Last month, Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden announced he would be stepping down at the end of the summer. He spoke recently with director and producer Julie Taymor about his love of festivals, and a few highlights of his 20-plus-year tenure at Lincoln Center.

Julie Taymor: My first question is…I want to know why you did it in the first place. What drives you to do festivals?

Nigel Redden: When I was 18, I was a volunteer at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. I went to many performances that I didn't understand or wasn't prepared for. I saw John Cage for the first time, and Merce Cunningham. Didn't understand their work in the least, but realized I was happier than I'd ever been before in my life. And I thought that a festival was the most wonderful way of seeing challenging performances. To see one event on top of another. You make connections that might not really be there, but do exist in your own mind and no one else's mind, and that's what I found so intriguing. And so, when I was 20, I decided I wanted to run the Spoleto Festival.

JT: What did you think running a festival meant?

NR: I wasn't sure what it meant, but I thought that it was a way of being with a diverse group of extraordinarily interesting people.

JT: So, you were what, 18, you said when you started?

NR: I was 18. It was after my freshman year in college. I was a volunteer at the festival. And then after that, they brought me back and paid me the princely sum of a hundred dollars a week, which at the time wasn't bad. This was 1969.


Nigel Redden: Reflections on Lincoln Center Festival
Photo © Shochiku
The Heisei Nakamura-za company performed Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree) as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2014.

JT: When did you start working out on your own? Where did you became a festival director?

NR: Well, the first festival that I put on was New Music America, which was a music festival I planned when I was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. This must have been 1978 or '79. And the festival involved 40 different composers doing pieces all around town. One of the things that was fascinating to me was to create works that were everywhere. So, we had pieces that were in concert halls but we also had pieces that were—Max Neuhaus created a piece for a greenhouse in St. Paul and Chris Janney tuned the steps of the statehouse, where the governor danced down the steps playing a piece of music. And we had a "travel-on gamelon," which was tuned bicycles.

JT: Beautiful.

NR: It was all kinds of things. It was great.

After that I went to the NEA to run the dance program and then the person who was at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston—who also was the American director of the festival in Italy—left, and I got that job. So I was general manager of the festival in Charleston, and the American manager of the Italian festival. So the thing that I wanted to do when I was 20 actually happened when I was 35.

JT: That's amazing. So when you went off to do dance, that's very different than music. Did you know anything about dance before you went to the NEA?

NR: I'd worked at the American Dance Festival and the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. And I'd also put on this festival in Minneapolis about postmodern dance, and at that time, the Walker Art Center was the most prolific presenter of postmodern contemporary dance in the country. So I did know something about dance.

JT: Yes, you did! Did you have one area that was your favorite, or do you have one area that you feel is your most—?

NR: Well, no, I was executive director of the Santa Fe Opera for a while. And I realized that I missed doing all the other things. I missed doing dance, I missed doing theater. Although I do love opera, it has always been great to be able to go across the borders, the boundaries.

JT: But no desire to direct or create?

NR: I am definitely a spectator. I've always wanted to be a spectator. Never wanted to be onstage.


Nigel Redden: Reflections on Lincoln Center Festival
Photo © Stephanie Berger
Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger was presented as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2014.

JT: So when did Lincoln Center Festival start for you?

NR: Well, John Rockwell and I worked together starting in 1994. And then I left in '95 because I was offered the job of general director of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston and, you know, it had been in my blood so I felt I had to go back. And then I came back in '98 when John Rockwell left. They'd offered me the job and I said I wasn't going to leave Spoleto but would help out in the meantime. And so, after six months, they said, "Look, it seems to work—you can do Spoleto and this, so why don't you do them both?"

JT: Wow.

I think your festival is different than everything else going on in New York. It seems very liberal in the sense of pulling the best of the arts from all over the world, regardless of whether they're new or ancient.

NR: I think my feeling was very much that we should be dealing with classical work—classical in the sense of standing the test of time—as well as contemporary work. I was particularly pleased that we were able to bring in a Noh company last year. They looked beautiful in the Rose Theater, where we built a special stage for them. But, perhaps even more important than that, after that they had a dedication of their new theater in Tokyo and said how important it was that the company had come here—that this acceptance in New York was an indication of how this ancient art form could still be relevant to a contemporary audience, which was really very touching.

JT: And let's talk about some of your worst moments? Because those stories are usually the best!

NR: We did a piece called The Ramakien: A Rak Opera, directed by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is a visual artist. And a fistfight broke out onstage! People in the company were having a fistfight onstage. There was so much going on that the audience didn't really know—

JT: They probably thought it was part of the action, right?

NR: Exactly!

JT: And what have been some of the highlights for you?

NR: The Peony Pavilion was a big one, right in the beginning. It was amazing that people who thought they were going to be put off by an opera in Mandarin ended up spending the full 20 hours with it. But there were some others: Ariane Mnouchkine's piece, Le Dernier Caravansérail, which I thought was really lovely. And then the Heisei Nakamura-za I think was actually fascinating. Kanzaburo was extraordinary. And Deborah Warner's Angel Project, which actually went from Roosevelt Island along 42nd Street. Some people liked it, some people didn't, but it made you see the city in a slightly different way. And if you were an angel, why wouldn't you hang out in a skyscraper?

JT: Of course! Why not?

What has resonated most with the audiences? Do you get a sense over all these years of who your audience is? Is it the same audience every summer?

NR: No, I think the audience has changed. It's a specific audience for different pieces, which I think is great. The audience comes specifically to see what we put on. So it becomes a series of audiences that have to be rediscovered every year.

JT: Any other particular productions or moments or people or artists that you want us to know about?

NR: Well, Die Soldaten, at The Armory. I thought that was just extraordinary. And Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger. Then we also had Ariane Mnouchkine's Les Ephemeres and Declan Donnellan's Boris Godunov at The Armory.

JT: Die Soldaten was the most exciting theater piece that I had seen in a long time.

NR: And we did a whole series of plays of Harold Pinter one summer. He directed one of them, performed in another, and we had the American premiere of a third, plus some other pieces. It was actually fascinating to have him. He spoke, and Arthur Miller and John Guare and Edward Albee spoke about him.

JT: That's pretty wonderful.

NR: It was pretty wonderful.

Playwright, designer, and Tony Award–winning director Julie Taymor was the creative force behind Broadway's The Lion King. Her opera Grendel, composed by Elliot Goldenthal and co-written with J.D. McClatchy, was presented as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2006.