Auckland Arts Festival chief executive David Inns sees up to 150 shows a year around the world and does the deals to bring them to New Zealand. He led Wellington's International Arts Festival before taking the helm in Auckland seven years ago but says his career highlight was securing WOMAD for Taranaki.

1 What's the most exciting part of running an arts festival for you?

Getting new works made. It's a core role of any festival and we commission up to six a year. This year I'm hugely excited about our new opera The Bone Feeder at the ASB Waterfront Theatre which has been four years in the making. Gareth Farr's music combines Western, Maori and Chinese instruments which has never been done before. It's based on Renee Liang's book about the SS Ventnor which sunk off the Hokianga coast on its way to repatriate Chinese bones. The Cantonese-speaking audience who came to our workshop in October were super emotional.

2 What do you know about the Auckland Arts Festival audience?

Half our audience is under 45 which is younger than a theatre company or orchestra's. That's been a big goal of ours. Outdoor visual spectaculars like Group F work across any generation. Aucklanders are our target audience. Only about 10 per cent of our audience are domestic tourists compared with 25 per cent of Wellington's. Our festival overlaps with Wellington's every second year which is an advantage because we can share works. Last year we shared four commissions.


3 How does your role as the festival's chief executive fit with the artistic director Carla von Zon?

We work closely alongside each other sourcing shows from festivals around the world. We do a lot with Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia because they fit the same time frame. There's not many festival directors worldwide that we don't know personally. My main role is managing funding, marketing, staffing, negotiating contracts, organising logistics and managing the overall budget of at least $9 million per festival.

4 How do you balance the wide-appeal shows in your programme with more challenging works?

It's a 'feel' thing, really. One of our guiding principles is we try to get work that wouldn't normally come here, for example Rufus Wainwright wouldn't bring a Prima Donna opera outside a festival context. In the second half he does Judy Garland which is absolutely fabulous. Carla and I had a chat to him after seeing that in Toronto and were able to bring him to Auckland by getting Adelaide on board as partner.

5 You've been the chief executive of arts festivals in Taranaki, Wellington and Auckland. What doesn't work, in your experience?

Some fantastic works from Japan didn't work in 2009, but the festival was in its infancy and we didn't have a big enough marketing machine. They'd totally work now. I believe that it's alright for things not to work sometimes. If everything worked you'd have to question if you were stretching yourself and audiences enough.

6 This is the first year the Auckland Arts Festival has been held annually. Why the switch from biennial?

I pitched the idea at my job interview in 2008 and the previous Trust chair Victoria Carter led it. All seven Australian arts festivals have gone annual and we're part of that circuit, sharing ten per cent of our programme. The other benefits are we keep our 15 staff year round so projects can keep rolling, we stay connected to our community and don't have to reinvent our brand every two years. Since 2008 we've got a third of our income from Auckland Council through the Regional Amenity Funding Act which has made a huge difference in growing the festival.

7 What's going to be the big crowd-puller this year?

Power Plant, a kinetic light and sound experience winding through The Domain at night. It can take a maximum of 2,000 people a night for 12 nights. I first saw it in Edinburgh in 2009 and tried to get it but it was too expensive. Wellington had it in 2014. They adjust it for each city so it never looks exactly the same. The best family show will be Canadian circus Cirque Eloize. They're a sister company of Cirque du Soleil but more raw, urban hip-hop. Our big dance show is Rice from Taiwan and we're thrilled to have the Royal Ballet's principal dancer Natalia Osipova performing with her partner Sergei Polunin from the movie Dancer.

8 Which show are you most looking forward to?

The Encounter by Complicite, who we've been trying to get here for years. There's one man on stage and 700 audience members all wearing headphones. The microphone has 50 pickups so as the man walks around it, you feel like he's walking around you. The story is about a photographer who gets lost up the Amazon in the '60s and meets a tribe that hasn't had contact before. There's no river or forest on set but through the manipulation of sound you actually feel as though you're there. It's unlike anything I've seen anywhere before.

9 Do you prefer dance, theatre or opera?

I prefer shows that surprise me and ones with really good storytelling. They can be in any field. Former New Plymouth Operatic Society director Dorne Arthur taught me the only two things that count are the artist and the audience they engage with. It's our job to facilitate that. It's sad to see all those little repertory theatres around the country dropping back. I grew up in am-dram, like a lot of us in the business. Dad sang and was clever at building scenery. I was good at technical stuff like lighting design. I wanted to become a production manager but ended up teaching for 11 years first.

10 Why did you become a school teacher?

I decided to do a degree in education and history because of my great-grandfather Thomas Hickman. He was the policeman at Parihaka in the 1880s, a tiny Scotsman who spoke fluent Maori and worked closely with Te Whiti. He had a lot of sympathy for Maori, having been through the Clearances in Scotland. His picture has a place of honour on the wall at Parihaka.

11 How have you juggled your career and fatherhood?

My first marriage ended around the time I left teaching to work on the Taranaki Arts Festival. Our children were 6 and 8. I worked three jobs in a rotating cycle for eight years. Half of every year I worked in Edinburgh at Assembly Theatre and the other half I alternated between the Wellington and Taranaki arts festivals. I got a fax machine so the kids could send drawings to whatever city room I was in and I flew home for school camps.

12 What is your personal career highlight?

Securing WOMAD for Taranaki. We were looking for an event for the Brooklands Bowl when I happened to talk to the guy who does WOMAD in Adelaide. He suggested we meet WOMAD founder Thomas Brooman, who laughed when I showed him photos, thinking it was too small. I thought we could convince him if we could get him here, so we got a cheque from the New Plymouth District Council to fly him out. I think what convinced him was the beauty of the spot and its history. All the big names played the Bowl back in the day; Kiri Te Kanawa, Roy Orbison, Elton John and The Seekers. I worked there from age 10 mowing the lawns.

Auckland Arts Festival, March 8 to 26,