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Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch: ‘Brexit has tainted the UK with xenophobia and isolationism’

Wesley Enoch, centre, at the festival launch with performers. Photo: Daniel Boud Wesley Enoch, centre, at the festival launch with performers. Photo: Daniel Boud
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In his three years as Sydney Festival director, Wesley Enoch has opened the flagship Australian arts festival to a range of diverse artists. This year there is a special focus on indigenous work. He tells Nick Awde about influencing the nation’s narrative, creating a legacy and why Brexit has complicated the events’ relationship with Britain

Just as he has done for the past two years, Wesley Enoch is heralding the new year with the latest edition of the Sydney Festival. As the festival’s first indigenous director, he has ensured that Sydney has embraced social issues while respecting the strictures of the international festival model and the city’s own broad-ranging expectations.

So the answer is revealing when he’s asked the tricky question of choosing a personal pick for this year. “I love all my children equally,” he admits, “but I do get a certain satisfaction from adding to the public debate. This year what’s exciting me are the Always sculpture and The Vigil at Barangaroo Reserve.”

Created by Jacob Nash, a Helpmann Award-winning indigenous designer who is head of design at Sydney-based Bangarra Dance Theatre, the first work is a 5.5-metre-high, 28-metre-long sculpture of the word “Always”, which refers to the phrase: ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’.

The public can view it throughout the festival and then, says Enoch: “On January 25, we hold a vigil where we welcome Sydney to sit beside the sculpture around campfires and consider the ‘day before’, remembering that January 26 is the anniversary of the arrival of the British First Fleet and the beginning of the colonial project in Australia. The 25th is a chance to consider what the day before meant for Aboriginal people in the Sydney area.”

It’s a typically thoughtful page out of the Enoch book – a means of provoking two-way artistic dialogue in a country where the ‘year before’ – 2018 – was marked by major conversations about indigenous theatre, including confronting whitesplaining in the arts and connecting with First Nation arts worldwide.

Enoch sees no reason why a festival such as Sydney shouldn’t allow people to speak out. “It can’t redress all the issues, but we can provide that platform to those who haven’t had it before.”

Ben Caplan and Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Photo: Stoo Metz Photography
Ben Caplan and Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Photo: Stoo Metz Photography

Cultural diversity is an obvious part of that platform, with stories including Belvoir and Co-Curious’ premiere of Counting and Cracking, Legs on the Wall’s show Man With the Iron Neck, Article 11/Turtle Island’s production Deer Woman and 2b Theatre Company’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, the latter two from Canada. “It’s a chance,” says Enoch, “to remind us that Australia is a nation built on migration and that seeking safety and asylum, fleeing poverty and violence are traditionally why peoples arrived on these shores.”

Add to this the festival’s First Nations focus and indigenous Blak Out microfestival and there’s a clear statement of how diverse Australia is.

“42% of Australians were born in another country or have a parent born in another country – so you get a picture of generational arrival and acceptance as a country. Sometimes we have to be reminded what being Australian means and who is in charge of our national narratives.”


Blak Out

Back at Sydney Festival after its first outing in 2018, Blak Out is a festival within a festival that groups together work by indigenous artists – Wesley Enoch’s response to artistic expression, race relations and indigenous reconciliation in Australia. “A ‘Blak Out’ is a term we [indigenous people] use for ourselves,” says Enoch. “When there’s a whole lot of black fellas around, we say: ‘It’s a blak out tonight.’”

This year’s programme ranges from Deer Woman, which addresses suicide and the high murder rate of First Peoples Canadian women, to the fun of The Ropes, an installation about skipping culture, and classes in Sydney language Bayala.

For Urban Theatre Projects’ Blak Box – Four Winds, elders and leaders from Blacktown’s Aboriginal community invite audiences into a surround-sound listening pavilion to hear stories of contemporary Aboriginality. There’s also Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival, presented since 2013 by Moogahlin Performing Arts and Carriageworks, which is Australia’s only showcase of First Nations new writing for the stage.

Enoch is a Noonuccal Nuugi writer and director from Queensland. He is responsible for some of Australia’s best-known indigenous theatre productions. He moved to the Sydney Festival after working as artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company. Other posts include artistic director of Melbourne’s Ilbijerri and directing the indigenous section for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.

He was already a familiar face at the festival, having directed six projects between 2000 and 2014, including The Sapphires (2005), I Am Eora (2012) and the landmark Black Diggers (2014). It must be quite a pull between the practitioner and the festival executive.

“It’s not an easy fit,” agrees Enoch. “I like to trust artists, make new works and take huge risks. Now, not everything works and that’s the issue, but when they do it’s amazing to watch a work grow in front of an audience.

Blak Box. Photo: Barton Taylor

“I think artists and makers are about looking beyond the horizon to the future and often administration is in search of precedent and historical justifications. There is a healthy dance between the two that every festival director needs to navigate. I think we do okay at Sydney Festival.”

The festival has looked beyond its own horizons in much the same way as Edinburgh did. Sydney started in 1977, having grown out of the city’s equivalent of London’s Lord Mayor’s Show, and in the early years it struggled to find an identity and a viable financial model.

Appointing directors for short periods helped the festival to evolve. Previous incumbents include Brett Sheehy, who went on to head the Melbourne and Adelaide Festivals, Ireland’s Fergus Linehan, now director of the Edinburgh International Festival, and Enoch’s immediate predecessor Belgian Lieven Bertels who made the festival profitable before moving on to become chief executive of Leeuwarden-Friesland European Capital of Culture 2018.

Cast of Man With the Iron Neck. Photo: Brett Boardman
Cast of Man With the Iron Neck. Photo: Brett Boardman

Enoch has likewise measurably built on that legacy but he says the festival’s strength also comes from its timing at the beginning of the year, the height of summer in Australia. “We are a hybrid festival, mixing the summer spectacular with the culturally courageous. Sydney is the first festival of the year and sets a tone. We lead by inviting audiences and artists to use us as a cultural new year’s resolution – engage in the new, share these experiences with people you love and challenge yourself to have an opinion. Risk and reward in equal measure.”

Enoch is careful not to lose sight of the hybrid element in balancing who’s on the programme: “The homegrown reflects us and the foreign has the opportunity to give us new perspectives.”

When it comes to the UK, however, our importance to the festival, given our close cultural connections and exchanges, is less simple. “I struggle with this. Part of me wants to acknowledge that the UK has provided us with a huge range of role models and institutions that benefit us as a nation, but in many ways I want to tell the UK to piss off.

“Brexit is one of those terrible hypocritical situations where what was the centre of empire for so long has got upset because it cannot deal with power sharing and thoughtful collaboration. Any muse that was there is now tainted by a xenophobia and an isolationist monocultural pall.

“There are good people working in the UK, but I worry the task at hand is to work internally to redress these issues.”

Back in Sydney, Enoch says he’s sensitive to issues that inform the festival process. “I am not given a brief, but you do inherit traditions that you get to choose to change or adapt or end. The biggest brief I give myself is to engage with the people of Sydney and prototype change for the city and country.”

Louise Corpus in A Little Piece of Ash by Megan Wilding, part of Yellamundie Festival. Photo: Amanda James

Funding for Sydney comes from three sources: public, corporate and private giving, box office and earned income. The state and city are the biggest contributors, but Sydney also gets funds from different sources for programming, such as sponsored events.

Sydney’s policy of bringing in new artistic directors encourages different styles of curating, and Enoch’s tenure has deftly reflected his own expectations. “Good ideas come from everywhere but I take responsibility for the final sign off. I have an expertise in theatre and experience in dance, so I tend to lead the programming in those areas. Music and large-scale installation ideas come from a team of wonderful co-workers who bring ideas to the table.

“Often artists pitch ideas and projects and we can be responsive to that process. I love is when we dream up a project from scratch and bring artists together to realise a dream.”

Audiences for the three-week event are about 500,000 and they range in demographics that are typical of Australian arts attendees’ depending on the offer. Those buying tickets are the usual set of demographics, while a large free symphony concert can bring a huge culturally diverse family audience or a young hipster might go for a Spiegeltent cabaret. The majority are Sydney residents.

“In many ways the Sydney Festival is too large to capture the imagination of the city any other time of the year but we are 43 years old and have grown to inhabit January. If anything is on in January people think it’s Sydney Festival. We have had decades of doing it and now audiences turn to us in January to see what is on.”

So happens next for Enoch after the festival is done and dusted? “Well, let’s get through January…”

Profile: Sydney Festival

Artistic director: Wesley Enoch
Founded: 1977
Dates: January 9 to 27
Employees: 460
Spaces/venues include: Carriageworks, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour, Magic Mirrors, Spiegeltent
Total shows: 100
Participating companies include: Schaubuhne Berlin and Complicite, Shanghai Mimi, Barking Gecko Theatre, Legs on the Wall, Belvoir, Geoff Sobelle and Beth Morrison Projects, 2b Theatre Company
Countries represented: Australia, USA, UK, Germany, China, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Cape Verde, Sweden, India, Romania
Audience figures (2018): 155,000 (ticketed), 500,000 (free)
Funders/sponsors: A third of total funding comes from New South Wales government and the City of Sydney, the rest comes from private and corporate giving, box office and earned income
Key contact: mail@sydneyfestival.org.au


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