December 01, 2001

Adelaide Festival Crisis

Filed under: Archive,Festival

Murray Bramwell

The past two months have been like a spill of dominoes for the Adelaide Festival. From the debacle over the Hitler poster, late in October, to the dismal program launch, days later, which revealed, finally, how empty the larder had become and how many projects had failed – like so many baby turtles on the beach – to reach maturity. To make matters worse, Artistic Director Peter Sellars was unavailable for the launch, neither as support to his beleaguered associates, nor to provide much needed explanation of the ways of god to man. The fact that he had a prior commitment directing an opera in Paris and, in the age of internet, sent a video message which arrived by snail mail two days late, only added vinegar to the situation. The announcement, on November 12, of Peter Sellars’ resignation seemed just one more bloody thing – and less of a shock than an inevitability.

So how did this fiasco happen ? How did we all think that someone was steering things when no-one was ? None of us could say there were no warning signs even from the beginning. When Sellars’ appointment was announced, let me be clear, I was the first to be enthusiastic. His work in theatre and opera has been extraordinary and his contribution has been considerable. When I chaired his session at the inaugural Festival of Ideas back in 1999 I was very happy to record my admiration for him and when he spoke like a wired up evangelist we were all impressed by his zest and his humanity. I am still impressed by his zest and his humanity.

The trouble is, there are two Peter Sellars. One is the iconoclastic director who directed a version of Aeschylus’s The Persians in Washington in the middle of the Gulf War, who has produced a series of radical readings of Mozart operas, who has worked in marvellous collaboration with John Adams and Alice Goodman on Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer and most recently El Nino, and who has continued to astonish audiences at Glyndebourne with productions such as his version of Handel’s oratorio, Theodora. That Peter Sellars is an artist of international standing.

The other Peter Sellars is an arts activist with an agenda on community arts which is idealistic and confrontational. It was Sellars who, when appointed Director of the Los Angeles Festival, took the events into the South Central area immediately after the LA riots – or the LA Insurrrection as he prefers to call it. It was a bold move to take the arts audience into parts of the city they would normally never venture. It was a strategy to strengthen urban interaction and give prestige to minorities and subcultures such as the African American and Hispanic communities. It was a blithe notion. The LA Festival is no longer operating.

It seems clear, when Sellars was offered the Adelaide job, that no-one asked him whether he planned to recreate the LA Festival. Or, just as likely, that he made no bones about what he was going to do and nobody really listened. You know how people say things and you can’t quite believe what you’ve heard and think you must have been mistaken. Like when Sellars said that the money would all be gone by the time the Festival began, and when he said its success might only be evident ten years from now. He has mentioned plenty of times that he didn’t believe in Festival safaris – bagging this big ticket item and that – even though in most people’s festivals Sellars himself and his works are just such an item.

He also made it clear, early on, that he planned to appoint associate directors to go out and develop program and raise money. Didn’t the people who hired him and the people who manage the infrastructure wonder why a group of relatively inexperienced and mostly young artists and cultural activists were being asked to do what a high profile director ought to be doing. That this was a weird moment to start invoking a collective model and could be seen as a way of amortising both effort and responsibility. But the appointments were made and the long and unhappy process of program planning began.

There seems to be no time when it was made clear to Peter Sellars that there are non-negotiables in a festival – and the Adelaide Festival is no different from any other whether Edinburgh or Avignon or Sydney. That it is not carte blanche at all. There are financial and artistic obligations, there is a history, a continuity of identity. That it is a cultural asset, for God’s sake. Surely, communicating this is a job for a board or a general manager or an Arts Minister – or all of those people. It is also the job of commentators. But the charge of artistic interference – and bucketing an event before it has even happened – is the fear of every enlightened community. No one wants to be remembered for booing The Rite of Spring, and so Adelaide erred on the side of caution and politeness.

Peter Sellars said in his resignation statement that he had made his share of mistakes since coming to Adelaide. I wonder what he thought they were ? Among them surely, is that he brought a template with him and didn’t look and listen hard enough when he got here. That he – and I am sure he would be appalled to hear me say this – behaved like an imperialist. If he had looked and listened, the way Barrie Kosky, that other boy haircut, did and had he recognised how the place works, how the Festival works, how the Fringe works, Sellars would have realised that a lot of his much-vaunted new approach was not new. Kosky, for instance, had the best free stuff anyone had seen for Red Square.

In two excellent festivals Robyn Archer had brilliantly blended high calibre international work – Les Ballets C de la B, Black on White- with a wide-ranging free program including the fully developed Flamma Flamma and a detailed indigenous section. Archer had Aboriginal country bands playing on the Plaza, Jimmy Little at the Beltana racecourse, she also had Gay Bilson feeding the five thousand at Elder Park. Archer introduced the regional program and set up the Port hub. She commissioned Ochre and Dust and Big hArt works. Her reconciliation program was the most comprehensive incorporation of contemporary indigenous work, as well as young disadvantaged groups. She even had a Shockheaded Peter.

What Robyn Archer didn‘t do was confuse the Festival with Come Out or the food and wine festival or a local council community program. She didn’t think that it was the job of the Festival to become a film producer, even though more direct grants to the film corporation would be a great idea. Nor did she have a fantasy that Adelaide has a plutocrat patron class who would enjoy paying for a private meal and a string quartet for more money than the rest of the city could, or would afford. This is not Manhattan or Salzburg – our wealthy will pay four hundred bucks for the best seats at the Grand Final, or Barbra Streisand, or some other pseudo egalitarian event, but sitting like porkers paying too much for their food is something Australians will do only when the whole world isn’t watching.

Who was guiding Peter Sellars in these arcane local ways. What did he actually pitch ? and what was his brief ? He may have said : “cheaper and radical, socially just and inclusive”. None of these things has happened. The costs blew out, the ideas were, consciously or unconsciously, a xerox of earlier, less trumpeted, programming, the social justice aspect has seen communities from Burra to outer metropolitan Adelaide brought into projects which were then ditched through lack of budget. The inclusivity has driven a group of inexperienced associates into tasks which were not their forte and, after being hammered for being a drain on the budget ( in a move that many would welcome in the corporate sector) they all had to turn in half their salaries to help pay for running costs.The sight of the demoralised associates at the Festival program launch, talking up a handful of surviving events, is one we should long remember. The author of this half-arsed idea nowhere to be seen, artists with no opportunity to put their view, confidentiality agreements everywhere locking things up.

We are now in damage control with the Adelaide Festival and many, including director Sue Nattrass are working hard to bring a revised program together. We are being called upon to support the Festival and of course we will. The combination with the Fringe, the ever flourishing Writers’ Week and the scheduling of further events courtesy of Arts Projects Australia will bring a more familiar festival mix into focus. It is an awful irony that El Nino, an example of Sellars at his best, as a hard working imaginative artist, will very likely not be seen. It is also an irony that he didn’t want the opera to play here because it was not part of his radical vision.

The Festival has been badly shaken by events of the past year and there needs to be a serious investigation of what has taken place. Demonising Peter Sellars is not the solution. It is not as though he lied to parliament. No-one could say he didn’t warn us about his intentions. The associates did not appear in the dead of night. The program plan, or lack of it, was evident more than a year ago. The writing was on the wall, the blood was in the water, the die was cast – you get the point. We didn’t need soothsayers, or detectives. We needed management.

The Adelaide Review, No.219, December, 2001. pp.3-5.

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