The woman behind the fringe

18:51, Feb 11 2012
Emma Giesen
Fringe Festival producer Emma Giesen.

Emma Giesen, an unknown in the the world of Wellington arts, has taken over the production of a beloved event, the NZ Fringe Festival. Diana Dekker asks where she popped up from.

They sing, they dance, they pretend, they paint, and every one of the 60 acts in the NZ Fringe Festival which began colouring the capital on Friday first comes under the watchful eye of Emma Giesen.

She's not there to tell them whether they're any good or not, but to mollycoddle them a bit, make life easier, hand out a little Creative New Zealand money, help them realise their dream.

Giesen, 40, is the manager of a group set up last year to run the festival and the Cuba St Carnival. They have been defining events in Wellington's art world and Giesen is virtually a complete unknown. Where did she spring from?

"Actually, I sprang from Peru," she says. "I'm a bit of an adventurer. I've been in Laos as well." There, she worked with community groups, a conduit between them and international development and aid organisations. Which seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the esoteric world of art.

But, no, she says, "it doesn't feel like a change of career. I'm using skills I've built up over the years and starting an organisation. The subject matter is different but the skills are the same. It's about relationships and managing projects, getting funding and setting things up".


It also transpires that she grew up playing the piano and the flute, going to dancing classes and being taken off to art galleries and theatrical performances by her mother, Laffy Roberts, now involved with the Taranaki Arts Festival, which her partner, Roger King, directs.

"It just turned out that I'm a good organiser and administrator," Giesen says, "and I do enjoy the getting-the-money side and the thinking out projects and figuring out how it will work and be structured." She sees herself as a sort of diplomat with an empathy for artistic people, and a go-between bridging them and business and governmental groups  "same as in development stuff".

She's very aware of the responsibility of protecting such loved events. "If I failed, I'd probably have to leave town." She knows she's come in at a critical time when the arts have a flimsier claim on public funds than communities that have been rocked by tragedy, but she's not fazed.

Because of the timing of the formation of the Creative Arts Capital Trust she leads, she was obliged to apply late for Creative New Zealand funds, and people who wanted to be in the festival this year had to be quite sure they were taking a plunge for love. But money did come through. She's already thinking of funding for next year and has a few new sponsors, like the Wellington Community Trust, and a big print company.

"The Fringe is looking really, really good," she says. "It's smaller than it has been in the past  100 shows are now 60  but it's bigger than last year.

"There's a real mix of things in there. The National Library is doing a poetry night in Meow Cafe, there's puppetry, a rap comedy show with a bit of social commentary, and there's quite a strong component of visual arts this year, and music is always strong."

She wants to see the alternative fashion show at Bats, the festival's key venue with 15 shows. She'd like more multi-cultural elements. There's nothing, for example, from the Pacific Islands. "These groups may not have thought of the Fringe, but it's everybody's festival." And, she says, it's everybody else's festival, with nearly half the shows free.

Giesen comes originally from Hawke's Bay. She studied Eastern religions at Canterbury University  "I was always interested in anthropology"  and then travelled with a friend in Africa for a year and India for six months. She mulled over the idea of development in those countries and returned to New Zealand to do a degree in development studies.
Giesen has two young children and came to live in Wellington when her husband took a teaching job here.

"I've been amazed by how open Wellington is as a community. I've never lived anywhere where everyone is so open to different points of view.

"In an artistic community they could have said 'who is this person coming in?' I haven't had that at all. Everyone is only helpful and really encouraging. Quite extraordinary. Wellington is quite a small community but it has an openness."

The 2012 New Zealand Fringe Festival is on until March 3.

The Dominion Post