George Town Festival artistic director Ling Tang aims to engage audiences and initiate dialogues with a stellar line-up

The 15th edition features international acts and local artists who will present more than 70 programmes.

Tang: Dialogue is a powerful tool and we hope everyone involved will set aside preconceived notions [and] actively listen to each other (Photo: Ling Tang)

There is no drama when Ling Tang, artistic director of George Town Festival (GTF), talks about goal, money and greed. She does not see the event making a profit, but wants to break even because they have no funds to cover losses.

“We’re trying very hard to bring in surprises for the audience. It’s either we create something or take the conventional approach.

“We are greedy. We want to engage everyone, from the young to seniors, a wide range of individuals from diverse backgrounds, by taking the event out of enclosed spaces to outdoor venues. Is that too ambitious? I guess. We’re not sure whether we can achieve it, but are committed to giving our best effort.”

GTF 2024, to be held in Penang from July 19 to 28, has an impressive line-up of international acts and local artists who will present more than 70 programmes covering contemporary theatre, jingju (Beijing opera), dance, mime, giant puppetry, music, visual arts, film, workshops, family fun events, free performances and site-specific shows that welcome community engagement.

This 15th edition has a new organiser, Kerson Media Global Sdn Bhd, a broadcast media production and distribution company, which has a RM1.5 million budget from George Town World Heritage Inc to take charge. Half of the acts for the 10 days were selected through an open call for proposals while the rest were commissioned directly by GTF.



“It’s the perfect time to rethink the festival’s essence,” says Tang, brought in as artistic director for two years. She envisions producing a dynamic and impactful event that goes beyond mere entertainment, by standing in the heart of the city and listening to its heartbeat.

“The theme, ‘Here & Now’, invites everyone to reflect on and reimagine the role of an arts fest in our community, and prompts us to consider the evolving relationship between GTF and the city, as well as the changes witnessed over the years.

“I’ve built upon the strong foundation established by the past curating team, which provides us with a robust base to enhance and extend from. By integrating their achievements and extending their efforts, we’re able to grow the event in a direction that maintains continuity while introducing fresh perspectives and innovations.”

Kuala Lumpur-born Tang studied theatre directing at the Central Academy of Drama (Beijing) and trained in institutions such as École Philippe Gaulier and École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in France. She performed in Frieda and Mandarine at The National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, and Palaces (National Theatre Taiwan) and acted in Malaysian films such as The Story of Southern Islet and The Kid from the Big Apple.

She has curated arts festivals and exchange programmes for Kakiseni, as well as directed commercial shows and experimental performances. In 2015, Tang also founded performance venue Now Theatre to nurture emerging talents and encourage creative dialogue.

GTF’s reputation has helped it attract participants who trust the brand and are aligned with its direction, she says. Even so, foreign groups are expensive to bring in and the team is thankful for support from the Embassy of Spain; Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and National Center for Traditional Arts, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Malaysia; Indonesia’s Directorate General of Culture, Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology; the Australian High Commission; and the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur.



Funding, often an obstacle in the way of offering top acts, might affect their execution, but it should not hinder their creativity, adds Tang, who also talks about making careful calculations, strict budgeting and developing plans to ensure financial viability. “We always find creative solutions within our limitations when creating arts. Rather than stifling creativity, these constraints should stimulate innovative approaches.”

Kerson Media’s creative director Chin Teo, responding to questions posed via email, says the company is new to arts festivals and obtained its role of helming GTF through the open call. Set up in 2009, it has organised professional hair and beauty shows, international brand showcases, cooking competitions, blogger experiences, and food tastings.

Is it common practice to have an events organisation lead an arts fest? “Yes, provided they possess relevant experience and expertise in arts production,” Teo replies. She brings her theatre background to this project, and the company has assembled a professional festival team, comprising individuals from different states, to run it.

GTF aims to facilitate platforms that foster meaningful interactions, Tang continues. These may include dialogues between the performers and the public, the artists among themselves and with policymakers, the participants and organisers, and even the former with the city.

“Dialogue is a powerful tool and we hope everyone involved will set aside preconceived notions, actively listen to each other, and engage in sessions that hold genuine significance,” she says.


This article first appeared on July 17, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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