On the final day of the Australian Theatre Forum, some of the leaders of Australia’s major festivals discussed where they currently sit in Australia.
Robyn Archer, Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, opened in saying “the Edinburgh Festival was created as something to heal the wounds in Europe after the war” but in Australia it morphed to something different. “For a long time [in Australia] festivals were where you could see foreign works and works in a foreign language which no one else was presenting.”
“We’d bring stuff you can’t see, maybe stuff that is different to what we’re making here”, she said. It was in the 70s, she said, that Anthony Steel put an emphasis on new art, and “suddenly the presentation of Australian works was important.” For everyone on stage today at ATF, she said, there is an importance to present both Australian and International works.
“It seems to me the larger festivals are less and less able to take risks” she said, because of funding bodies and the media, and smaller festivals that don’t carry those risks
The panel was asked about how the festivals work with arts centres increasing the amount of intentional work they’re producing. Noel Staunton, the Artistic Director of the Brisbane Festival, said “I find in Queensland we can work very well with QPAC […] they try to compliment what we do; we work together.” “It is very much a case of working with the arts centres and if they choose to work against you that can be a problem.”
David Sefton, the Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival, came to Adelaide from London via ten years in LA. “I suppose the nature of the parachuted directors, […] if it’s working, provides a different perspective,” he said. For him, “the biggest struggle is that engagement with the local,” and he finds excitement in discovering local work in the same way in discovering international work.
Adelaide is very specifically quite different to the other cities, he said, because the same international work isn’t present during the rest of the year. “The audience respond differently,” during the Festival, he said. “They take more risks.”
“‘It’s a Festival – you can tie me in a wheelchair, blindfold me and assault me.’ And they did! And they loved it!”
Jonathan Holloway, the Artistic Director of the Perth Festival, spoke about how festivals used to have one director for twenty-five years. Now people come in and out for only a few Festivals – “and that’s the way it should be.”
“Festivals sit in the arts ecology and the community ecology in the world in a really interesting way because they can’t do everything for everyone,” for some people if they want Shakespeare in a festival and there isn’t Shakespeare, he said, it’s not a real festival.
“Frankly, anything can happen in February/March because it’s Festival time.” You can dump feathers on people, he said, but it’s fine because by March they’re gone.
“When I talk about Darwin Festival I don’t talk about a Festival,” Darwin Festival AD Edwina Lunn said, “I talk about a city and a people.” The Festival embraces regional work, national voices, and “it’s about more than just about celebrating a great time in dry season, but it’s about celebrating the people who live there.”
Their Festival talks about the people who live there – who were born there, moved there, were taken there, and now about the three detention centres in Darwin. For Lunn, “it’s about us investing in our own local industry, which is possibly the hardest thing we do” because it is a small city and many people who want to be artists leave.
The Darwin Festival ask if the work is relevant: is it relevant to its audience, but also is it relevant to Darwin’s artists.
Ten Days on the Island is unique in terms of this panel, because it isn’t tied to a city, but rather takes place throughout Tasmania. AD Jo Duffy said her festival programs some shows to the big theatre spaces in Tasmania, trying to develop the audiences for those spaces in the non-Festival times. They also program for their community, but also often bring in work that has never been seen before in Tasmania. “What I hope that we can do is enthuse people to go and see work and participate in work […] for them to keep that momentum the whole two years that we’re not there.”
It’s about “broadening their taste, broadening their understanding of the arts and culture in Tasmania” she said. With all the works curated from artists who create work on islands, many of the works talk about living on an island – “the benefits or the challenges.”
“But it’s not quite that didactic”, she said: sometimes you have to look for it.
With the visiting artists, too, the festival run talks, workshops, and share coffees to really build the benefits of having them in Tasmania.
When looking towards the future of festivals, “the world has changed so much in six years,” said Holloway, “so we have absolutely no idea what the world will look like in six years.”
“Audiences are moving from being relatively passive to being quite active participants. The role of the audience has changed. And our contract with the audience changes daily.”
But, he said, “just because the technology is there it doesn’t mean you should do it, and no one yet has created the technology to change shit art into good art.”
Even when using technology, he said, art still needs to be “extraordinary and transformational.”
“We do the things with the Belgians and the wheelchairs, but we still do put shows on. And we still will do Shakespeare. We’ll continue to look for everything,” agreed Sefton.
“I wonder with rising population with all of our cities […] if there will be a greater proliferation in single interest festivals,” asked Archer. “I always look at WOMAD as a kind of music everyone was really hungry for, and they never had to promote and market like the bigger festivals because everyone was really hungry for that stuff.”
“I think of Sydney Festival and First Night and how it proliferated so big it got quite dangerous,” she said, and noted a similar experience happened in Melbourne with White Night.
Archer spoke about her time at Melbourne Festival, and the questioning if an international arts festival was needed in Melbourne when there is so much work and events happening in the city already. People still want to gather, she said, speaking about the 150,000 people who came to Canberra’s birthday on the lakes, “those things will remain.”
“The delight of both artists and delivering directors is coming together,” she said. “I think that gathering and talking will always be a function of when we come together.”
Staunton was asked about Riverfire, a major yearly event in Brisbane, and how he kept it in his Festivals: you cannot say no to Riverfire, he said. “Everyone knew about Riverfire and no-one knew about the Festival,” so they moved Riverfire to the last day of the Festival instead of the first. The people of Brisbane, he said, then “owned the Festival.”
There was discussion on the blurring of lines between Fringes and Festivals. Said Archer, “in Adelaide, certainly when I was starting their there was a confusion between what is Fringe and what is Festival.”
“Celebrating the differences” is what Sefton does to embrace the confusion. In Edinburgh, he said “it’s a much cleaner line.”
“I think the Fringe is so big in terms of its presence on the street and its presence in the city that we spend a lot of time trying to explain the difference. […] We are in the privileged position of being given a budget to go out and source […] we’re not supposed to be commercially viable.”
In choosing what particular work to place in a Festival, said Sefton, “that’s the tough part of the job.” There is a level of self-selection, because Adelaide is a long way for many people to travel to.
“I make really difficult decisions all the time,” said Lunn. Particularly in terms of the local works, she noted, sometimes the work isn’t ready but the story needs to be told, and the story needs to be told now. “In some ways it’s not even about the quality of the work, but it’s about audiences and artists being able to work in different spaces.”
“Most of the decisions I make are responsibility driven and care driven,” she said.
“I find themes really good for organising my brain,” said Archer. “I don’t really mind if we don’t talk about the themes in the event, or if the audience doesn’t see it.” A real fan, she continued, that will see four or five shows will start to see those themes, and make new connections themselves.
“I don’t choose [the theme] and drive [the theme] into them, I let it evolve And sometime’s it obvious to the audience and sometime’s it’s not,” she said.
Staunton doesn’t start with a theme, but he finds a linking theme in the work evolves so he can work about it. For Lunn, their theme is “time and place […] everything fits in.”
Holloway also doesn’t start with a theme, but he has several questions he wants to look at. “I have a tendency not to tell the marketing team what they are until after we’ve done the launch”, he said, because he feels like it can narrow the scope down. “Every year the Festival should change the conversation.”
For Sefton “the theme is just doing really really great work” and “other people will find the theme there“. For Duff they already have a theme: island work from around the world, and “themes emerge” in a particular program.
An audience member asked about the relationship between fringe festivals and major festivals, and if fringe festivals can be a threat, particularly in terms of government funding. “I don’t fear Fringe Festivals,” said Sefton, noting he books work for the Adelaide Festival from the Edinburgh Fringe. “I think it’s just part of an eco-system.”
The panel began to discuss the quality of work from Belgium: it is well funded, there is an emphasis on young people and youth arts, and organisations have been funded to make adventurous and contemporary work when they started to reject only presenting Dutch classics.
On audiences, said Sefton, “most have been coming since 1960”, but spoke about selling out Unsound to people “a quarter of the age ” of the typical Adelaide Festival audience. “We have to find the next audience, or we’ll just watch the old audience die.”
Asked about if the festivals could expand out to take place year round “it’s the intensity that makes a festival a festival,” said Holloway. And as to having emerging artists create a pathway to major Festivals? “Make brilliant work. And don’t stop.”