Sydney festival's new artistic director is ready with plan A: 'restore and recover'

Stephanie Convery

Olivia Ansell has “mixed feelings” about being offered the directorship of Sydney’s flagship summer arts festival during a pandemic that has had a catastrophic effect on the local arts community.

“I’m excited and elated but I know the first thing I need to do is play my part in helping restore and recover the cultural and tourism sector,” she says.

Ansell has just been appointed the artistic director of Sydney festival, taking the baton from Wesley Enoch, who bows out after 2021. She comes to the role after three and a half years as the head of contemporary performance at the Sydney Opera House, where she was responsible for programming works such as Grand Finale, by UK-based dance company Hofesh Shechter, and Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s wildly popular Henry VIII musical, Six.

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January’s festival – and the program most immediately affected by the pandemic, including physical distancing regulations and restrictions on gatherings – is primarily the incumbent’s responsibility, and Ansell’s first line-up will be in 2022. But how do you plan for an international arts festival when you’re dealing with indefinite border closures, an unstable economy, and you don’t know which companies will still be operating at the end of the year, let alone in 18 months’ time?

“Honestly, the key is to have plan A, B, C, D, E and F,” Ansell says. “We’ve all got to remain ready to – I hate this word – pivot.”

Despite her professed distaste for the jargon of adaptation, Ansell lauds the “extreme agility” demonstrated by the arts organisations thrown into chaos over the past three months.

“We’ve seen organisations with no digital program suddenly have a robust digital culture,” she says. “There’s no way we would have [in the past] entertained the idea of a creative team researching and developing a work where some of the creatives were in a different country and watching the actors or singers create in the room from a different timezone, but that’s been happening.”

She name-checks Melbourne’s AsiaTopa festival and the quick adjustments made there earlier this year: “When the news was announced that the borders for China were closing, some of the creatives remained in China, developing the work that was presented in Melbourne remotely, giving guidance and direction online.”

Regardless of their scope, the major festivals do tend to roll in a few major international touring acts to headline the program. That won’t be happening in Sydney next year: with borders still closed, Enoch’s last festival will be an all-Australian line-up, joining Melbourne’s new festival Rising (a replacement for both its annual International Arts festival and White Night), Darwin festival and Falls festival in wholly embracing local talent.

Ansell has “big shoes to fill” in that respect anyway, not simply to strengthen the relationship with greater Sydney – “This has always been a festival for all parts of Sydney, not just the city of Sydney area” – but with maintaining a strong program of Indigenous art and performance.

“Wesley’s legacy undoubtedly has been his incredible commitment to the commissioning of exciting new First Nations theatre,” Ansell says. It’s a commitment she plans to continue – including retaining the Vigil, a reflection on Australia’s colonial institutions and Indigenous history on 25 January.

With a Covid-19 vaccine still some way off, and social distancing rules being eased ever so gradually, Ansell is confident the festival can negotiate new anxieties about physical proximity.

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“As a festival we’re always thinking of atypical spaces and ways to see Sydney’s architecture differently anyway,” she says.

It does provide an excuse to delve into another her passions, though: Ansell was the executive producer of Vivid’s immersive performance series Hidden Sydney a couple of years ago. “I’m a bit of a Sydney history tragic, I love the charisma that Sydney exudes. Some people say it’s a hedonistic city but I think it’s a city with a deep underbelly of stories,” she says.

The first challenge though is to get to the end of the year.

“We’ve got to try and keep everybody propped up and supported,” she says, noting recent announcements by state governments of emergency relief for the arts. “There’s been some lifelines … [but] I wish there was more funding, I really do.”