New on Festival Bytes: Small is beautiful

14 March 2013

“I have come to most things by accident. It never occurred to me that I could ever be a festival director and there were no recognisable models to follow,” Robyn Archer starts to share her insights into festival making in the latest publication by the European Festivals Association (EFA), entitled “Inside/Insight Festivals. 9 Festival Directors — 9 Stories”, the fifth volume in the EFA BOOKS series. Festival making is the “art of juxtaposition”, says Robyn. “The director must have the skill to combine old with new, international with local, familiar with unfamiliar, so that a seamless beast emerges, much much greater than the simple sum of its parts.” “I have been a singer since I was four years old. My father was a stand-up comedian and a popular singer, so I was raised in an atmosphere of entertainment rather than arts. I fell in to my father’s fading world of Australian vaudeville: immediately after graduating with an Honours degree in English language and literature, plus Latin, I became a nightclub singer. But I started to write songs (mainly political), and eventually also added playwriting, directing and original cabarets to my repertoire. At 27 years old I encountered the world of the arts for the first time through the works of Brecht and his musical collaborators. I was mentored by the English translator and editor of Brecht, the late John Willett whom I met as dramaturg of The Threepenny Opera in Adelaide. He invited me for my first international performances at the National Theatre in London. A few years later I had a one woman show that ran for twelve months in the West End. I recorded Brecht/Weill/Eisler/Dessau at Abbey Road with the London Sinfonietta. My world as a performer, writer and director was rich, varied, full and amply rewarded. I lived in London during the eighties, but often returned to work in Australia. In 1992 I was performing my French cabaret show Le Chat Noir at the National Festival of Australian Theatre in Canberra when the Manager who ran that festival asked if I would like to direct it. Now there are ateliers and mentorships in artistic direction; and young artists, directors and managers can aspire to festival direction as a career option. But in 1992 nothing could have been further from my mind. What’s more, at this time no woman had ever directed a major arts festival in Australia. My personal background proved invaluable. As an artist I still aspire to a kind of perfection. (...) I understand fully the breath-by-breath fraction-of-a-second detail that artists devote to their work. For me elitism is not a dirty word. I use it as I would for an elite sportsperson. Elitism spells total commitment to the work in hand and a striving for perfection: this applies equally to art which also demands a high degree of imagination. And there is nothing contradictory in the idea of an elite artist who makes work with and for audiences outside the formal structures of traditional spaces or forms or subject matter. My first step in festival direction would be to see which Australian artists, in a very broad concept of ‘theatre’ (dance-theatre, musical theatre, street-theatre as well as drama), were working with imagination, and striving for their kind of ‘perfection’. This does not preclude experiment, or failure, but it does require a serious intent rather than a trivial or superficial one. These were the artists I would invite.” Robyn Archer is a key figure in Australian festival life: she is the former Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival, the former Artistic Director of the National Festival of Australian Theatre, Canberra, and the former Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, amongst others. Currently, she is the Creative Director of The Centenary of Canberra (2013), and the Artistic Director of The Light in Winter, Melbourne. She is a singer, writer, director, artistic director and public advocate of the Arts. Robyn has collaborated with the European Festivals Association for many years, amongst others as a presenter at the Atelier for Young Festival Managers where she inspired and has been inspired by the next generation of festival makers from all over the world. The full article by Robyn Archer “Small is beautiful” is available in EFA BOOKS 5 “Inside/Insight Festivals. 9 Festival Directors - 9 Stories” published by the European Festivals Association, the umbrella organisation for festivals across Europe and beyond, and co-produced with CultureLink Singapore, a multi-dimensional arts management and consulting agency. In “Inside/Insight Festivals” nine renowned festival directors from all over the world – Robyn Archer, Serina Chen, Rose Fenton, Ching-Lee Goh, Frie Leysen, Lucy Neal, Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann, Thorunn Sigurdardottir and Carla van Zon – share their insights into festival making in the past decades and invite for a journey of artistic and thought-provoking encounters around the globe. The publication is available on the EFA eShop. Visit EFA’s blog Festival Bytes for more stories giving insights into festivals. (Photo: © Heide Smith)