The importance of story arc: XpoNorth’s Amanda Millen interviewed

It was at least 40 minutes after arriving at Amanda Millen’s house before I managed to break the news to her: “Actually, I’m here to interview you.” Laughter: “Right! Sorry!” Millen had been busy taking me through the programme for XpoNorth 2017. Which was good.

I had bought with me inexpertly taped together sheets from Excel, with names and session titles that jumped out highlighted. And in my head, I had neatly conceptualised the two-day festival, showcasing the creative industries, according to the five networks in the Highlands and Islands supporting them; ‘Screen and Broadcast’, ‘Music’, ‘Design’, ‘Writing and Publishing’, and ‘Craft, Fashion and Textiles’.

But … before I arrived, I was still having trouble seeing the festival as a whole. Which was why the 40 minutes – during which I should have been peppering Millen with questions about how she became director, how it has grown from around 100 attendees to more than 2,000, how it attracts international industry leaders, and about its role in showcasing Scotland’s creative industries to the world – were well spent.

Listening to Millen, themes that cut across the different creative industries became clear; the importance of storytelling, the power of local and global talent sharing the same stage, and how individual creativity can become a business while staying true to its roots. “We’re a team, everyone works hard,” said Millen, “and I have a singular vision of what this festival needs to be; engaging that wider audience, bringing to Scotland people at the top of their game, and helping generate economic value among creative businesses in the Highlands and Islands.”

The annual Inverness-based XpoNorth festival, formerly goNORTH, is Scotland’s leading creative industries festival. A hot-bed of creative activity, it takes place over two days and nights in the Highland capital; the only festival of its kind in Scotland covering crafts, fashion and textiles, writing and publishing, screen and broadcast, and music, it is a unique event in the UK’s cultural calendar. The work of XpoNorth, which is funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE, the European Regional Development Fund, and Creative Scotland, in developing creative talent throughout the Highlands and Islands also continues throughout the year.

XpoNorth will be held in venues across Inverness, on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 June. By day, it hosts a packed programme of panels and workshops featuring leading industry players in the fields of crafts, publishing, screen, music and more. Delegates can also jump in and out of a specially-curated short film programme; a Millen addition to the festi-val and one dear to her heart. On site at Eden Court, hands-on training is taking place in the shape of initiatives like live television station, XpoNorth Live! which is staffed by trainees. One-to-one mentoring sessions run throughout both days. Technology is always to the fore and this year, a Tech Playground will introduce new concepts across the creative industries spectrum.

By night, it offers a “beguiling blend of Highland hospitality” in the form of relaxed networking events, coupled with a free music showcase in intimate venues and a curated short film programme. All of this is free to access. “Part of the magic of XpoNorth is its unique atmosphere,” said Millen. “The XpoNorth experience offers delegates across the creative spectrum an inspiring daytime schedule followed by the evening music and film mix. All set against a backdrop of the beautiful Highlands in midsummer.”

Ten years ago, Millen was a producer working at BBC Scotland when she was invited by HIE to devise a strategy for developing the screen and broadcast industries in the region. “There was nothing, and the first thing I did – and which I still do to this day – is get to know people on the ground, their skills, talents and ambition.” Today, ScreenHI works to develop the film, television, radio, online and gaming industries by delivering a programme of initiatives, events, mentoring schemes and activities to provide a skill base and opportunities for practitioners based in the High-lands and Islands.

Early on, while she developed the strategy, Millen contributed some content to goNORTH, the existing music festival, and as her involvement deepened she saw delegate numbers steadily increase from a few hundred to more than 1,000. In 2015, the name was changed to XpoNorth, reflecting the variety of content and to better embrace the different creative indus-tries networks. By then the festival was attracting 1,500 delegates; last year it was more than 2,000.

“It’s become huge,” said Millen. “Today, XpoNorth is a wide-reaching conference and showcase which brings together a host of elements under one creative umbrella. There are a lot of key creative industries influencers who attend and creative connections are forged every minute of the day during XpoNorth.”

Bringing someone of the stature of Michael Radford, the director of Il Postino, as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four, with John Hurt, and The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, to the festival this year is indicative of the approach Millen has taken in attracting international leaders in their field to Scotland. But, so too is the delight she takes in seeing great Scottish talent – such as Chrisella Ross, creator of the Gaelic drama Bannan, produced by Chris Young of The Inbetweeners fame – emerge.

“It was around 2008, and we were doing storytelling workshops. We  sat down and started chatting about story, and I just knew instantly that she absolutely had it; she understood character, people, story arc, how to hook an audience. It was amazing.” For Millen, this is her last year as director; a new direction beckons.