If you’re given the chance to interview Superbloom Festival Director, Fruzsina Szep, you take it; but you do so in the knowledge that the story of its launch will be the story of a working life’s experience coupled with, in this case, precious childhood memories.
The Superbloom story doesn’t start with Fruzsina’s creative input and development of Sziget, the beginnings come later in our conversation, but her passion for festivals and their content was fostered there. However, 2014 saw an offer from Goodlive and their partners in developing the Lollapalooza brand in Europe, including Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn, to join their team:
“I was in the role for the program director and artistic director at Sziget for seven years. But before that, since 1999, I have been always doing different things at the festival. I was artist host at the main stage, I was part of building up the world music stage or the Music Export Office, like a little compound where we had a lot of exchange meetings with international guests. And I was always trying to kind to be kind of a bridge builder between the east and west; I don’t want to to make any difference anymore between East and West, because I see nowadays it’s one big European family, it doesn’t matter if somebody lives in Hungary or Slovakia or Germany or France, I consider it as one Europe. But back in those days the support was more needed.
I also had this feeling that with Sziget, I could kind of fulfil and complete everything that I was asked by my former boss Karoly Gerendai. He was one of the founders, we were also very good friends, we are still very good friends today; back in 2008, when he asked me to join to become the Sziget program director, he also asked to restructure the whole festival and to help him to place Sziget on the on the European map and to have strategy together, to have more guests from abroad. That was a big wish he had, he so much wanted to have Sziget becoming the best European best major European festival.
So, I had a couple of very difficult weeks to think about this in 2014 because I was not looking for a job, but I also felt, well, this could be a really great challenge in my life.”
At this point in a career, with a big choice to make, it’s good to seek the advice of friends, especially those with experience in the sector.
“The first person I talked with about this offer was Karoly, my boss; it was a beautiful conversation, including some tears, because he said first that he was always afraid that exactly this conversation would happen because he was sure that, one day, there would be somebody from abroad coming and asking me to change. But he also said that he would be the last person to say ‘no, please don’t go’, that he would be the last person to stop me walking my way. He also said that I was also not ready yet, so I have to make my experiences and continue.”
With the decision to move made and after a month of handover, Fruzsina relocated from Budapest to Berlin, from independent to corporate, working alongside a formidable team including C3 Presents’ Charlie Jones and Charlie Walker, Mark Geiger plus Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn.
If a step into a multinational, corporate environment wasn’t enough, the challenges were intensified by site issues, as Fruzsina explains:
“Every year we had to change the location. That was that was a nightmare; worse than a nightmare because we had to build up the festival every year from scratch. And it was really every year like starting from ground zero, we couldn’t t really use the experiences from the years before because it was always a new location.”
“The first year with Lolla Berlin was 2015 at Tempelhof Airport, and that was actually our mother location, I don’t know if you have that expression in English, but that was our that was our location, that was the body of the festival. This is also something I always say, you know, the location is the body, but the content is the heart and the soul. When I say content, I also say our audience is part of the content because they bring in a massive impact of positive energies. “
“2015 went luckily pretty well. Nobody in the industry thought that this would function; we had the capacity of 45 to 50000 people per day, we reached that, and everybody was satisfied. But 2015 was also one of the most difficult years for the world and for Europe because of this really massive [influx] of refugees. And Angela Merkel, she was one of those powerhouses. And I pretty much I really respect her that she did this because she welcomed, Germany and especially Berlin welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees and Tempelhof became the registration and welcome spot.”
A phone call from Berlin’s mayor delivered the news that the refugee crisis was not a short-term issue and Lollapalooza Berlin would be required to migrate to another site.
So began the process of studying maps of Berlin for a suitable site; Treptower Park became the likely candidate, but Fruzsina’s role took on a diplomatic twist during the licensing process. The park had recently undergone a multi-million Euro renovation, it is situated in an affluent neighbourhood and is rich in flora and fauna, some rare and protected. One significant challenge was the presence of the biggest Soviet memorial from the Second World War. To some, the notion of an American brand in such an historically significant place was unacceptable and with challenges coming from Putin’s foreign ministry, a moment of inspiration was required.
“I had this this idea that I proposed to these 13 [ex-Soviet state] ambassadors that I would like to include this highly important it is highly important memorial into the programming of Lollapalooza. And I would love to organise guided tours to our audience, to our public, so that they can learn about this very important historical event and about this location and take that home and spread the word about this.”
To cut a delicate story short, the proposal worked and, subject to some rather out of place individuals ‘overseeing’ the festival (but welcomed by Fruzsina to enjoy Lollapalooza’s refreshments and hospitality), Lolla Berlin’s second iteration was enjoyed by 70,000 people a day, perhaps very few knowing the emotionally draining battles fought to deliver on a site available for one year only.
A move to the outskirts of Berlin for the 2017 edition, to the racecourse at Hoppegarten, was a voyage of discovery; with challenging ground conditions and no knowledge of precisely where underground services may lurk, coupled with dealing with difficult site owners. Oh, and diving for cover from speeding horses out for a training run. New sites certainly throw up new discoveries, some minor and some major, event at the last minute:
“We had to build up a parking lots, then it turned out that the guy who promised us the parking lot didn’t tell us that it’s a swamp, then he disappeared. We had to find a way to build up a parking across the street, but it’s a [major road], so we had to put up bridges. Then it turned out that, as we put the bridge down at 3 a.m., we received a call that somebody found a floorplan and it’s a gas main, the bridge was already hanging in the air…, there is the saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
One further move, to the Berlin Olympiastadion, was managed when a gap was fund in the site’s footballing calendar, but it was soon after this that Fruzsina had the dream offer from her boss at Goodlive:
“He asked me, at the end of 2019: ‘Would you be open enough to create a totally new festival and a totally new festival brand for Goodlive. Include all your dreams, imaginations, what you always wanted to see in a festival. And we would back you up and finance that.’ This was something that I think doesn’t come so often in life, because there are so many amazing festivals out there and the festival market is pretty packed.”
“But deep inside of my heart I always had this wish, like this wish of a of a little girl, that one day I would love to build up my own festival, but I don’t have millions on my bank account. But I have ideas, I have visions, and I have still this very big drive and longing to create unforgettable moments for our audiences and our artists and our teams within a festival. I still feel that the festival is such a special place, it’s an optimistic world that we are creating, and it has nothing to do with our real life. I feel very thankful, and I feel also very humble that I have the possibility to realise dreams”
If the deal needed sweetening more, the proposed location sealed it for Fruzsina:
“My German boss got me very easy because he said that the location would be in Munich in the Olympic Park and the Olympic Stadium.
“I grew up in Munich, I’m actually a refugee. My parents escaped from the communist regime [in Hungary] in 1985, because my father was a freedom fighter. He was in prison many times, we had to escape and we ended up in Munich. We actually wanted to go to Canada, but we kind of ended up in Munich.
“And in the Olympic Park. Almost, almost every weekend, my father and me, we were there doing long walks and checking out this beautiful architecture, the nature and my father told me many, many stories about life and how I should use all of my senses – my father was blind.
I have to say that many things that he told me in my life is the way I the person who I became today. You know, using my senses, not only using my eyesight to. To be respectful to other people, to not to judge at first sight, to breathe three times before I really want to say something”
With such an emotional attachment to the park, it was a given that nothing would sway Fruzsina from grabbing the opportunity, but still with sadness.
“I really have to say it was not easy to leave Lola Berlin because I loved the festival and I still love it, it will always be a part of me, like Sziget will always be a part of me. But my road led me to somewhere else now, and that is in Munich, I can go back as an adult. I mean, I don’t know if I’m an adult, but… now I can kind of give something back to this park and to the city because we were really welcomed with open arms back in those very difficult years.”
A site with personal significance, a head and copious notebooks full of ideas, contacts and vision, years of experience, and the backing. We ask about those first, high level decisions that had to be made, like the name:
“The name, for me, was very important, I also knew that this park deserves a beautiful name. It has to be positive, and it has to be a name that is uplifting, that can be pronounced the same way in every language, for me that was the most important thing. It was not a short process; it was it was a crazy process. I knew already I would love to have something with bloom because it means something is growing, something is establishing something new on the horizon”
“Super happened by coincidence, I was sitting with my husband in a in a wine bar, it was such a great wine that we drank. I said, oh, that is such a super superb wine, and I wrote down Superbloom”
A little Google research into the word revealed a natural phenomenon, millions of wildflower seeds in a desert, waiting for rain that appears rarely, resulting in a spectacular sight.
The second high level element was, naturally, the content:
“The booking is really only 50% music and the other 50% is, I call it experience. We have 11 experience areas all around the site, and they are dealing with all kinds of topics: around fashion, sustainability, science, science, medicine, new technologies, architecture, contemporary art, contemporary dance, contemporary circus and food and drinks. And then we have lot of programs that are around inclusion and people living with disabilities; I’m also preparing a lot of things that are also for blind people, so they hopefully have something like an easier experience on the festival. So it’s like, you know, it’s like a pot pourri of a lot of programme offers.”
“I also had one sentence in my head and that was to create a festival that is more than a festival. It should be a feeling.”
“It’s a huge challenge for the production team, I have big respect for all of my colleagues because they all follow my dreams; that’s a huge luxury.”
Of course, Superbloom’s launch was delayed by the Covid 19 pandemic, but we wonder if that was a blessing in disguise, with so much content to plan.
“Yeah, to be very honest, it was nice to have the two years. But all these difficulties with these two years, keeping the team together, keeping them mentally in balance, postponing festivals two years in a row, postponing a festival that has never been held before. It was not easy also for me mentally, but I felt it was also not easy for the team because, of course, you know, you have this drive. We had more time for certain things, but like many companies, we also completely stopped for a couple of months. But Germany was also one of those countries that luckily received support from the state.”
Another positive to come from the Covid – enforced break was the arrival of Fruzsina and partner, Christoff Huber’s (another leading light in the European festival scene) first child, Ella.
It becomes apparent during our conversation that we’ve talked relatively little about Superbloom, the main reason for us to be together. That said, the whole conversation has been about Superbloom; from childhood memories, parental philosophies, freedom to develop, embracing difficult challenges and finally being given an opportunity, it’s easy to see that the road Fruzsina has walked has led to this and is woven into Superbloom’s fabric.
We get the feeling that her dad would have liked what she’s done with the place.