The Winds of Change – Henley Festival’s CEO Is A Breath of Fresh Air By Fiona Sanderson
Every year, the Henley Festival of Music and the Arts is held on the banks of the River Thames. It is held on the same spot as the Henley Royal Regatta, which takes place the week before. The Henley Festival has established itself as a unique experience, bringing together world-class musicians, performers and artists over five days, in one of England’s most magical settings. An event of both style and substance, the Festival’s showcase spans classical, rock, pop, jazz, opera and folk music, with headline acts gracing Henley’s famous floating stage. There are a host of visual arts and dance, as well as comedy from leading comedians and actors.
Having been to the Festival over many years, I have witnessed this spectacle both from the lawns and from a boat. Black tie is the norm for the lawns and definitely warm and colourful clothing for the boats. The river is awash with all kinds of boats and is certainly a jamboree of colour and sights!
I managed to catch up with the Festival’s new CEO, Charlotte Geeves, who has taken over from Gill Mitchell, who headed the Henley Festival for ten years. Whilst the new CEO’s background is firmly routed in the arts, Geeves admits that she’s never actually been to the Festival before. That aside, she has had an illustrious career working with a host of famous artistic directors at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sadler’s Wells and Salisbury International Arts Festival, and no doubt will find her feet very quickly.
So, just how daunting a prospect is it to take over the helm? “I was attracted by the offer as I love music festivals,” she enthuses. “I thought it presented a great opportunity; one I was ready to grab with both hands.” Well, quite. After all, who wouldn’t want to be involved in a festival who, over the years, has boasted some pretty big names? This year is no exception, of course, with legendary performers Lionel Richie and Spandau Ballet set to take to the floating stage, and comedians Adam Hills and Mark Watson are billed to provide the laughs later on.
As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but surely Geeves is going to want to input some sort of change? “The most sensible thing is to get to know the festival properly before making any big decisions,” she says candidly. “I think you learn a lot from actually going, rather than bringing in sweeping changes that might not be appropriate.” Ah yes, of course – because Geeves hasn’t ever attended, she wants to experience the festival first-hand before making any changes. Although Geeves won’t tell me about her plans for future festivals, she does tell me that she shares a musical empathy with Stewart Collins, the Festival’s Artistic Director, who has been at the helm for over 25 years. “We have some pretty eclectic ideas and hope to push some musical boundaries,” she tells me. “There is no other festival like Henley and we hope to bring some refreshing ideas, as well as staying loyal to our classical audience,” she says.
Geeves has relocated her family to Henley to be fully immersed in the community here. “It’s really important that I’m living in the town where the festival happens, so I can get to know everyone – and vice versa,” she says. “Building links with the community is vital.” As a life-long Henley resident, I couldn’t agree with her sentiment more, and she certainly seems to have her head screwed on in terms of establishing exactly what she needs to able to deliver. There are plans to re-introduce a classical element to the Festival next year, and continuing to attract big name crowd-pleasers is obviously still top of the agenda. After all, the crowds are what make the money. “The festival attracts big audiences, so we want to continue that so we can reach capacity every night,” Geeves says. “But there’s always scope to grow it – not just artistically, but also in terms of the audience.” So, with her work seemingly cut out for her and a relocation to contend with, what does she think of her new home? “I’m very happy here,” she smiles. “It’s a beautiful part of the world.”
So, what of the finances? Geeves tells me that the Festival is in a good financial position now and she hopes that this can only continue. As in previous years, all net proceeds from the Festival will go direct to its parent charity – The Henley Festival Trust, which finances the Festival’s charitable and community activities. Examples of some of the Trust’s work are providing visual arts workshops at the Chiltern Centre for Disabled Children, music therapy for brain-injured attendees at Headway Day Centre in Henley-on-Thames, music workshops in local schools, and instruments for promising young musicians. So all for a good cause and worth visiting for a memorable evening’s entertainment!
The Henley Festival runs from Wednesday 8th to Sunday 12th July. For more information go to www.henley-festival.co.uk.