Joe Sidek, head of George Town Festival, to direct his first play which is inspired by a 51-year-old film

Helming the George Town arts festival allows Joe Sidek to embrace new experiences and programme with the young in mind

Festival director Joe Sidek will make his directorial debut this year with a play that has been on his mind for about 40 years.
Festival director Joe Sidek will make his directorial debut this year with a play that has been on his mind for about 40 years.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NUS CENTRE FOR THE ARTS


Mr Joe Sidek, head of George Town Festival in Penang, is passionate about people.

When he speaks about an eight-year-old boy who emptied his pocket to donate $1.50 to the arts festival, tears well up in his eyes.

"Every year, we have students and orphans seeing the shows for free. Can you imagine this boy with no money giving me his $1.50 and then you have big CEOs who don't even respond to our fund-raising efforts?" he says of the 2012 incident.

"To me, that was the most magical moment."

Mr Sidek, 58, was in Singapore recently to give a talk about the future of festivals. The event was a curtain raiser for the NUS Arts Festival, which runs from March 10 to 25, and features dance performances, plays, music concerts and film screenings.


  • WHERE: Various places WHEN: March 10 to 25

    ADMISSION: $18 to $27 for ticketed events, with some free events


Mr Sidek says he programmes the eight-year-old George Town Festival for Malaysians, primarily the young, even though it is popular with tourists.

He says: "When I was teaching in some schools in Malaysia, I asked 13-year-old kids, 'What is culture to you and what is the arts?' They could name pop star Justin Bieber and K-pop groups, but they knew nothing about our own culture. It's shocking, but can you blame them? Because there is no access."

This year's George Town Festival runs from July 28 to Sept 3. About 70 per cent of the programming is free.

Mr Sidek, a bachelor who used to run his family's textile business, says he enjoys imparting knowledge to young ones who want to learn.

"I'm a closeted teacher. I love sharing knowledge. I feel like my clock is ticking and I want to pass whatever bits of information that I've gathered to people and share it," he says.

1 What have you learnt after helming George Town Festival for eight years?

It's taught me not to fear. When you ask people to do something new, the first thing many of them would say is, "It's going to be difficult" or "Cannot". You know, if I had said no to doing the festival in 2010 because I was afraid, I wouldn't be where I am today.

2 What's your proudest moment of the festival so far?

When people on the street come and hug you or shake your hand and say they enjoyed a show.

Last year, we organised the second Butterworth Fringe Festival. It was in the middle of nowhere and we just did programmes on the street. An elderly Chinese couple came to shake my hand - these are people who don't know you. They had a nice time and are grateful.

3 Are there any new projects on the horizon for you?

This year, I will be making my debut as a director of a play that's been in my head for 40 years.

When I was 18, I watched a made-for-television movie titled The Human Voice (1966), starring Ingrid Bergman. It is about a woman who talks to her lover who's marrying someone else and she goes through the whole gamut of emotions - pain, loneliness, insecurity, anger and betrayal. The original play was written by French writer Jean Cocteau.

4 What are the themes in that movie that interest you?

It's been in my head, about why people become lonely. There's a certain quotient of loneliness in a lot of people that nobody knows how to deal with. I've been fascinated by that subject. I must say, though, that at this point in my life, I'm not a lonely person.

5 How do you feel about directing a play for the first time?

It's really, really scary. But I can't be scared because I tell people not to be scared. It's okay, I'll learn.

You can do the things that you want to do. I can't do some things. I can't race cars because I'm terrified of speed. But if you want to do something, what is there to stop you?

6 What was your earliest encounter with the arts?

When I was five, I was taken by my father to Kelantan to see a show - I think it was a Mak Yong performance. It was performed outside and I thought, "Wow, what is this?" I think my love of the arts was triggered there.

7 How do you deal with criticism?

Only the criticisms of my late father used to hurt me. With everyone else, I don't take it personally. I take it as a positive thing that I can learn from. My mother loves me, so you can say whatever you like.

Trust me - the day you realise that your father and your mother love you, you can take over the world. I strongly believe that.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

As a good son.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Be bold and love people'. Print Edition | Subscribe