Each year, over the last 5 years, I have been tested to programme The Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival with content that is current, courageous, challenging, relevant, entertaining and accessible, whilst showcasing artists at their best, be that emerging or established, local, national or international.

Current, because we live in an ever-changing world and the arts have the means to mirror our present day reality better than anything. Courageous, because we need to express the things that are too often unsaid, unheard, whose time has come, fearlessly, boldly, and clearly, through music, dance, theatre, discussion, poetry and performance. Challenging, because we can get so easily complacent about our situation, may that be because we are too comfortable or far from it. The content has to be relevant or it misses its targets.

And we all want to be entertained, never more than when things are hard. And all of it must stay within reach, be accessible, through pricing, location, language, and most important, intent and aroha.

Each programme has its own narrative. Sometimes by default, other times by design.

And it always comes back to that moment in time where a multitude of artists have created work independently, whilst collectively responding to a need for expression, often simultaneously during the Festival. Be that subtle or outrageous, wild, or gentle, which ever language they choose, to meet that urge to create, be creative and with that, inspire change, individually or as a community, even a nation.

This year was no different, or so it seemed. At first, feeling ahead of the wave, I went to Adelaide late February to see works at the Fringe and the Adelaide Festival that could be well suited to our audiences in Hawke’s Bay. Then I returned to Auckland for the Performing Arts Market, where New Zealand artists showcased their latest works, ideas and concepts, some tour-ready, others just in the earliest development stage. The choices were great.

I was then booked to fly out to Switzerland, see my whanau and have a holiday before the festival planning kicked in full swing.

Instead a little-known virus caused major havoc. I cancelled my trip and snuck into WOMAD, had a last dance amid an ever-increasing vibe of gloom, before our world changed forever with a nationwide lockdown a few days later, like something out of a sci-fi movie.

What to do? Festivals shut down, events cancelled, postponed and the industry came to a grinding halt with a shudder that hit deep. Our artists lost contracts in theatre and film; whole tours got cancelled.  Thanks to Government subsidies, many took a pause, a deep breath and kept going responding once again to the signs of time, innovative and mainly in virtual realities, on screen, in zoom conversations across NZ and the world. Our artists made headlines across the world with their music, comedy, and dance.

And my plan to bring Switzerland’s most iconic female clown to Hawke’s Bay, went up in smoke.

So the priority was to keep our festival team of amazingly talented people together and in full employment, giving them a chance to rest and be ready to go, helping to create a 2020 Festival this time with the Opera House as the main venue, where for over 100 years stories been told, dances held and careers started.

And so we did, deciding that giving up, cancelling a festival that offers so may people a platform to tell stories, share joy, culture and happiness, was not an option. Unwaveringly, optimistically with support from sponsors, patrons and the government, we now find ourselves with simply the most powerful and relevant festival programme to date, featuring stories linked to Hawke’s Bay in so many ways, encouraging us in the determination to stand together, shoulder to shoulder, united in our diversity, connected by our fate.

I am once again humbled by the talent that has come together for our Festival from Hawke’s Bay and across Aotearoa, with content that will entertain and challenge us. Works that are courageous, korero that will be bold and stories that are more relevant to listen to than ever. Alongside there will be many opportunities to indulge in the arts for free, be that music, installations and exhibitions in Hastings or Nuit Blanche, Art after Dark in Napier.

So come out, commit to a region that celebrates the arts and nurture the platforms that bring us the stories of today and artists of tomorrow, with critical voices and talent to boot.

See you at the Festival. Tickets are on sale now at www.habf.co.nz

Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival Director, Pitsch Leiser, with Ngatai Huata from the cast of Tūtira mai ngā iwi. Photo: Florence Charvin

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