Preston Guild plans for 2012

The director of Preston Guild explains why the city's celebrations won't be overshadowed by the Olympics. Paul Mackenzie reports

Preston’s once every 20 years party will face some competition from the other big event of 2012 but the Guild’s first ever festival director Stella Hall is confident that the Olympics in London won’t steal the limelight.

The eyes of the world will be on the capital throughout August but Stella, who took up her post in Preston in January, sees the Games as an opportunity rather than a rival.

The 54-year-old said: ‘The Olympics will obviously be one big event in 2012 but as soon as that’s over, it’s all back to ours for the biggest after-show party in 20 years.

‘We will have events throughout the year but the main focus of the Guild will be in the first week of September, that’s just as the Olympics comes to an end.’

The mother-of-one who had ambitions to be an actor as a child, is now focussed on staging the biggest year-long party Preston has ever seen.

Guild celebrations have been held in Preston every 20 years since the 1500s and Stella, who has who has run major festivals in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Belfast, is keen to build on the tradition of the occasion.

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‘There is the potential to develop something unique to Preston. We are not trying to ape anyone else. We will play to the strengths of the city and celebrate the strengths of the city, the beautiful landscaped parks, the river, the alleys and ginnels and the people and their passions and interests.

‘I have not come here with a menu of what I am going to do. I have my own ideas of course and there are things I’d like to do, but the people of Preston will have more ideas and I want to hear them. What I would say is “think big, think different”.

‘My role is to weave a diverse mix of activities that will engage everybody, from large scale spectaculars to intimate chamber music, from children’s performances to contemporary video installations.

‘No site in Preston will not be considered. I am always drawn to the alleyways and we might look at lighting them in a lumiere event or re-configuring the flag market, we might turn Avenham Park into a Victorian pleasure garden. I want to make people look again at the city and realise what it has to offer.’

Although Stella came to Preston after four years in Newcastle, she is familiar with the North West, having started her career in Manchester, where she founded the Greenroom organisation which helped develop theatre, dance and music events, and Liverpool where was director of the Merseyside Comedy Festival.

‘As soon as I was aware of this post I found some grainy footage of the procession in 1972 Guild on You Tube,’ she said. ‘I found it very moving, the commitment of faith in the church procession, but also the commitment to the place. There seemed to be a real feeling that we’re in this together.

‘And that is what struck me when I came here, that Preston is a very harmonious place with a great pride in its diversity, perhaps that’s one of the benefits of being a smaller city. But � while it is a small city, it has a big city mentality.

‘It’s a very welcoming place. In other places I have worked there has been a degree of disdain that I have come in from outside, but there has been none of that in Preston. I already feel at home here.’

Stella has moved into the city centre and, as a non-driver, enjoys chatting to people as she walks into work or waits at bus stops. ‘Everyone is an ambassador for the town and I want to hear as many views as possible,’ she said.

‘New collaborations are what we are looking for, whether it’s a street party where you meet neighbours you don’t know or building partnerships with artists from Oceania, the region which has been partnered with the North West in the Olympics.

‘We want to build on the history of the Guild and build something fitting for the 21st century.

‘We will enhance Preston’s events programme with major events throughout Guild year, the mela, the Caribbean carnival, the Tour of Britain finale and other events. I don’t yet know what the major set piece events will be. I didn’t know when I went to work in Newcastle that I would be involved in building a bamboo bridge across the Tyne. These things arise out of discussions.

‘Making a difference is the thing that motivates me. There’s clearly an energy and a will here to do things differently. There will be something extraordinary and special that will only happen in Preston. The heart of the Preston Guild is trades skills so I’m certain there will be people learning new skills.

‘The legacy of the Guild will come in various forms, there will be the Guild Wheel cycle route and hopefully an increased pride and self confidence and an increased awareness of the specialness of the place. I would like to see more visitors, more businesses relocating here, more hotels being built and more coverage in the national and international media. I would like Preston’s artists and arts organisations to be better known and to develop a new confidence.

‘This is Preston’s event but we are representing the whole of the North West and even the UK.

‘When we travel abroad we revel in these cultural events but in Britain we have lost a lot of traditional celebrations. These special activities where people gather together have become rather thin on the ground but the fact that Preston has kept this going is wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing to build on and to invite the world to participate in.’

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