MELTing in May: James Lees
MELT Festival of Queer Arts and Culture is a yearly festival of creative cultures centered around queer expression and story. Hosted and run by Brisbane Powerhouse, the festival embodies LGBTIQ+ representation through theatre and performance. We recently had the chance to talk with MELT Festival’s director James Lees.
From inception to operation, we asked MELT Festival director, James Lees, to describe to us the genesis of the festival, “The festival was born in late 2014, and it came out of, the Brisbane powerhouse wanting to the remit of the Brisbane queer film festival, which at that point had been running for about 15 years and had been very successful, and I think they just wanted to say “well, how can we take that kind of format and community and the audience around that and expand that to some other art forms” such as theatre and music, cabaret, comedy all of that sort of thing; so it kind of came from there. I was asked to come in to work out how that might happen and also direct the new festival that came out of that and what we’ve ended up with is two distinct festivals, as the Brisbane queer film festival retained its identity and its programme to this day, and MELT took off as a kind of companion to that festival.”
We then asked if there was any particular artists or piece that spoke strongly to James over the active run of the festival “Asking for a favourite?” He asked in return, with a laugh “I’d have to say, in the first festival in early 2015, we had Paul Capsis, who I am a great fan of, Australian star, and great singer and actor, and he’s returning this year with his show Resident Alien, so I’m really happy to have him back in the festival, he’s just one of Australia’s best, and an unapologetically queer performer as well, so Paul’s a favourite of mine.
I would also say, more generally [though], the things that I’ve really loved is when I’ve seen, and audience come out who are genuinely reached and affected by something they’ve seen. Where they’ve seen one of their own stories or something they can really strongly relate to represented on-stage, and that’s why a festival like MELT exists, so that stories that you might not typically experience can be told and then shared with an audience, and then shared with the community, that’s really at the heart of the festival. When those moments happen, that’s when it feels like it’s most successful to me.” Again, he chuckled and said, “That was a fairly diplomatic answer wasn’t it?”
Given that the festival is a celebration of queer culture, an internationally recognised cause to be sure, we asked if there were any big, international queer artists that James would love to sign or have involved in the festival, “There are so many performers, [for one] Robert [Webb] is a fantastic addition to the festival, he is obviously very famous from Peep Show and his show [That] Mitchell and Webb Look, I am quite a fan-boy, so I can tell you I am particularly excited to have Robert Webb in the festival, and while not being a self-identified queer performer himself, what he’s writing about is a real issue of masculinity and gender expression, which he’s experienced as a young man in his childhood, which he has put beautifully into his book, that to me has a fantastic place in a festival like MELT.
Internationally, I’ve got a wishlist as long as your arm, but a few quick names that I would love to have at the festival. I would love to have Peaches, [and] I’d love to have Boy George, but I think he’s probably a bit too busy … We had Amanda Palmer last year, fantastic performer, and audiences really responded well to her.”
Curious as to what goes in to creating a large-scale festival such as MELT, we queried James on the elements that comprise the planning and production of MELT “It’s a very complicated process to program any festival, you have to balance out many factors, like what are venues that we’ve got, what’s the timeframe we’ve got, what are the resources we’ve got, what’s the budget, what will the audience respond to. But then in a festival like MELT, on top of all of that, you do have a lot of requirements relating to representing all facets of the community as fairly and as honourably as you can, and then there’s [ensuring] accessibility as well, so we have some free events and there’s different kinds of tickets and that sort of thing, there’s a huge amount of thought that goes in to programming the festival like that, and the sort of final piece of the puzzle is when you have that perfect model happening, are those artists that make up that festival, actually available to perform, and if some of them aren’t, you’ve got to seek out others and [there really are] a lot of forces at work, primarily it’s my job to sort out what goes into the festival, but also to balance out as best I can, all of those different forces and all of those different elements [in order to make the festival work as best it can].”
This year’s MELT festival promises to be a party of special magnificence, and we couldn’t help but ask what audiences could expect from this year’s festival, “There are more free events in this [year’s] festival, we have a free opening party and a free closing party, we’ve never had a closing party before. I think the really big, major difference we’ve got this year as opposed to the previous festivals, it that the festival has moved from the beginning of the year to May, in doing that we’re synching up with IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia) Day, which is May 17th.
The festival is opening with an IDAHOT Day celebration which involves the lighting up of the venue, a flag ceremony and we have some guest speakers and an outdoor event that kicks that off and then inside, the Brisbane Pride Choir is celebrating their 20th anniversary with a concert. In presenting all of those events, we’re bringing the festival in line with all of the other international IDAHOT celebrations that happen all over the world, and it is traditionally celebrated with public gatherings, guest speakers and music, and lighting up of public spaces and buildings. So, we’re joining that tradition, and that’s the way we’re kicking off the festival [this year]. [As well as] lots of fun, the Powerhouse gets really buzzy during MELT, any time you go down there’s artists everywhere, they theme the whole place, [there’s] always music playing and always something happening, so it’s a very lively space to go to while [MELT is] on.”
As well as what his responsibilities during the festival would be, “The flippant answer, would be that I swan around with a glass of wine and say “Congratulations” to all the artists on their fantastic shows. That’s what it looks like outwardly, but I’m present for everything and very closely in touch with all the artists, and continuing to support them with anything that they need [in] preparing their shows … because I’m an artist myself, I’m a theatre and event producer, a musician and music director as well, so I’m very artistically engaged with all the artists. Just making sure that everybody has a fantastic time and has everything they need at the festival.”
As James had mentioned that he was a performer as well, and enquired as to any upcoming performances that he himself is involved in outside of his duties as MELT festival director “I’m with a group of ten musicians, I’m directing a performance as part of the Commonwealth Games Cultural Program, which is in Southbank Forecourt called Heart Music [Sat 7 Apr 2018 12:30pm – 01:30pm, Free Entry], and musically directing and co-producing a new theatre work, which isn’t announced yet, an upcoming new work at the Powerhouse, a major work in June.
I do all of that work under the name Electric Moon. As Electric Moon, I’ve presented the Ziggy Stardust shows which were in MELT in 2016, and then toured Australia, and all sorts of blockbuster music events [besides], that’s the main thing I do. “
To close the interview, we asked what parting words James would like to express to our readers, “I would say, that you’d be living under a rock if you didn’t notice that the marriage equality laws have changed at the end of last year, so I guess that just adds a really celebratory edge to a festival like MELT and really any queer festival that’s coming up straight after that announcement that happened late last year. All of these festivals have been really great [for] communities to come together and reflect on that and celebrate that too. That’s going to be something that’s going to be special to this MELT Festival, it’s the first one after the marriage equality vote and it’s going to be a really significant part of the festival, we don’t have a section of the festival or a program that’s specifically about that, but it’s just going to be a feeling that’s going to permeate it, so I think that’ll be a really nice feeling.”
What: MELT 2018: FESTIVAL OF QUEER ARTS AND CULTURE
Where: Brisbane Powerhouse 119 Lamington Street,
New Farm QLD 4005
When: THU 17–SUN 27 MAY, 2018
How Much: Various