Following up his own look-back at the rise of Green Man since its 2003 debut, from a close-knit single-dayer into an institution of the UK festival landscape, Adam England quizzes GM director Fiona Stewart about what makes it tick.
Did you ever imagine Green Man would still be here, and as popular as it is, this long after its debut?
Fiona Stewart: I am over the moon that Green Man is still around 20 years later and tremendously proud of the many people who have contributed to its success. I work with an amazing group of people, many of whom have developed their skills to become leaders in their profession. An idea leaves an impact and Green Man is the sum of all those ideas.
Nearly all large independent festivals go under or are bought by entertainment corporations or both; the fact that we are still independent and still here surprises me. The festival industry is brutally competitive and challenging, but it’s been a total adventure and I love it as much now as I did all those years ago.
How has the festival changed and evolved over the years?
Fiona Stewart: Green Man has definitely evolved from a music festival to more of a lifestyle, involved in science, tourism, wellness, training, food and beverage, design and all areas of culture. The charity arm was created 13 years ago – we had always run projects to support emerging artists, and disadvantaged people and engage people with science, as it makes life more interesting if you know why things happen and what could happen. The projects got bigger and needed a space of their own to grow, so we created the charity.
What have been Green Man’s standout moments?
Fiona Stewart: It’s so difficult to answer this question as each festival is full of them! Seeing acts such as Michael Kiwanuka, Fontaines DC, The National, Mumford & Sons, Alt-J leave Green Man as headliners. Seeing legends such as PJ Harvey, Pentangle, Donovan, Super Furries, Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys, The Eagles, Waterboys, and Patti Smith grace the stages.
The contractors gave me credit until after the festival took place during the recession. The looks on faces when people say yes to a proposal, which seems to happen more and more; people laughing and dancing in the rain; giving mints to tired crew and seeing them still smiling at 5.30 am.
Last year, when nervous people moved out of their living rooms and into the world, seeing the magnificence of Welsh drag artists directing them into the festival; watching people connect again, cuddle and smile. The labels written in the Green Man by families who hadn’t been able to be with loved ones when they passed during COVID – using the Green Man and the burn as a way for their families to say goodbye. Green Man babies – there are quite a few of those, too. If you’re not creating magical experiences that people will remember all their lives, you shouldn’t be running festivals.
How do you decide on which artists/comedians/speakers to host each year?
Fiona Stewart: My role is to find incredibly talented people to curate each area specific to their expertise; I have a vision of each area, but they do all the hard work to deliver that. I think it’s very important that a curator has the freedom to book who they want. Sometimes those choices can be controversial or complicated, but it’s a matter of respect and creative freedom.
So much live experience is diluted by sponsorship, funding or financial targets. The joy of seeing an outstanding performance, or experience delivered through the enthusiastic brain of a single gifted human is a singularly unique pleasure.
What measures have been put in place to achieve Green Man’s reputation as a sustainable festival, and have you got any plans to make it even more so?
Fiona Stewart: We see sustainability as a lifestyle and make it part of how we live rather than a tick box of delivery. We never had plastics at Green Man: it’s just not something that we invited in. Alternative energy and practical ways of dealing with waste, energy and food, making it easy and not something people feel guilty about. Living well is fun and brings a lot not just to the planet, but to people’s emotional health and wellbeing.
I would like to explore how to limit and use waste more and live within a natural ecosystem. There are a lot of positive solutions – they need to be tested in a real-world environment, but we are getting there. People are embracing change, and it’s great to see that happening at Green Man and hopefully taking that with them when they leave.
Can frequent attendees expect anything new from this year’s festival?
Fiona Stewart: We’re opening the whole festival a day earlier on Thursday, and we have a lot of surprises in all the areas. There’s a brand new late-night hidden secret cabaret bar called the Wishbone – you have to find it! It starts at 11 pm and that’s all I am going to tell you. There is a massive installation called Weather The Weather which you can sit in: it tells you the weather at that exact location 100 years ago, and what it will be in another 100 years if things do not change. People talk about climate change, but this is the actual reality supported by exact scientific research.
How did you cope during COVID?
Fiona Stewart: The 2020 Green Man had sold out early in February, and I’d paid for lots of the costs in advance to get the best deals – I had no indication that it would be cancelled. COVID cancellation insurance didn’t exist. Many of the businesses I paid upfront went under, others were not in a situation where they could pay me back – contractors I had known for over 30 years, good people who found themselves in a difficult position not of their making.
The messages we were getting on the info line became more about personal advice. Artists wanted advice about setting up home production spaces, then it changed to housing advice, then emotional issues.
Green Man takes place quite late in the season and many – including myself – thought it would go ahead. As the time grew nearer, it became obvious that people aligned Green Man with the date when COVID controls would end; when we cancelled, the reaction was overwhelming and, in some cases, difficult to deal with. People were sad and disappointed, as were we too, but it was more than that. Some were not in a good way emotionally and although we wanted to help, we were out of our depth.
At that point, we reached out to Dr Sean Cross, who is a lead psychiatrist at King’s College. He worked with us to create an online emotional support document with guidance and organisations that offered advice. It’s still on the Green Man Trust website – lots of people have used it, which is brilliant.
Things were still difficult until we got a recovery grant from the Welsh Government, which was amazing. We got through it all because we support each other at Green Man, but we are in a lucky situation that others do not experience. The whole experience was humbling and made me realise how fragile we are; as much as friends and family matter, we should be aware of people who may be isolated too.
What was it like to be back last year after 2020 was cancelled?
Fiona Stewart: It was the most emotional festival I have ever been involved in. It was the first large event to open in Wales, so as well as it being the first time thousands of people had left their living room, there were a lot of other businesses relying on it working so they could open too. We were creating a new system of controls with Cardiff University which had never been done before and got the go-ahead five weeks before undertaking 18 months’ prep in a few weeks.
It was bonkers, but seeing people’s faces smiling, crying and cuddling their friends and family after nearly two years was wonderful. It was a risk to go ahead as we had no financial support and there was still no COVID cancellation insurance, but we were assured by the Welsh Government that the analysis of risk would allow the festival to take place. In the end, as with all independent Welsh businesses, you have to make a decision.
According to the NHS statistics, only 75 people caught COVID as a direct result of attending the festival, the lowest pro rata figure of event numbers in the UK. I would prefer no one to catch it, but being less likely to do so than while walking down a city-high street is a result.
What are your future plans for the festival?
Fiona Stewart: Green Man is always evolving, but there are no big changes planned. I would like to develop the objectives of the Green Man Trust: over 10,000 people have been supported so far, and I think a lot more can be done in the future. Green Man covers so much now and I think we are in a unique position to do what we have been doing for years – introduce people to experiences, innovation and each other in a fun, happy Welsh space.
Green Man, Glanusk Park, nr Crickhowell, Thurs 18-Sun 21 Aug.
Tickets: sold out. Info: here
words ADAM ENGLAND
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