Nick Cody interviews Mary Agnes Krell about GNUF, now in its 5th year

  1. What inspired you to create the first GNUF?

Having moved up north from London, I was surprised at how few ukulele events were happening in the region. This was five years ago and at the time there was only one big annual ukulele festival in the country (in Cheltenham). There’d also been a few others (the London Uke Fest that took the world record for most people playing uke in 2009 and the Worthing Ukulele Festival in 2010). Having gone to all of those things, I’d been inspired by the things they did well and (crucially) I’d come to believe there was space to do something different and to do it in the north.

 

  1. How has the festival changed over the years?

What an excellent question! I want to say that it hasn’t changed at all but that would be a fib. It’s settled into its own identity. What started as a ukulele festival has evolved to become a kind of ukulele extravaganza. People describe GNUF using words like, “inclusive” and “engaging” and they use phrases such as, “there’s nothing quite like it”. They tell us, “there really is something for everyone” and that they, “look forward to it all year”.  They talk about GNUF as if it’s their own and that is what GNUF has become… a festival that belongs to the people who make it… the audience, artists and even passers-by.

 

  1. How do you account for the success of GNUF when others festivals have disappeared?

I am a firm believer in making plans and part of those plans include the evolution of the festival, its budgets and its very core. At the end of every festival, we ask artists, audience members and our collaborators to share their thoughts. We listen and make notes and we spend a bit of time reflecting on what we’ve learned. We try to build on our successes and we face our challenges head-on. That process is iterative so we spend a lot of time each year thinking and working through it. In a way we are constantly asking ourselves two key questions. (1) What are we doing well? (2) What can we do better? Along with those, I am personally always interested in asking, “Whose voices are not being heard and how can I help change that?”.

 

  1. In the first 4 GNUFs, what are your most memorable moments in terms of acts?

I see very little of the festival it has to be said. I am often either locked in the festival office helping make things run smoothly or I am actually running around to do that. It’s for that reason that some of my memories are a bit odd.  I’ll list them by year. It helps me think through it.

GNUF 1 – 2013 FEAR OF FALLING CEILINGS: I remember thinking the ceiling might actually fall on my head when, above the office where I sat, Mike Warren was so good on the mainstage that the whole crowd was stomping their feet and clapping their  hands.

A FLASHMOB BIRTHDAY PARTY: Martyn ‘EEK’ Cooper is a phenomenally lovely person. I just knew it the first time I met him and when I invited him to GNUF I asked him simply to, “try to do some nice & fun things”. He SO did! He’d somehow figured out that it was the birthday of one of the shopkeepers around the corner from the venue and so he organised a Happy Birthday Flashmob of punters and artists.

GNUF2 – 2014

THE UKES:

In 2014, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had not yet played a ukulele festival in the UK and I thought it was about time. Booking them was (to that point) the best and scariest decision I’d ever made as regards ukuleles. It was totally worth it! I managed to sneak into the auditorium for one part of one song and, mirroring my feelings, it was the song Happy. Just magic!

TAPDANCING PENGUINS: Josephine Shaker is a tapdancer who regularly performs with Tricity Vogue’s All Girl Swing Band.  I had seen the contracts so I knew we would get the tap dancer. What I did not know (until the moment it happened) was that she would dress in a penguin costume and run out into the audience (dancing with punters at one point).

GNUF3 – 2015

RAINING BUTTERFLIES:

I had this idea that it would be good to occassionally insert things into the festival that people would in no way anticipate. The first time I did that was when I booked Kiki Lovechild to perform his butterfly routine at the theatre. When he came onto stage (a silent clown with no ukulele), you could sense unease in the audience. Who was this guy and where was his uke? A few minutes later, by the end of his routine, as a 10 foot fountain paper butterlies rained down upon him, people were smiling, cheering and crying with joy.

MIM.

In 2015, Mim came to GNUF for the first time and (with her Sideshow Stage) created something that has come to embody the spirit of GNUF and the joy of music that I believe is incredibly important.

 

GNUF4 – 2016

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers not only got the audience to sing along to their song, “David Attenborough” but they got them to take part with synchronised hand gestures. I was walking through the auditorium when it started and it looked like such fun I spent the whole of the song standing at the back, throwing my arms into the air and shouting “DAVID!” “ATTENBOROUGH!” with a few hundred others.

unplugthewood: This year, for the final moment of the festival, I decided not to do that thing where you bring all of the performers on stage to lead the audience in song. I wanted to do something more participatory. I wanted to end the festival by giving it to the audience. And so we did. Krabbers & his wife Caroline led the audience in song (with artists all over the auditorium, in the seats, standing in the aisle, on stage and behind the curtains) taking part. Everyone played a part in the final moments of GNUF 2016

  1. How much time and planning is needed to create such an event?

I do this on top of my full-time job so I have to be careful of my time and my own energy. I work on the festival before work most days for about an hour and after tea most evenings for about an hour. I work on it throughout the year. I reckon that a conservative estimate of my time spent on the festival is about 500 hours per year. That’s before you consider all of the other members of team GNUF as well as our partners.

 

  1. What’s the biggest challenge in running a major festival?

Finance. It costs over £50k to run GNUF and we have to raise that money every year. As the director the ultimate responsibility for that falls to me. Ticket sales account for little more than 1/3 of that which means that my work is cut out for me raising the rest of what is needed. I know that we could offer much less than we do but I wouldn’t be happy. I want GNUF to be great and for me that means working with a large number of artists and partners from around the world and across the country. That takes time and money.

 

  1. How do you choose which artists to play at GNUF?

We choose 1-2 artists to invite each year. Those are usually artists that we expressly want to work with  because they’re doing something new or inspiring. After that, every single act comes from our Apply-to-Play process. We review those applications (everyone on the team sees every application) and we discuss the pros and cons of each act. Our key considerations are (in no particular order) cost, uniqueness, level of skill, what the act will bring to the festival.

 

  1. What is new in the 2017 GNUF?

DEBUTS: We have some debuts from UK and International artists.

NEW STAGES: We have multiple stages that (like Mim’s Sideshow and Tricity Vogue’s Ukulele Cabaret) are events in their own right. They are run by folks from the uke world and bring a bit of their own voices to the festival. These include the Original Ukulele Songs stage on Sunday and the unplugthewood Stage on Saturday.

SURPRISES: We’ve got some other things planned but (as with most years) we like to keep these surprises to ourselves. Let’s face it, just telling people that a clown was going to make it rain butterflies would have impressed few and it would have spoiled the surprise of Kiki Lovechild’s amazing act.

 

  1. What 3 words would best describe GNUF?

Inspiring, Inclusive, Fun

 

  1. As a seasoned promoter, what one piece of advice would you give to somebody thinking of running a music festival?

Make sure your budget is sound and pay your artists. It’s not really very nice to ask artists to play for free (or for very very little) when you are paying your sound person and your venue and the people behind the bar. Why should your talent be the one resource that is undervalued? And as for budgets… I think we’d all like to do far more than we can afford. The important thing is to balance that ambition with the reality of actually paying your bills. It’s not easy but it’s absolutely essential.

The early bird tickets for GNUF sold out in two and a half hours last year. At the time of posting this interview there are still some tickets available for the GNUF 2017 HERE

Stop press –

OUS ran a stage in 2017 but decided against further live stages at GNUF and instead are exploring live opportunities where artists can play for more than 20 minutes to listening audiences interested in original music

 

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