If I wanted to compose a trivia question in which the answer was Jeni Caffin, what might I ask?

How about: What literary festival director once shared an apartment with a fellow theatre student named Mel Gibson?

So you got your start in acting?

My parents insisted I get a university degree first, so at Melbourne University I delved into Comparative Religions, Indian Art and Architecture, and English Literature, before going to National Institute of Dramatic Art for three years. I got a few roles and voice-over work. My biggest break of all was becoming the manager of Angus & Robertson’s flagship store, after quitting acting.

Where do we find you right now?  

I’m based in Byron Bay, and I have just completed twelve months working with NORPA, a performing arts organisation based in Lismore NSW, directing their Big Think ideas program, but I have resigned from that. I’m staying in Ubud to lend a hand at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival this month.

Directing literary Festivals is a curious obsession. I don’t think the work can ever be described as a job, as a routine behaviour. Whether the team be tiny or huge, the director must have passion, vision and an overarching curiosity for ideas and story. It’s all about the story: finding it, exploring it, telling it, listening to it, sharing it. In these days when so many world leaders threaten to divide and fragment, finding the common threads and unifying voices, while honouring and celebrating differences, is essential.

It is my desire to present an encounter with interesting minds that drives me, and the opportunity to dig deep, to discuss and examine issues that challenge and shape our lives. And to have fun! I have a world of conversations inside my head and the joy of a festival is finding the people to articulate them and hope that audiences find them equally compelling and that maybe, just maybe, horizons can be broadened and intellectual boundaries transgressed.

Sure, a Festival is but a few days, but that coming together, that community, continues to fuel ideas and the possibility of change, of new work, of more story, long after the physical event has ended.

What traits does a Festival Director need to possess?

Obviously and crucially the ability to keep calm under pressure. Especially if one is operating outdoor venues, the number and variety of Things That Can and Do Go Wrong is incalculable and insurance doesn’t cover them all. I find that, as Festival week hits, I descend into the Coma of Calm. I am an incurable optimist, which helps, but I also know that there is a solution to every situation and challenge and that it will be found.

The ability to know and exploit the strengths of one’s team and to be able to manage and lead with respect and to allow people the space to do their own job matters greatly.

At Byron I found that being mobile during the Festival was invaluable. By that I mean constantly moving about the site, observing, listening, being visible. The site was vast and I often longed for a small horse, but this did mean that potential problems were noticed and rectified at first hand and quickly, rather than being reliant on reports being relayed and details being sought and solutions delayed.

Most importantly, the director must believe passionately in the vision, have an eagle eye for detail and have humility in bucket loads. It’s not about you, it’s about the writers and thinkers and the people who have come to learn and enjoy.

What personality traits are most useful in Festival staff?

COMMON SENSE. Goes without saying, and yet must be said. Whether we’re talking paid or volunteer staff, common sense is crucial. For this clear instruction and job descriptions are of paramount importance so that staff members are comfortable with what decisions they are allowed to make. I have seen so many examples of Festival directors being hassled by questions such as whether audiences can be allowed to stand in aisles, whether more chairs should be put out, whether a writer can sit in a sponsor seat, whether a car park full sign should be put up, what to do if a volunteer doesn’t arrive for a shift, where the Lost & Found box is… So silly and a clear chain of command and a clear head would allow the Festival director to deal with more pressing matters, such as two writers attacking each other behind the toilets or a naughty writer being inebriated and running fully clothed into the sea.

HUMILITY. Again, it’s not about you.  And this applies particularly to volunteers, who sometimes become star struck, or even pushy, if in close proximity of a favourite writer, and forget that their primary function is to serve and facilitate, rather than to lose consciousness at the feet of their idol. I exaggerate, but only a little.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL. If one is presenting a Festival with guests flying in from far and distant places, staying in various accommodations, presenting in a hundred different over numerous locations, the propensity for things to go wrong is vast, unless meticulous attention is paid to every stage of the organisation. This applies particularly to the regular administrative staff, but applies to a degree to the on-site volunteers as well. Knowing that the details have been examined and checked brings confidence and comfort to writers and audience alike.

COMMUNICATION. Ability to speak and write promptly and without ambiguity. Not as easy as one might suppose. Lack of clarity breeds confusion whether it’s in forward planning or on the site itself.

CONFIDENCE. Which comes from all of the above and means that staff and volunteers can provide a smiling, warm and happy face of the Festival so that all are greeted with a sense of community, camaraderie and complete openness to what is about to occur

Do you agree that the more famous a person is, the more they want to be treated like a normal person; and the less famous want to be fussed over? 

There was a case In Byron some years ago where a celebrated but humble Australian writer was embarrassed abjectly by his publisher. Byron, like Ubud, is a very egalitarian Festival and as far as possible, writers receive identical treatment and entitlements. This person’s publisher deemed it necessary to convey him on to the Festival site in a limo, when walking was the means chosen by everyone else, and surround him with entourage and minions. He was so worried that people would think he had demanded such treatment that it quite ruined the Festival for him.

On the other hand, I did present a person of international repute who demanded everything. He was so charismatic that he actually got everything, and without my having to lift a finger. People piled on top of each other to deliver.

People are people: there are no generalizations I can make. I have seen every manner of behaviour and have been moved, exasperated, amused and overwhelmed again and again and again. By and large, if people want to be fussed over, I will fuss over them. They are the ones putting themselves on the line with their words and their work and their public appearance. If it settles nerves or soothes the spirit to be cosseted and cocooned, I will do it. It’s part of my job and I want the writers to have the best possible experience as well as the audience

What, in your career as a Festival Director, has surprised you the most?

The amount of alcohol journalists can drink.

I was initially blown away by the respect and openness with which the majority of writers treated me when I was an untested Festival director and by the generosity with which participants embraced my programming and suggested panels/conversations/performances. I cannot remember any writer saying no to a suggested panel. Of course, people say no to invitations: each little rejection of an invitation feels like a wound, but having the skin of a rhino means I shrug the wounds off quickly. Once in the fold, the capacity of writers to engage with ideas and with each other on stage is phenomenal. I was also surprised by the amount of time I spent in discussion about portable toilets. In my first years on slightly difficult sites, the number, gender breakdown and placement seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, but I quickly learned there were two things Festival audiences inevitably complain about: the length of the coffee queues and the position, number and banging doors of the portaloos.

I could write volumes on this. I’m almost weeping and breathless as I type.

How crazy can it get?

Look, what happens at the Festival stays at the Festival, but there is the incredible story of two writers who must necessarily remain nameless (although everyone knows who they are), who became enamoured of each other over opening night beverages, and sealed the deal in a beachside bush at the end of an increasingly chaotic night. A child ensued and scandal swirled.

One golden moment that endures saw renowned actress Miriam Margolyes cause ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien to fall off his moderator’s chair when in conversation she described Vanessa Redgrave’s pubic hair as the prettiest she had ever seen, very like Kerry’s own strawberry blonde hair!

A venerable Australian political journalist described in print the wife of an ex Australian Prime Minister as looking as though her face was caught between two floors as the result of a facelift. A week later said journalist emerged from a portaloo at the Festival site to receive a face slap from same angry wife.

And the rewards?

Wonderful memories stem from musical interludes in literary festivals. I paired the great Australian singer songwriter Paul Kelly with the revered indigenous musician Archie Roach. The two became firm friends, and one of the most moving moments of my festival career occurred when I found them singing and softly rehearsing together behind the Green Room. Such love and respect between artists. Then they shared that love and respect on stage in front of a thousand people in a Festival marquee.

This is why we do it.

Jeni Caffin, sincere and witty, as always! Thank you!

– Interview by Renee Thorpe for KRWF Gazette