Daniel Brine: 'My life has been shaped by festivals'

Daniel Brine, director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Daniel Brine, director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival celebrates its 250th anniversary this year – and everyone is invited.  

Britain’s oldest single-city festival will bring everything from a giant domino topple to classical concertos to Norwich from May 13 to 29 and artistic director Daniel Brine said celebrations will be taking place throughout.

“This year is very special for a number of reasons,” said Daniel. “The first is that it’s our 250th anniversary and also because of Covid. Two years ago we cancelled the festival, last year we had a socially-distanced festival. This is us back to full form and that feels really exciting.” 

Several years of work have gone into an intense 17 days in May, which will begin with a spectacular domino tumble through the streets of Norwich and end with music composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams for the 1936 festival.

In between are mini dance parties, a giant unfurling garden, drama in a car park, and opera on a beach. 

Daniel Brine, director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Daniel Brine, director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival will begin with a giant domino topple.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival will begin with a giant domino topple. - Credit: Tom Arran

Daniel became festival director in 2018, so much of his first festival was already planned. Then came Covid, so this is his chance to deliver a fully fabulous festival. There will be dancing, drama, fanfares, pop-up street events and major orchestral concerts.  

"It's a cliché but there’s something for everyone,” said Daniel. “We really think about who our audiences are and we programme for them."

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Daniel was born in Australia, spent most of his first six years in Edinburgh, much of the rest of his childhood in Adelaide, Australia, and went to university in Sydney. 

“They are all festival cities,” he said. “My life has been shaped by festivals.” 

“From my childhood I remember things like the free outdoor events in parks. As I grew up I joined a youth theatre company and had the opportunity to participate, and that sense of participating is really important.” 

Daniel originally planned to be an architect (his parents were architecture academics) but his first job out of university was with the Australian equivalent of Arts Council England. “I was working on a programme looking at intersection of art and architecture in public places. Interdisciplinary has been what I’ve done ever since,” he said. 

He went on to a curating job, researching the history and meaning of crafts, and then a year’s internship at the American Craft Museum in New York. “I knew I liked being away from Australia so I kept travelling and came to England!” he said. 

A job as a funding officer with Arts Council England, working on interdisciplinary arts programmes, led to an agency curating experimental performance across the country, with clients including Tate Modern and the Liverpool Biennial. 

Then he went back to Australia  where he was artistic director and CEO of an arts centre in Sydney. “I thought I was returning to Australia because it was home, but my partner is British and we realised it wasn’t home,” said Daniel. 

Instead, home has become the village of Beachamwell, near Swaffham. And Norwich.  

“We like living rurally, and I also love walking around the city," said Daniel. "On a sunny day Norwich is just gorgeous and if I’m early enough in the morning I will walk along the river to Cow Tower."

He first came to Norwich as a student, to see the Sainsbury Centre, and there are a couple of family connections with Norfolk too. His grandmother grew up in Great Yarmouth and his partner’s grandfather was a carpenter at the Castle Museum.  

Daniel’s second trip to Norwich was with the Arts Council, to see a performance at what is now the University of the Arts – and the third was for his role as artistic director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.  

This 250th year there will be more than 100 separate events, 18 new commissions and 40 free events. Daniel is looking forward to them all but particularly some of the smaller and quirkier parts of the festival. 

“The things that I like are often the small hidden things that you won’t find anywhere else,” said Daniel. “This year we have commissioned nine young composers to write fanfares for the festival. Each fanfare lasts no more than a minute and will pop up around the city, so we’re talking nine minutes of content which people will stumble across. For me it’s those moments in life where you discover something that you weren’t expecting which can be truly marvellous. 

“There will be a map so people may choose to find them, on the hour every hour for the first weekend, but it is those people who are just there at the right moment who will have the most amazing experience. 

“There are also 10-minute dance parties in a shipping container in the city centre. Mini raves. It’s that sort of thing, that people will stumble across and have a go, and talk about in the future. 

“And I will be so excited to see dominoes on the street. 

“We always put as much money as we can into a big opening event. It needs 200 volunteers. That sort of project is lovely to do. The dominoes will drop off balconies, go through people’s homes, climb stairs, meander through the city from Anglia Square to the Forum. It will take all day to set up and about 20 minutes to knock down!” 

This year there will be a focus on the history of the festival, which began in 1772 as a fundraising sermon and service to support the then-new Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. 

“I think the people who were there would have had a real sense of community pride. They wanted the best for their city and they wanted to look after the people of the city,” said Daniel.  

“I would have so loved to have been there for the first sermon. I’ve no idea what it was about but how did they decide they wanted a hospital? How did they decide they wanted to put a fundraiser on? 

“If those people were looking at the programme today they would see us also wanting to engage with the people of the city. And I think they would love a number of the projects we have this year in honour of them.” 

These include Fairytales and Nightingales, a re-imagining of Jenny Lind’s career through the music of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Robert and Clara Schumann, with proceeds going to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. 

“We are celebrating Jenny Lind and her idea of giving. I think he original founders of the festival would have loved the idea that we’ve come back to this idea that arts and culture are part of society and we can invest in other sections of society. 

Daniel said his job includes exploring what a 21st festival should be. “In the 20th century a festival was about showing the biggest and the best, and that is what this festival has been doing for a long time. But in the 21st century we are looking at how we invest in people and make a difference in the community,” he said. 

The festival developed as a three-yearly celebration of classical music. World-famous musicians wrote for it, including Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. On May 29 the Britten Sinfonia and Norwich Philharmonic Chorus will perform Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits, commissioned for, and premiered by, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 1936. “It’s fantastic to bring that back,” said Daniel. 

The modern festival still has a core of classical concerts – and also embraces everything from free family fun to late night cabaret. 

“When I first arrived what I heard all the time was that the festival is too elitist,” said Daniel.  

“It’s not true.  

“We have done a lot of work analysing our audiences and we have three roughly equal groups.  

“The first is a group that likes more traditional arts practices and they will come to classical music, a play by somebody they might know. They are a fantastic audience because they are loyal, they support the festival, they buy tickets.  

“When people talk about an elitist audience they are always talking about this audience. For some reason they are the ones they see, but they are only a third. 

He called another third ‘the hipsters of Norwich,’ saying “Our festival is particularly rich because we attract quite a few of these people who are interested in experiences, they are younger, they are hipper, more an arts centre audience than a Theatre Royal audience.” 

The final third are the audience for the free outdoor family events, such as the Garden Party in Chapelfield Gardens over the middle weekend of the festival. 

“It is really important not to perpetuate this myth that it’s an elitist festival. It’s rooted in a classical music festival but the festival has changed so much in the last 20 years," said Daniel. "Anyone under 26 can get a £7.50 ticket to anything, so young people have got it really good. And we often try to find ways to cross over those audiences, whether it’s a financial offer or an artistic event which blends different things.” 

Every year the festival commissions several new shows. The fanfares commissioned for 2022 link its past with the present and the future. 

“Fanfares occurred in the festival early in the 20th century," said Daniel, "At the Halls players would trumpet out before a concert to get people interested. We were really keen to invest in young composers and players to signal that the festival is about the next generation."

When he goes to a show he is not necessarily focused on the stage or the performers – he is watching the audience and wondering what are people thinking, whether they like it. 

“I will obviously take in the show but often I’ve seen it before so I watch the audience and try to listen to the vibe. You get a sense of what the vibe is in the foyer and that’s really important because you can understand why people are enjoying things or when they have found it challenging or too easy.

“The challenge is to think about what other people are thinking, and make sure you are giving them what they want, and also sometimes surprising them.  

“And of course thinking of who is not in the room and how you would get them in the room next time."

In normal times Daniel might have visited festivals across Britain and Europe to select acts but he has not been able to travel for the past two years. However, his favourite part of his job is actually running the organisation which delivers the festival. “The expectation is that I will focus on the artistic stuff and say it’s all brilliant because I get to see art all the time. The truth is that to run an arts organisation these days is an immense challenge in terms of making budgets add up and getting the most out of your money, and I like the challenge of the job, doing the best we can culturally with what we have got. 

“Sometimes adding up the numbers from the bar can be as exciting as working out which artists to choose, because one will feed into the other, ultimately.  

“I believe that culture enriches lives and part of my job is to enable that enrichment for other people. When we succeed in doing that is when the job is most fulfilling. Everyone expects a festival director to be a big personality you would see on stage and traditionally they have been opera or theatre directors. There’s a new generation of people like me who are more interested in the audience." 

The main funding for the festival comes from Arts Council England but Daniel said: “One of the nice things about working in Norwich is that it is well sponsored by local businesses. The city council is also generous with its support and there is income from ticket sales and the festival bar."

This year tickets sales have been slow to take off. “We are feeling the pinch because of the cost-of-living crisis and people are booking late across the country because of Covid,” said Daniel. 

So, what if there was suddenly a crisis call and even the artistic director had to become a performer? “If I had to get on stage I would work with a group called Figs in Wigs who are doing something called Astrology Bingo. It’s fun, it’s sort of cabaret, it’s sort of mad and I think I could wing it on stage if I had to.  

“Of course I probably wouldn’t be welcome because they are an all-female group so it’s probably not my brunch but if I had to, I'd have a go."

Join Figs in Wigs for Astrology Bingo as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on May 23 and 24

Figs in Wigs present Astrology Bingo as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on May 23 and 24 - Credit: Figs in Wigs

Instead, Daniel is looking forward to a memorable 250th anniversary festival - and already working on the 2023 and 2024 festivals. 

“All festivals are special if they are doing their job well and I think we do our job well in Norfolk and Norwich," he said, "But a festival is only complete when people come.

“I would love this festival to be the one where people say, ‘Oh I just remember getting back on the streets in the sunshine and enjoying Norwich coming to life again.’ That’s when the festival is at its best."

10 events festival artistic director Daniel Brine is particularly looking forward to:  

1. Giant domino topple. May 13.

2. Fanfares created by young composers and played by members of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. May 14-15. 

3. Peaceophobia. Part car-meet, part theatre, part response to Islamophobia, presented by three young men who talk about their experiences as Muslims and as car fanatics. Rose Lane car park. May 18-21. 

Peaceophobia is an unapologetic response to rising Islamophobia. 

Peaceophobia is an unapologetic response to rising Islamophobia. - Credit: Ian Hodgson

4. Fire Songs by Norwich theatre company Frozen Light. An immersive sensory sound experience for audiences with profound learning disabilities. The Garage. May 17-21. 

5. Barbu - circus from Canada. Spiegeltent. May 18-29. 

6. Signal on Sea. A walk-through sound installation covering more than a kilometre of Great Yarmouth beach near the Venetian Waterways. May 20-23, 25-29. Plus Signal at Dusk with opera singers leading audiences through the installation. May 27-28. 

7. Fairytales and Nightingales, exploring the life of Jenny Lind in music. The Halls. May 23. 

8. Between Tiny Cities, hip hop dance from Australia. The Halls. May 24-25. 

9. Sean Shibe, guitarist, Spiegeltent. May 25.  

10. Five Tudor Portraits by Ralph Vaughan Williams, commissioned for the 1936 Norfolk and Norwich Festival, performed by The Britten Sinfonia and Norwich Philharmonic Chorus. The Halls. May 29.