Sydney festival teeters 'on a knife-edge' ahead of Wednesday's opening

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Sydney festival, the first major Australian arts festival of 2021, is “on a knife-edge” amid a volatile Covid environment, according to its artistic director.

The festival is poised to open on Wednesday and its administrators are on high alert. Though NSW Covid-19 case reports remain low, $200 on-the-spot fines have kicked in for anyone in greater Sydney not wearing a mask in a number of indoor settings, and even much-discussed cricket matches have now reduced venue capacity.

“I’m trying to put my feelings aside and just keep responding to public health orders as they change,” Sydney festival artistic director Wesley Enoch said.

Related: 'Half masks', packed foyers and bar queues: are Covid-safe theatres really safe?

“In many ways it’s a very dispassionate opening for the festival because we’ve been planning for Covid safety for many months now. Everything is very well ordered and methodical, which is terrible for me because normally I’m the typical excitable festival director. Right now I feel more like a school teacher running an excursion, keeping everyone safe,” Enoch said.

With Perth festival following in early February and Adelaide festival a few weeks later, what happens in Sydney will be keenly observed.

Thanks to international and state border closures, this year’s program of theatre, music, dance and performance and will be an all-Australian – indeed, almost all-Sydney – affair, in some ways more like it was in the early 1980s when it was called the Festival of Sydney.

“Australian-made was a very easy pivot for me,” Enoch said. “It’s in my DNA and it’s about trying to look after each other after a very hard year for the arts.”

Sydney Festival Artistic Director Wesley Enoch.
Sydney festival’s ‘typical excitable festival director’, Wesley Enoch, says he feels more like a teacher on a school trip, making sure everyone is safe. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

So far, three shows have been forced out of the program by state border closures. Other interstate artists have chosen to continue with their festival engagements and quarantine where necessary.

The wearing of face masks is now mandatory in indoor entertainment venues. The festival has bought 15,000 masks to distribute to anyone who forgets to bring their own.

Sydney festival’s outdoor events – those at Barangaroo headland, for example – will also require patrons to wear masks, Enoch confirmed. The festival’s indoor venues are operating at 50% capacity at a time when Sydney’s commercial theatres are routinely at 75-85% capacity.

“We budgeted at 50% from the start,” Enoch said. “It’s a soft cap so that we can open up more seats if a show becomes very popular, but I wouldn’t expect that to be the norm.”

Director Kate Gaul has been preparing for a revival of her production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at Parramatta’s Riverside theatres, which is showing as part of the festival. She said the past two weeks have been “nerve-racking”.

“Since before Christmas we’ve been worrying about whether or not we can go ahead,” said Gaul. “But now, it’s just so exciting to be working again. We are so very fortunate in this country to be putting shows on at all. Everyone in the cast is very excited.”

HMS Pinafore was created pre-Covid, Gaul said. The show has to be re-rehearsed with new cast members and according to new health department guidelines, including playing with no interval.

A very significant kiss in the show also needs to be reconsidered.

“Everything we do on stage is a negotiation between the performers,” Gaul said. “We will open the discussion about the kiss later this week. The goal is to achieve the drama and the surprise and the delight of the show without putting anyone at risk.”

The show will be re-blocked so that the cast sing out to the audience and never in each other’s faces, Gaul said. The audience will be at least 5 metres away from the nearest performer.

Related: Sydney festival, Opera Australia and Rent to continue with opening nights as NSW Covid cases rise

“When you sing loudly you need a lot of air but we are not singing at each other for lots of health reasons, including hearing,” she said. “We are pushing the sound out to the audience but we’re also taking care of the audience by observing greater distance. The cast don’t come forward on the stage and they don’t come into the audience.”

Earlier in the year, Gaul created a sideline for herself sewing masks for anyone in the theatre industry who needed one. “They were harder to get back then,” she said. “Now you can buy them everywhere so I don’t need to do that any more.”

Gaul is feeling optimistic about her show going ahead. “We all need a bit of a laugh and this is a fun show,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed by the mask-wearing and the Covid-safe rules. The industry has really stepped up to keep everyone safe.”

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