All things great and small

ONE of the things Joe Sidek loves about the George Town Festival (GTF) is how it turns him into “a little kid”.

“I’m allowed to learn, and try, and I’m teaching myself,” said the twinkly-eyed curator at last week’s press conference of the annual celebration of arts, culture, heritage and community in Penang.

Now in its sixth year, GTF 2015 returns this August with an all-new selection of shows to intrigue and inspire, educate and entertain.

About 100 programmes have been chosen – 80% of which Joe said are free to access – from over 200 submissions.

Visitors can expect anything from a sizzling dance show combining elements of flamenco, hip-hop and break dance in Spain’s Titanium, a Polish-led puppet show depicting the sunset days of a screen legend in Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue, to Japan’s Robot Theatre project, where the protagonist turns into an android instead of a bug in an arresting interpretation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

International highlights aside, what caught my eye was the 100% Penang show, which aims to be a celebration and understanding of the “human pie chart” populating the Pearl of the Orient.

Joe lit up when I mentioned my enthusiasm to catch the opening show, as he had chased the Berlin-based theatre troupe founders of the internationally acclaimed, interactive 100% City project for two years after viewing a clip of 100% Melbourne.

“It’s my favourite! It’s about the people of Penang, about sharing. What’s very important for me, is that the people feel it’s their festival. It’s not just international shows. GTF belongs to the people of George Town – for me, that’s a big thing,” he shared.

To Joe, allowing local people to take ownership of an opening show is really important to the festival.

100% Penang is based on actual census statistics provided by the Penang Institute,  and will feature 100 regular, non-performer locals chosen according to their age, gender, household type, geography and ethnicity to each represent 1% of the population.

GTF started interviewing over a month ago, and the first person chosen will pick the second, the second the third, and so on.

“It’s a chain reaction. When people are choosing the next person, they have to choose someone from a specific demographic band. For instance, there’ll be 13 people under the age of nine. It’ll be an understanding of what lain-lain (others) means, among other things,” said Joe.

Those on stage will be directed via questions to share snippets of their life, whether it be a story about themselves or their opinion on issues, such as the greening of George Town.

The down-to-earth grassroots performance at Dewan Sri Pinang will also be accompanied by projections to produce a visual spectacle.

“It’s brave because it allows people to speak. I don’t want it to be confrontational or upsetting, It’s an understanding, not a challenge – I want it to celebrate our census,” he added.

The Same Same (A Dan Lain Lain project) photographic installation piece at the same venue will also shine the spotlight on Malaysians to share about the diversity of their upbringings and relationships in the multicultural country.

“It asks people what it’s like to have a 50% parent, or event to be half Malay and half Chinese – do you have to choose if you’re Malay or Chinese? If you’re one-third Malay, are you less Malay than someone who’s full Malay? We want people to think about it – just to think about how beautiful it is to be mixed,” said Joe.

Other local highlights include screenings of Asean film classics and ATM (All Things Malaysian), where Penang’s Lebuh Pantai will host performances and pop-ups to celebrate the best of Malaysia’s traditional and contemporary arts, cultures, foods, films and trades.

For the first time, GTF will also ferry its celebrations to Seberang Perai for the inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival, where 900,000 mainlanders and visitors can enjoy access to pop-up cafes and bookstores, exhibitions, presentations, live acts, a photographic competition, and more.

Of course, a festival of this scale does face funding roadblocks despite the aid of the state government.

To this day, Joe is appealing to interested parties to join GTF as sponsors and partners to enrich the community with greater access to arts, culture and heritage.

“Plans are being mapped out to allow free accessibility to numerous high profile programmes. This is our way to give back to the public, without sacrificing quality, artistry and creativity – we look forward to working with you in this journey,” read the GTF release.

To make his case, Joe also referred to the world-famous Little Children on a Bicycle mural by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, which was put up at Armenian Street in 2012 for that year’s edition of the GTF.

“If I had put it in a gallery, how many people would have been intimidated? Now, over 10 million people have taken pictures with it. Isn’t that really getting access to art?” said Joe, lighting up with a smile that crinkled his eyes.

And as he readied himself for the next bout of interviews, the tireless advocate of the arts expressed a wish to see even more Malaysians partake in this year’s GTF celebrations.

“See you all in George Town!”

George Town Festival takes place from Aug 1-31 at various locations. Enjoy an early bird promotion of 20% off all regular ticket prices for the festival until June 19. For more ticketing details, check out and

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

For more info on GTF, head to 

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Penang , George Town , Festival , opinion , Michelle Tam


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