Crossing Points: Kath M Mainland, What’s the Point of a Festival?

Kath M Mainland CBE
Executive Director, Melbourne International Arts Festival

I am a self-confessed Festival junkie. My entire career has been in Festivals and major public events. Three and a half years ago I moved to Melbourne to take up the role of Executive Director at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, having been Chief Executive of the Fringe in Edinburgh for seven years. Edinburgh and Melbourne are both great festival cities. Australia has a major international Festival in every state. In the same way that the British Council fosters relationships between people of the UK and people of other countries and cultures, so too are Arts Festivals all about international connections.

Festivals provide context. The critical mass of a Festival means you can give a small-scale event a level of resonance and meaning that it may not otherwise realise. For example, at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2018 we presented Flight – a moving and profound work about migration and refuge by Scottish company Vox Motus – which was very apt for this time and this place (and adapted from a book by a Melburnian author). In the context of a Festival it allowed the compelling story to have real relevance.

Festivals are also very good at building audiences. They can create a mood that draws people out of their comfort zone. Over time, they build a relationship with, and gain the trust of, their audience. The audiences are up for new, for exciting, for challenging experiences, and will often immerse themselves in a Festival by seeing multiple performances over the course of a programme, building large, loyal audiences who take risks and develop sympathetic, considered responses to challenging work. This benefits the cultural ecosystem, developing audiences for the sector more broadly. It makes Festivals the best place to showcase international artists.

Festivals provide a powerful platform for local artists – allowing them to benchmark themselves against their peers, and to see and learn about what is happening internationally. 

For example, in the Fringe in Edinburgh we had artists from almost 50 countries, taking part in the same event. So, for Scottish artists – a small, beautifully formed bunch, from a small country – the ability to witness that, to meet and talk to those artists without leaving their doorsteps, was an incredible thing. That’s as true in Melbourne, a much bigger city, because we are so far away. The work being benchmarked is interesting too because you’re also allowing all the artists who take part to take risks with their work and their practice.

The power of providing both the platform and ability to benchmark is well understood by those in the know. When the powerhouse that is Carla Van Zon (a veteran Artistic Director of both New Zealand and Auckland Arts Festivals) was at Creative NZ, so well did she understand this that she championed a showcase of New Zealand work to take to Edinburgh, building a whole professional development program around it, understanding that it would have taken years, and thousands of miles of travel, to have the same impact on those artists.

So what is a perfect Festival show? There is no one answer. Of course, we’re looking for quality (arguably subjective!), but also something that resonates with the community to which we belong. Different countries have artists who are at the top of their game in their chosen genre. For example, we brought Jess Thom, from Tourette’s Hero in the UK to Melbourne Festival, from Edinburgh. That was a great example of an extraordinary artist coming out of the incredibly strong UK scene of disability arts, which exists in large part because of the Unlimited Festival program that was linked to the London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. Jess was unknown in this part of the world, but the Festival, and her strong work, brought her a new audience, and local artists working in that field were also able to learn from her practice. She was also able to meet the Victorian Government Minister for Disability, who also held the portfolios of Creative Industries and Equality. The scene here is now strengthened by those connections and a new audience for Tourette’s Hero.

We not only seek what will resonate in this place, but also how we can amplify what already exists, both established and emerging. For example, Melbourne has a very strong dance scene, with world-class dance artists practising and making work here. To capitalise on this, in 2017 we commissioned a new piece by Lucy Guerin – the incredible world class choreographer from Melbourne – but rather than doing that in isolation we brought contemporary choreographer Faye Driscoll, an artist right at the cutting edge of dance in New York with her piece Thanks for Coming, and put those two works together in our program, in addition to building an entire program of workshops and talks for the audience (including the dance artists in the city).

Governments have long understood the concept of Festivals as agents of social change, as instruments of regeneration and moments of great civic celebration.

From the founding of the Edinburgh International Festival more than 70 years ago as a ‘re-flowering of the human spirit’ to bring together the people of war- torn Europe, to Melbourne’s passionate Italian community bringing Giancarlo Menotti from Spoleto to found the first Melbourne Festival more than 30 years ago, and the desire of John Truscott (who took up the directorship following Menotti’s departure) to give Melbourne a glowing, vibrant heart.

Although we grew out of high arts and Italian community, we’re now trying to hold a mirror to the whole of our diverse city. To that end, we have been working with our partners to build a Mandarin speaking audience – recognising that Mandarin is the second most spoken language at home in Melbourne. Stars from China (including the National Theatre of China and the extraordinary Yang Liping) have delighted audiences at the Festival in recent years and we have been delighted to see the auditoria filled with culturally diverse faces.

Festivals provide opportunities for rebuilding and healing too. In 2017 we premiered Bangsokol, a Requiem for Cambodia, with Cambodia Living Arts – the first symphonic piece to reflect on the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a performance dedicated to memory, reconciliation and peace. A moving score – with Cambodian and Taiwanese as well as western instruments – by Him Sophy, sits alongside an incredible movie by Rithy Pahn. Both artists lived through the expulsion from Phnom Penh. We worked with AsiaTOPA – who commissioned the work – to build an audience from the local Cambodian community, who, along with an international audience of presenters and peers, saw this remarkable show which went on to New York and Paris.

Because of the impact on artists and the bravery of their audiences and international networks, because of our ambition, and because our work is interdisciplinary and intersectional, we are also great collaborators and a natural commissioning force.

That runs from Cloud Street 30 years ago, a retelling of an iconic Australian novel chronicling the life of two working class families against the backdrop of war and the Australian dream, to Counting and Cracking at Sydney Festival in 2019, an epic telling of four generations of family from Sri Lanka to Sydney, and of Australia as a place of refuge. Although 30 years apart, both these commissions told important, relevant Australian stories, were collaborations, and allowed Australians from traditional and migrant communities to see their own stories on stage.

The benefits of international co-creation and collaboration – for artists, for audiences, and for relations between cultures and countries – are manifest.

For artists, it allows you to lift your gaze, and therefore your game. For audiences, it brings new and exciting work, and also encourages the feeling of belonging. You saw it first, you discovered it, you’re in it from the start – which is part of why Festivals are so compelling: they are about discovery.

Festivals are also about history. We have audience members who have been coming to the Festival since the beginning, and they love it, and they have fond memories of it. And artists who have memories of experiencing art at the Festival for the first time and that shaping who they became.

International commissions and collaborations are a great means of telling global stories. We were incredibly proud to commission Memorial as part of 14–18 NOW, with Adelaide and Brisbane Festivals and the Barbican. An amazing Alice Oswald reworking of The Iliad, Memorial is an elegy to the fallen soldiers mentioned in the poem. It’s an incredibly moving piece about war. I am struck by how, although of course I knew about the Anzacs before I moved to Australia, the World Wars felt very European to me; but of course they’re not. Their impact was universal and very real in this part of the world.

Festivals have uniquely local and international perspectives. Think about the State Festivals here in Australia. Our Directors have a very focussed local knowledge of the sector, but also a profoundly international aspect; and together, a great national outlook. That is a very powerful tool for governments when considering how to project the image of Australia overseas, and the soft edge of cultural diplomacy. And for ‘soft power’ it is an incredible way to have difficult conversations – to allow a softer edge to take our story overseas. A colleague who is programming in the Arab Emirates can present incredibly challenging work about human rights issues, as long as they are not directly critical of the place, which is a great way to open eyes to that issue while considering the safety of their audience.

Collaboration is the decentralisation of the creative process. Festivals, when they’re good, are the epitome of this. They facilitate, they call things into being. They are nothing without the place from where they emerge, but they look outward. Festivals can proceed quickly, turn fast, build compelling narratives and take risks. They are itinerant, they mark the passing of time, they bring us together.

They are important. They are life-changing. They are fabulous.