Big Interview: Donna Renney from Cheltenham Festivals
DONNA Renney shouldn’t really be here.
The chief executive
Festivals, who has a legitimate claim to being the most important woman in the town’s cultural life, was working for an education trust in Oxford when she took a phone call in early 2001.
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It was a plea for her to help set up Cheltenham’s first Science Festival the year after.
Donna said: “They wanted help just to get things going, sell the idea, get the money in.
“I said, ‘well I can come and do something for three months, maybe six’.”
She’s never left.
At first sight, Donna fits the template of a busy and powerful businesswoman.
She strides up to the café where we meet, briefcase in one hand, handbag in the crook of the other arm, phone and papers being juggled.
It’s only the brocade detailing on her jacket that hints that Donna works in a groovier cultural milieu than, say, a property developer or financial services.
But when she starts to speak, between sips of cappuccino and mouthfuls of coffee-dipped croissant, the difference is obvious. Words come quickly and ideas are plentiful.
One of Donna’s favourite words is passion.
And it’s obvious in her passion for Cheltenham and the Literature, Music, Science and Jazz Festivals.
It’s not the detached fervour of the hired-in professional who will, at some time, move on to other things.
Donna is a local girl, she grew up on a farm in Naunton, and took her A-levels at what became Gloucester College. She lives back in her home village with her veterinary scientist husband
Donna said: “I went to school in Wiltshire and we used to come on school orchestra trips to the music festival, so I’ve known about them for a long time.
“I even picked a college course in Worcester because I was a very keen rider and so I could come home at weekends and ride my horse.”
Donna said: “I’m enormously proud of what the people at the Festivals have achieved.
“Everyone who comes to us says the passion and enthusiasm everyone has is extremely rare. Times like this are really intense and we’re all running on adrenalin and people need extra help.
“We have a thing about ‘go the extra mile together’, and people so often do that.”
Although Cheltenham’s literature festival is one of the oldest in the country, and certainly one of the biggest, it’s the principle of doing more that keeps all the festivals at the top of the tree.
Donna said: “We make it work for the performers.
“We’re creating an experience for them, which creates a great experience for the audience.
“We make sure it’s extremely easy for a performer to get here and away and they have a lovely time meeting interesting people in the green room.
“And we entice them by putting together interesting combinations; at this year’s event on PG Wodehouse we’ve got Terry Wogan and Sebastian Faulks and Hal Cazalet singing songs from Wodehouse musicals, all chaired by Hugo Rifkind.
“The performers enjoy those combinations just as much as the audience.”
Although the Literature Festival is at the forefront of Donna’s mind, during our conversation it becomes apparent that the Science Festival, the youngest of the four shindigs that the festival organisation puts on, holds a special place in her heart.
She doesn’t have a science background, but that passion (there’s that word again) perhaps comes form her life with husband David.
She said watching him give evidence in a court case opened her eyes: “ I saw a real need for the public to be able to speak to scientists directly, to hear from the scientists and to be able to ask questions.
“There’s been a real failure to explain global warming to people here. Different things get heard, but if you were in Bangladesh being flooded and daily life is affected, we don’t hear of that so much.
“That’s the role of the science festival, getting people to understand the science.
“Brits like to be balanced, but on the radio you might have an unknown scientist and, on the other hand a well-known figure like Dominic Lawson, everyone’s heard of him.
“I’m really passionate about allowing people to have access to the information, and really listen and be able to question the scientists.”
This love of science reads across into the other areas of Donna’s work.
Her dream all-time guest (Jesus and Ghandi were disqualified before her answer) is Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple; a technologist not a writer.
“He revolutionised the way we work,” said Donna.
Similarly when offered any festival to put on, with a notionally unlimited budget, Donna turned down the chance to do something oddball and sticks with what she’s got, but different.
She said: “ We’ve got a good structure, I’d develop within that. I’d want to do more with the Literature or Science or Jazz Festivals. “We could have cooking events themed with something else, or if we had Indonesian music in the Jazz Festival, do something with that.”
Fundamentally, it seems Donna sees the different areas of the festival as all part of the same thing – the life of the mind and creativity.
She is working on taking Cheltenham to the world, with plans already afoot for taking what she calls a “science and literature mix” abroad, possibly to the Far East or the Arab world. She won’t say more.
But it’s creativity and intellectual power that Donna identifies as Britain’s gift to the world.
She said: “It’s really important, how to get creativity into our children.
“That’s what our cultural heritage gives us in the UK, creativity and innovation is central to us, it’s not an add on. It’s a rich culture we give to people.”
“We’re quite a small place in the world, and if we don’t fund that culture, well we play with that at our peril.”