Oxford is one of my favourite cities in the UK (see my blog post with tips for live music, charity shops, museums, cafes and more) and every April it hosts a lovely, volunteer-run music festival called Oxford Folk Weekend. Its director, Cat Kelly, agreed to speak to us about her experience running a vibrant community festival.
Life is a Festival: Tell me a little bit about the relatively recent yet rather successful history of Oxford Folk Weekend. Has it always been run by a volunteer committee and what was your reason for starting it?
Cat: Yes FW has always been run by volunteers. It started back in 2011 when the Oxford Folk Festival cancelled suddenly, but it was quite an informal (and impromtu!) event, and our first ‘proper’ festival was in 2012. I’d had a phone call from the director of Oxford Folk Festival confirming that they weren’t going to run another event, and asking me whether I’d like to take over. I’ve been performing at festivals since my early 20s, as well as having been involved in Oxford Folk Festival for a few years, so I like to think I’ve got a fair idea of what’s needed to organise a festival from both sides of it!
Life is a Festival: People often ask me why I am so passionate about festivals and what makes them different from simply attending once-off events or concerts. In your opinion, what makes FWO unique in terms of programming and atmosphere and what role does the city of Oxford play as its very attractive “backdrop”? I personally always really enjoy the variety of ages and backgrounds, local and visiting musicians, non-musicians, morris dancers etc.
Cat: I think the difference about a festival is the atmosphere of the whole community coming together for the weekend – a festival is a big and diverse thing, so everyone can be doing their own thing, and finding the bits they they like, whilst still all feeling like you’re there together for one purpose. When we started FW we wanted to make a festival which really reflected and celebrated the place where it was held, and the city of Oxford is a big part of that. We involve the local community in a variety of different ways (e.g. crafts people, school children, volunteers, charities & good causes at the village fete, local artists, local community music groups etc) and we use interesting and different venues within Oxford. Over the years we have staged gigs in the punishment cells of Oxford Castle (and on top of the Mound!), in the central library, in the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, and this year we are putting on a series of concerts in Blackwells Bookshop.
Life is a Festival: Which brings us to the volunteers, including the organising committee, of course. I believe a festival is only ever as good as its volunteer crew and staff and (besides the line-up) it is often their friendliness and professional attitude which makes or breaks a festival. Do you agree?
Cat: Yes I do. The whole ethos of FW is welcoming and inclusive, and we really rely on our volunteers to be living that on the front line – they are often the first experience that someone has of the festival, and it’s a big responsibility to make sure that their first impression is a good one.
Life is a Festival: What were your favourite festivals moments (just pick a few!) in past years and what are you particularly looking forward to in 2015?
Cat: The gig on top of the Castle Mound in 2013 is one that has stuck in my mind – not least because I was taking 5 minutes out from being festival director and was sat with my daughter (who was 5 at the time) listening to the music in the sunshine. In fact, her involvement in the festival over the years has been one of my absolute favourite things about it – although it takes me away from her a lot of the time (particularly at this time of year!), she loves the festival and has usually planned out what she will be doing right throughout the weekend! This year she’s wanted to get involved in more of the organising, and spent Easter Saturday helping me to laminate backstage passes! What I’m really looking forward to about 2015 is once the festival has got going and all the organisational side of things is ticking along, I get to wander round town soaking up the atmosphere, meeting people who have come to the festival, and seeing what a great time everyone is having. I love it!
Thanks a mil to Cat Kelly for the interview and don’t miss Oxford Folk Weekend which is taking place from 17-19 April 2015.