December 09, 2005

Formulating the Festival

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Murray Bramwell talks with Brett Sheehy about preparations for the 2006 Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts

Asked how he is feeling, six weeks out from the launch of the 2006 Adelaide Bank Festival, and Brett Sheehy says he’s thrilled. According to his general manager, Simon Bogle, in the first month of sales the Festival has broken a forty year box office record. Fifteen thousand tickets snapped up and one show already sold out.

Brett Sheehy is thrilled. But he is quietly, cautiously thrilled. He might be talking tickets but he doesn’t have them on himself. Yes, he arrived at the launch at the International Airport in a buggy full of streamers but it’s not what you would call his style. He brings impressive credentials to the Adelaide Festival director job – a decade at the Sydney Festival, including four as Chief Executive – but he prefers to wear them lightly.

Right from the start, the auguries for the 2006 Adelaide Bank Festival have been good. There have been no signs of bother, no snafus, no discouraging words. The Festival has had a bumpy ride so far this century – cost blow-outs, the Peter Sellars Experiment, and a troubling sense that the Melbourne Festival, particularly after three years with Robyn Archer, had nudged us on to the median strip. But, with a robust budget from a very committed Premier Mike Rann and a sharp and shiny brochure heralding an artfully constructed program of events, the 2006 Festival looks to change all that.

When I suggest to Sheehy that he has produced a particularly elegant schedule, he is all deflections – “It’s partly instinct in curating a program but much of it is in the lap of the gods – the gods being the artists themselves. I have said frequently that I am not keen on theming festivals and imposing that kind of straitjacket on the visions of individual artists and companies. I’d much rather let it grow organically and be as surprised as the audience with what ends up.”

“I certainly didn’t set out two and a half years ago to explore issues of technology or the dissolving barriers between art forms, or to look at some of the great classical works through a contemporary lens. But as I moved about nationally and internationally that began to emerge. I’m fortunate to see dozens of international dance works, for instance, so how does one arrive at the Forsythe Company, Stau from the Netherlands and Random Dance from the UK ? That’s where my job comes in – and my feeling of ‘how new is this work ? how intelligent ? What is this work saying to us in 2006 and is it relevant and significant?’ “

Brett Sheehy brings not only previous festival experience to this program but theatre credentials as well. As both a general manager and an artistic and literary associate, he worked as dramaturg on more than a dozen Sydney Theatre Company projects and he has particular thoughts about the place of theatre in a festival.

“It is still one of my loves but the theatre, both internationally and nationally, begins from a conservative springboard. Theatre hasn’t really made it into the 21st century or even the cinematic age. I couldn’t be less interested in a bunch of people in their living room on the stage – theatre needs to make a direct connection with the audience.”

He immediately makes mention of Thomas Ostermeier, from the Berlin-based Schaubuhne Theatre and director of one of the festival highlights – Nora, a re-worked production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. “I’ve been lucky enough to see several of his works. He has certainly taken the theatre kicking and screaming into the cinematic age. Two hours later he releases you, emotionally and viscerally affected the way cinema does. You don’t think – ‘I have to prepare myself mentally for a piece of theatre.’ I’d be thrilled if the legacy of this festival was an experience like that.”

“Or William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies. People call him a choreographer but he is really a theatre creator – I shied away from calling his production a dance work, I think I called it a movement and theatre work. He uses the invasion of Baghdad as a starting point to discus geopolitics and the darkness and horror of this century. My theatre background very much influences these choices. I look at any production – whether dance or operatic through a theatrical lens. I think of the Glyndebourne production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight as a great piece of theatre, it also happens to be a wonderful opera.”

A close watcher of Australian festivals over many years Sheehy has his eye on what he calls the festival canon. It is the business of festivals to introduce people who, in time, become the major figures in their art form. Adelaide has had many such experiences with Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Robert Lepage, the Rustaveli Company of Georgia and many others. When I compare his festival with Christopher Hunt’s quiet achievement in 1994, Sheehy characteristically deflects the praise but concedes that, like Hunt and Sheehy’s mentor Anthony Steel, he sees it as the role of the festival director to bring to Australian audiences artists of lasting distinction. His Sydney Festival claims include Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil and Shen Wei Dance Arts. For Adelaide, he is justly proud to have secured the Schaubuhne Theatre, a Glyndebourne Festival opera and William Forsythe’s newest company.

He might also mention David Byrne. Indicative of Brett Sheehy’s low-key persistence – and the way the festival circuit works, Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s collaboration with Fat Boy Slim on the subject of Imelda Marcos has had a slow gestation. Sheehy had been following the work of the former lead singer of the legendary New York band, Talking Heads, through the 1990s before scheduling him for the 2002 Sydney Festival ( a show that also played here for a lucky few in the Entertainment Centre.) At that time Byrne signaled he was working on a song cycle about Marcos but it was never quite ready for the next two years of Sheehy’s Sydney programs. “However, when the headhunter talked to me in Chicago about doing the Adelaide Festival ,” Sheehy recalls, ”the first person I emailed was David Byrne, saying – look, there’s a vague chance I may be in Adelaide in 2006.”

That has turned out to be much more than a vague chance and David Byrne and Brett Sheehy are now well into preparation for next March. When, on opening night, the church bells ring out from the two Adelaide cathedrals, they will herald the beginning of three weeks of festival. And what will the director be looking forward to in that time ?

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” he replies sheepishly, “but during the actual festival I don’t feel a lot of pleasure. I am so nervous. I stand at the back of every auditorium, exhibition hall and gallery space, biting my nails, praying that the work connects. Sometimes I feel physically ill and I can hardly be in the room. If it does connect, of course, it is one of the great thrills in life.”

And then, almost in spite of himself, he starts to talk enthusiastically about the opening night spectacular – Il Cielo che Danza (the Dancing Sky)an how much it will appeal to young audiences. For all his nail biting, it is clear that Brett Sheehy, also, can hardly wait for those bells to ring.

“Getting Brett’s Best” The Adelaide Review, No.282, December 9, 2005.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment