or so later, the guests leave, cheeks rosy, chat continuing as they wend down stairs. Mills strides out of his office and his shadows – me, a photographer and a boy trying his best to catch all of this on video for one of the Backstage films – try to keep up. It’s a feeling we’re going to get used to.
“Where am I going?” Mills asks, as he glides by. Someone says “The King’s” to his back and that’s that. In the car downstairs, Mills chats to his driver, David Lyle. “I was to remind you about your passport,” Lyle says, negotiating cars like dodgems.
“Remind me again in the morning, would you?” Mills says, scrolling on his Blackberry.
In The King’s, plastic foliage and props litter the floors backstage. “Mind the flowers,” Mills shouts as he disappears into the empty auditorium, stepping over a large tree trunk lying prone in the rear stalls. Director Dmitry Krymov is sitting in the front row; the stage is a riot of actors and crew. Hanging in the air, like the enormous chandelier that overshoots the proscenium, is the distinct pall of nerves. Mills bounds up to Krymov and hugs him, asking if he might address the company. A translator appears and Mills gives an impromptu welcome speech. The tense faces relax as Mills tells the company that The King’s is “an old theatre but it is your friend”. He adds that he is delighted that they’ve brought their “magic and mayhem” to Edinburgh and he wants them to know they are very welcome. The translator finishes, the company applauds and everyone smiles. As a pep talk, I’m not sure I’ve seen better.
And with that, Mills is gone, dodging the leaves and branches and leaving us trailing us in his wake.
Next stop is back to The Hub for a meeting with the general manager and tour manager of the Cleveland Orchestra, Festival regulars. On the table is future planning. Mills intends that the 2014 event will be his last, so his planning duties cover the next two years. The meeting is amicable and friendly. There are no cagey tactics, no power play; instead, the discussion is of repertoire, dates, and the merits of a Walt Whitman poem called The Wound Dresser. It’s all topped off with plenty of mutual admiration and after 20 minutes, everyone shakes hands and the deal seems to be done. Once his guests are gone, I ask Mills if it’s always that easy. He looks a little bemused and suggests that curating a festival is an “iterative process” based on knowing the repertoire and building good relationships. He makes it look pretty effortless.
Ten minutes later, we’re in the Usher Hall listening to the European Union Youth Orchestra rehearse. For maybe five minutes Mills sits alone, no Blackberry to check, no hands to shake, as they run through sections of the Debussy nocturnes. He just listens. Then he heads to the front of the auditorium and jumps up on to the stage. Another welcome speech is given and there’s more clapping. He disappears through a side door and for a minute I fear my shadowing has come to a premature end as I stand stranded in the auditorium? Backstage, I find him sitting with John Pendleton and Ruth Rimer, concert manager and assistant of the venue. They’re telling him about a near miss experienced by the Cleveland Orchestra whose bass clarinet player was taken ill just hours before their concert. With 12 bars of solo in their programme, they needed a replacement. Someone suggested that the clarinet player from the Hebrides Ensemble, Yann Ghiro, who was at that moment playing with the Hebrides Ensemble in Greyfriars, might be up for it. Turns out he was. Cue someone being despatched to Glasgow to pick up his bass clarinet, someone else being despatched to get Ghiro from Greyfriars to the Usher Hall, slipping him into tails on the way, before uniting him and his instrument and sending them on stage. Mills smiles at the story. I’m starting to feel really quite tired.
Back outside, Mills asks the usual question – “where am I going now?” The answer is to Greyfriars Kirk. The Alim Qasimov Ensemble, Azerbaijan musicians renowned for their performances of Azeri mugham, the country’s classical music, are to perform and Mills wants to greet them before seeing their performance. Why is it so important for the artists that he welcomes them personally, I ask, as he strides through the church?
“It’s important to me and them because if I don’t then it’s not a festival,” he says without slowing. “I’m not a booking agent,” he adds, looking slightly appalled. “My life would be a lot simpler if I was, I assure you.”
It’s now just before 7pm. Still to go there is a reception for the Azerbaijan musicians at Hotel Missoni, a dinner near the Lyceum, a backstage appointment to wish Camille O’Sullivan the best for her first night of The Rape of Lucrece, the second half of the EUYO concert next door at the Usher Hall and then a trip back out to Ingliston. I’m feeling quite peaky (despite the five minutes I spent sitting on a bollard on George IV Bridge, just to enjoy a bit of quiet) and the students are starting to look as though their cameras weigh a lot more than they did at the start of the day.
After a brief appearance at Missoni and a quick chat over dinner (he doesn’t eat as far as I can tell) Mills is to be found standing outside the Lyceum chatting to Fiona Hyslop. Once she goes inside, there’s a steady queue of others with whom he chats before heading to the grand circle of the Usher Hall. As the lights dim, and the opening bars of the Busoni piano concerto ring out, for a minute I wonder if Mills is looking a little sleepy.
An hour later, back in the car, he’s eating a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and bemoaning the traffic. He phones ahead to reassure everyone he is on his way. Half an hour later, he strides into the hall and greets the company. Someone passes him a microphone and he makes this welcome speech in French. They clap and I queue for my green beans. As I eat, he moves from table to table welcoming each group individually. He doesn’t seem to notice that I’m one of them. And then he’s gone. Again. Before it all starts once more the next day.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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