An Interview with Helen Meller Director of Hebden Bridge Arts Festival
[Images courtesy of Hebden Bridge Arts Festival]
This annual festival celebrates the creativity and unique landscape of Hebden Bridge. Locals and visitors enjoy a feast of creative activities in great locations. The Hebden Bridge Arts Festival is one of Yorkshire’s longest running arts festivals and is in its 22nd year. This year’s festival entitled The Hills Are Alive starts on 26th June and continues to 5th July 2015.
TSOTA writer Madeleine Walton interviewed the Festival Director Helen Meller ahead of the launch event at Hebden Bridge Town Hall on the 14th May…
TSOTA: How long have you been director of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival and what had you done previously?
HM: Since 2013. Before I moved to Hebden Bridge I worked in London in television as Mariella Frostrup’s producer.
TSOTA: What attracted you to the post?
HM: Hebden Bridge is an extraordinarily beautiful and creative town and the challenge of trying to reflect that in festival terms was irresistible.
TSOTA: Do you live in Hebden Bridge? Is that an advantage or disadvantage?
HM: I do and the festival office is in the town hall so we really do eat sleep and breathe it. It’s amazing how much business you can do on the way to work, in the market, the co-op and even the post office! It’s a real privilege to be able to live and work in such a supportive and can-do community.
TSOTA: What do you like to do in your spare time?
HM: I’m a voracious reader and gallery goer. I also love fossil hunting and shell collecting and finding new and storied places.
TSOTA: What makes the Hebden Bridge Arts festival unique?
HM: It is the product of 21 years of creative endeavour from all aspects of the community – not least our loyal band of volunteers. The programme is an eclectic and diverse mix of stellar performers, new work and place based work and community activity. It’s a cultural melting pot that could only really exist in this way here in Hebden Bridge because of the people, the landscape and the innate creativity of the locale.
TSOTA: Who comes to the festival?
HM: Hebden Bridge and Calderdale residents and visitors from Yorkshire and Lancashire predominantly. But we also attract visitors from further afield.
TSOTA: What are the highs and lows of working as the director of the Hebden Bridge festival?
HM: One minute you can be taking Simon Amstell for dinner and drinking beer with the Tiger Lillies and the next you can be hanging bunting in the square and mentoring a group of young producers to create an outdoor event or working with community groups to deliver an annual showcase. Immense variety, you never ever get bored. But funding is always a challenge, particularly to enable us to deliver more free events.
TSOTA: Did the festival manage to continue through the flooding?
HM: I’ll never forget that year. The town was hit really hard but everyone rallied round to help each other. We weren’t sure whether holding a festival was even the right thing to do at the time (logistics aside, would the town want a celebration?) But when Prince Charles came to town he told me just how important events like ours were for morale so the show went on. The picture house worked round the clock to dry out its seats for our Stewart Lee gig. We donated our street collection money to the flood fund and did all we could to help and support. If anything it made the community stronger and more closely bonded.
TSOTA: What one thing would improve the festival?
HM: Guaranteed good weather !
TSOTA: How has the festival coped with the period of austerity we are currently experiencing?
HM: Hebden Bridge is a very resourceful community and so is its festival. Sustainability is our mantra and we look to a variety of sources for income generation from ticketed events, grants, individual giving schemes, sponsorship and donations. We are so very fortunate to live in such a creative place, where great art literally grows on trees….
TSOTA: What would you say to convince someone to attend the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival who has never been before?
HM: Hebden Bridge is not so much a place as a state of mind and its festival reflects that. Once you’ve visited Hebden Bridge, you’ll never want to leave and hopefully our festival is able to encapsulate that in an immersive and unforgettable 10 day period.