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Charlie Unwin | Programming Advisor, Nelson Arts Festival

It’s Charlie Unwin’s role to programme great works for the Nelson Arts Festival but as he says in this interview with Dione Joseph, it’s not just about the shows. It’s the place and people that create the atmosphere for a successful festival.

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The Nelson Arts Festival team of three full time staff and a host of enthusiastic volunteers are gearing up for one of the most exciting times of the year. This year the festival is boasting the biggest line up to date, jam packed with 65 events across thirteen days in October.

As with any festival, programming starts years in advance. So for Unwin there is often much history and personal connections when he finally sees this rich collection of curated visual, performance, music and literary stories play out in Nelson.

In particular Unwin is thrilled that iconic Kiwi band Trinity Roots are returning to the sunshine city.

“Trinity Roots have played here before so we’re delighted that they’re coming back. This time however they’ve paired up with Irish music legends to create Motu : Oileain, which means ‘islands’ in Te Reo and Irish respectively.”

There is also Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen’s The Mooncake and the Kumara, which is quickly becoming a staple favourite, as is the Kiwiana cabaret Daffodils by Rochelle Bright; both of which are touring the country.

There’s something special about coming to Nelson and having watched the festival change and grow, and the kaupapa has never been more clear for the team, says Unwin.

“It’s the people, and it will always be the people. The programme is one thing, the festival is another. It’s not just the shows, but it’s the energy and atmosphere around it – it’s the impact that the festival can have on a place and its people.”

“What I think makes Nelson different is that we are one of the most experienced festivals in New Zealand. Other festivals might have been running longer but in terms of producing we have 21 festivals behind us along with the experience and support that goes with it.”

The festival is also community-centric. The locals, many of whom Unwin expects will participate in the Masked Parade and More FM Carnivale, will contribute to Nelson’s reputation as the host to one of the largest walking parade’s in the southern hemisphere.

“There is likely to be 5000 people in the parade and about 25,000 people watching. Not too bad for a population of only 45,000.”

The festival also has a firm focus on growing its audience. As a city with an increasingly diverse population the programming of different works aims to reflect that burgeoning diversity.

“We take 10 percent of New Zealand’s refugee population. Our cities are growing and changing and our festivals reflect that change and breadth of vision.”

Welcoming visitors also seems to be what the Festival does well, with the team greeting its guests with their very own Festival waiata. “We do a mihi at least 12 times during the festival. It’s important that our artists know that they are part of the festival whanua, its part of our culture.”

Unwin says they want to be the best regional arts festival in the country. “All festivals have a responsibility to not just develop great works and sell tickets but we all need to push the envelope, raise the thinking and expose audiences to different cultures and to their own cultures in different ways – only then can we advance.”

Festivals across New Zealand are now changing how they work and Unwin notes that the silos of the past have started to disappear.

“This has been happening over the past five or six years,” says Unwin. “It’s clear that we’re all working in different ways and together we’re stronger. We share information, shows and knowledge, there is a spirit of generosity and ultimately it is the people who will benefit from seeing a fabulous range of local, national and international acts.”

After 21 years the Nelson Arts festival is well poised to take its next steps, both as a regional city with a world class festival but also a leader in embracing change.