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Monday, May 27, 2024

Storifying events

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Meet event manager-director Ignatius Jones
who believes in the magic of storytelling

For event manager-director Ignatius Jones, event management involves “a lot of research to figure out what exactly it is you’re presenting, usually with a country’s leading artistic practitioners, knowing the country’s culture and heritage, and working out how the show will stick together.”

Events don’t magically happen. It takes more than a village to create, organize, and manage an event for it to be successful. “Mairaos lang” is not something we would hear from professional event management people.

On top of writing the script for both live and broadcast, nailing the set design, props, and costumes, creating multimedia elements, and being on top of modern technology, it entails working with several performers, composers, and choreographers, as well as the tech crew and volunteers – sometimes numbering in the thousands, depending on how big the event is.   

A Filipino-born Australian top event manager, Jones believes that event is all about the stories. In all his more than 50 years in the industry, Jones still keeps the story strong.

Event manager-director Ignatius Jones

“If you don’t know what story you’re telling, how will the audience? I find that show business doesn’t change that much. Fundamentally, it is still about telling a story, and always will be. 

Technology changes of course, but usually those changes feed into telling a story as well. Look at YouTube and social media,” said Jones.

They have made it much easier for far more people to get involved in storytelling. And all cultures tell stories. It’s one of the things that distinguish us from animals. What is a major event but a big story shared with lots of people?” he went on. 

One of the world’s leading major event directors, creative strategists, and event scriptwriters, Jones has been the executive producer of the Vivid Sydney Festival since 2011, and the first artistic director of the Sydney Mardi Gras since 1992.

He was a major creative force behind the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies and was instrumental in creating the world-famous Sydney New Year’s Eve. He worked as the artistic director of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo opening ceremony and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the Australian events industry throughout his career, Jones was awarded the esteemed Lifetime Achievement Award at the Australian Event Awards in 2017.

Glazing Life got to talk with Jones about his career as an event manager, and the many stories he had experienced managing big events.

GLAZING LIFE (GL): You started as a performing artist before venturing out into event management and direction. What inspired this career shift?

IGNATIUS JONES (IJ): One of my best friends calls me the King of Reinvention. It is not so much that I get bored with what I’m doing, but I get interested in something else, or I look at how it’s being done and think ‘That’s not how they should be doing that; they should be doing it this way.’ And off I go. I come from a theatrical family so there was music and theatre all around me as I was growing up. 

I started training as an opera singer and then got drawn into classical ballet. I was in a very successful Rock ‘n Roll band for eight years, and then a friend who ran a rock fanzine asked me to write some record reviews, which led to my becoming editor of a fashion/lifestyle magazine, and while I was doing that I started singing jazz. When Sydney got to the Olympics, a friend I’d worked with, Baz Luhrman, was asked to be one of the directors, but he was busy directing a film so he kindly recommended me to the producers. That led to a whole string of big events and festivals.

GL: What about your job that you like, and hate about it?

IJ: Working with some of the amazing people involved in this industry, working with them to solve the inevitable problems, going to some of the incredible places this job has taken me, and experiencing some of the amazing cultures I’ve gotten to know and working with. 

Of course, you also have to deal with some pretty crazy narcissistic people, usually your political masters who think they know everything about show business and want to be directors themselves. 

One of my favorite moments occurred in Doha with a sheikh I shall not name, but he’d just seen the Crusader movie Kingdom of Heaven and wanted to light the Cauldron with a flaming stone hurled by a catapult. We tried to explain that catapults were the medieval equivalent of artillery, designed to punch holes in stone walls six feet thick. 

No matter, he insisted. It was only when we produced an engineering survey showing that if the wind sheared as little as six inches during the flight of the projectile it would land in the audience and take out hundreds of people, that he backed down. But you get used to that kind of thing.

GL: You’ve directed some of the biggest events in history – World Expo 2010 Shanghai China, 2006 Asian Games, and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which won three Emmy Awards for best direction, best lighting and best in music. You directed three of the largest live events in Australian history –the City of Sydney’s Millennium Celebrations, the Harbour Spectacular of the Sydney Olympics closing ceremonies, and the City of Sydney’s New Year’s Eve and Centenary of Federation Celebrations 2000-2001. Do you consider them the highlights of your career to date? Why or why not?

IJ: The Sydney Olympics was pretty special because it was the first time we’d ever done something that size and, with 12,000 performers, it is still the largest casting for any Olympic Ceremony. Vancouver was also pretty special in that we used no props or sets at all – just projections on the stadium floor and the audience. 

The performers – again all volunteers – had to interact with the projections as if they were real, and did a great job. Also, the Canadians were great to work with: we presented them a show that featured their song-writers, their poets, their artists, their writers, a really ‘arty’ show – and they went for it. 

For the Closing Ceremony we suggested we do something funny (and humor is not something you associate with Olympic Ceremonies) and we filled the stadium with every Canadian cliché we could think of: lumberjacks, giant hockey players, massive flying balloons shaped like beavers and mooses, the orchestra were dressed like Mounties, and a small contingent of Canadian comedians cracking jokes about Canada. After the Ceremonies, the political boss signed my program: “Thanks for giving us back our country…”

GL: How do you measure the success of an event?

IJ: You can tell by the reaction of the audience. When I directed the Independence Ceremony of East Timor, 175,000 Timorese walked miles to the bamboo stadium we built for it (they didn’t have any other suitable venue, so we built one), the President-Elect Xanana Gusmão had given me a very strong direction. “Megawati Sukarnoputri (who was the President of Indonesia, the country that had occupied East Timor for 24 years and was responsible for the deaths of one-third of the population) is going to be my guest. 

They are our neighbors; we have to live with them. And remember, their sons are buried here, too. Under no circumstances are we to do or say anything to insult or offend them.” – which was a tough call, considering how much the Timorese had suffered during the Occupation. 

So, I made a collection of all the photographs I could find of the Timorese who had died during that time (there were a lot) and showed them on the giant LED screens, while 700 little children dressed in white and carrying candles in half-coconut shells entered the stadium, and the choir sang the Ko-Le-Le-Mai, the Timorese requiem and Hymn for the Dead. I will never forget the sound of 175,000 people sobbing.

GL: Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

IJ: The Independence Ceremony of East Timor, no question. Apart from the fact that the Indonesian and pro-Indonesian militias attempted to destroy Timor’s infrastructure when the Timorese voted for independence (by something like 97%), and Timor is like the Philippines which has six or seven designated official languages as well as English and Filipino, Timor has 32 official indigenous languages, not counting Portugueses and Tetum, the ‘official’ official languages, and English and Indonesian, the ‘working languages’. 

And then there was the issue of expenses. I had been hired by Xanana and the Foreign-Minister-Elect and Nobel Prize-winner José Ramos-Horta, and when I asked José right at the beginning of the job what our budget was, he just smiled and said, “Budget? Nothing! But you and I will find it.” And we did. And that was as well as putting on a show in a country I knew nothing about, and was now going to celebrate their biggest day in living memory, the first time they had been free in over 300 years. The fact that Spanish is my first language was a great help, as I could understand and be understood in Portuguese. 

Also, being a mestizo, I was quite familiar to the Timorese (Xanana and José are mestiços), and most importantly the Timorese are quite similar to the Filipinos: they can all sing and dance, and love to. As Xanana said to me at the end of our last meeting, “and Inacio, just one thing to beware of my people: once they start, they will sing and dance for three days…”

GL: Are there any trends and developments in your industry that you are looking forward to? Is there anything about the industry that you want to change or improve?

IJ: I’m a real tech-nerd, so I’m very interested in how AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) can be used in the story-telling process. The problem with both is they allow the user too much independence and choice. 

If I’m telling a story I want the user to follow my narrative, not go off scurrying on their lonesome to find something irrelevant to my plot-line. Sure there are ways to guide them, just like you do it in the theatre or in a movie – with lights, music, soundscapes, etc. I don’t find the AR/VR Googles currently on sale very effective, and I think a lot of ‘interactivity’ is just a fad, and not a very interesting one. If you come to my show, you watch my show. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it interesting.

GL: Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

IJ: It’s a really hard area to get into because it’s a small industry and a lot of people think it’s more glamorous than it is. Keep your eyes out for an opening, stick your foot in the door, and then be prepared to work your socks off, because the first few years will be really tough. 

And there really aren’t things like ‘Major Event Schools’. There are Event and Hospitality Colleges, but they mainly turn out wedding planners. But even if you’re a wedding planner, never, ever, forget the story. It will always carry you through.


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