We chat to Joanne Ooi, the entrepreneurial founder of a new festival in the UK called EA Festival, referring to the region where the event is based, East Anglia. David Burr are proud to be media sponsors of this new festival.
I moved to Suffolk from Hong Kong five years ago having worked as a luxury industry creative director, an environmental activist, an art gallerist and a start-up entrepreneur. It took a while to get used to the pastoral cadence of country living after the lightning pace of Hong Kong, and one thing I noticed immediately was that there were thousands of artists living in this region, yet the connective tissue within the regional creative community was threadbare. So in September 2020, after having had months during lockdown to think about how I could best to contribute to the area, I decided to launch this festival as a way of not only connecting the creative hubs of this region together but invigorating the cultural offering for everyone who lives here.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Singapore but grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. That combination alone was the crucible of my personality. I’ve never fit in. Therefore, I’ve always coped by forging ahead without worrying about what people think. I attended Columbia University and then law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite an education that primed me for corporate life, I sought to escape it immediately and decamped to Hong Kong right after graduation from law school, where I started my career working in garment factories in Shenzhen. In typical Hong Kong style, my career has pinballed from fashion to biotech to environmentalism to fine jewellery and, now, culture.
How did the idea come to you for the EA festival?
I was raving to some friends about some festival I’d recently enjoyed and one of them exclaimed, “You should do your own festival here!” Since I moved to Suffolk, I had been thinking about business models that could encourage greater connectivity not only within the creative industry but between the creative industry and regional business. Considering other projects I’ve taken on during my career, a festival seemed very manageable.
How do you let people know about a new festival?
Building awareness, from the middle of nowhere without an existing platform, is undoubtedly difficult. On the other hand, I’m a professional marketeer and I’ve done it before. Truth be told, 80% is just plain hard graft. The key is being very organised and identifying as many points of marketing cross-leverage as possible. By that I mean, reciprocal and successive reinforcement of messaging with and among all the stakeholders involved in the festival, from every speaker and performer to every merchant stallholder. Fortunately, we have speakers and participants with gi-normous social media footprints. Susie Dent for example has 800k followers, Arizona Muse has 280k followers.
We’re also very grateful to our media partner, David Burr, the region’s favourite estate agent, which boasts a mailing list in the tens of thousands. That relationship alone has boosted our visibility overnight. I’m also working with district and county councillors to get the word out among the immediate residents of the area. Every day I wake up and think, ok, how am I going to get the festival under the nose of 10,000 more people? Last but not least, I ensured that the website and its event pages were optimised for search engines so that the festival would rank well on Google within a couple of weeks of going live.
What were the main challenges at the start?
Getting good speakers and artists is key and thanks to the COVID situation we have been able to book people who under normal circumstances would have been booked up years in advance. A kind local friend introduced to me Dame Evelyn Glennie, the renowned percussionist, and John Lloyd, creator of Black Adder, Spitting Image and QI, and they were keen to be involved. These introductions paved the way for other artists to want to come on board.
The other main challenge has been to protect the event in case of further lockdowns. At the moment the government’s roadmap for the easing restrictions suggests that festivals will be able to go ahead from the end of June. However in case this changes, each of our concerts, talks and panel sessions will be filmed so that we can give our audience a wonderful online festival experience if they are suddenly forced to stay at home. Moreover, this allows festival content to be shared the world over.
Tell us more about the line-up?
In all cases, excellence and currency are the touchstones of curation. Speakers have to be leaders in their respective areas and, what’s more, they must be compelling on stage. There are many renowned cultural figures and brilliant speakers living in East Anglia so I made it a priority to include several of them. To give you an idea of the festival’s breadth and diversity — Charles Saumarez Smith, one of the world’s leading art historians, will be talking about his just-launched book, The Art Museum in Modern Times; Louise Gray, the author of The Ethical Carnivore who ate only what she killed or found for two years, the CEO of Suffolk FWAG, Anna Beames and John Lynch, an environmental scientist focused on the impact of livestock farming on climate change, will answer the question, has meat-eating been unfairly vilified?; Cultural commentators and erotic writers, Rowan Pelling, Daisy Buchanan and Jonnie Bayfield, will talk about sex and relationships in the wake of technology and COVID-19; Mike Figgis, the celebrated director (Leaving Las Vegas), will talk about how polymathism is at the heart of his creative practice. That’s just a few of our sessions.
What makes your festival different from other festivals?
One fantastic thing about wading into an industry about which you know nothing is the lack of baggage about how things “have always been done in our industry.” Among my observations about festivals is that they tend to be built around a single type of content – books, chamber music, oysters. Literary and book festivals tend to be launch pads for authors touting their newest publications and although I have no issue with them functioning as sales and marketing platforms for the publishing industry, that fact alone does not guarantee that a festival’s speakers are going to be any good! One of the last festivals I attended before COVID-19 was a well-known history festival and, despite a speaking roster studded with bold-face names, I passed two full days there in a state of near-narcolepsy.
Rule 1: All too often intellectual or artistic brilliance doesn’t actually translate into real-life charisma. That’s why I try to screen-test every EA speaker beforehand, either by watching their video interviews or speaking to them directly on Zoom. A fascinating person is fascinating whether they’re talking about their book or explaining how they brush their teeth.
Rule 2: Think about your audience first then the product. People are interested in lots of different things – food, sex, books, poetry, music, art, politics. Just as you wouldn’t spend an entire day talking about Napoleon or cheese-making, people crave a smorgasbord of content, experiences and voices.
Rule 3: Moderation of a festival is central to its success. EA Festival will tap into that by having a series ofpanel discussions – they are my favourite way to ensure that the air doesn’t get sucked out of the room. Just as important, they provide an opportunity for debate and disagreement – the real gold of festival programming.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep on going…in partnership with more institutions and stakeholders in the region, I hope. I consider the festival a starting point for fostering greater connectivity across East Anglia, at all levels, between non-profits, regional and local business, art and commerce — between all the individuals and groups who are passionate about art, culture and creativity really.