TN talks to Sheehy, the new face of MIAF ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

TN talks to Sheehy, the new face of MIAF

The appointment of Kristy Edmunds' successor as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival has been feverishly anticipated. Well, TN confesses to a deep interest, but I cannot match the enthusiasm of our favourite arts reporter, the Age's Robin Usher.

Usher has been a keen lobbyist against what he perceives as Edmunds' anti-mainstream programming. The most recent name he was gunning for was Brett Sheehy, whom Usher perceives as a director "more likely to return to a traditional programming mix". (Whatever that means.) He also suggested Lindy Hume earlier this year, prompting a sharp rebuke from MIAF general manager Vivia Hickman. And last night, festival president Carol Schwartz announced that Brett Sheehy is the successful candidate, and will helm the festival through 2009 and 2010.

So have the grinches won? Has the MIAF board blinked and gone for the commercial bling, despite the unqualified success of Kristy Edmunds' 2007 program? Or are they, perhaps, being very savvy? Your fearless reporter nailed the hapless Sheehy to the MIAF board table yesterday in order to investigate. And the result of my interrogation leads me to suspect that if Usher expects a sudden swerve to the "mainstream", he might very well be surprised.

I admit it, I was charmed. Although he had no doubt spent his morning being grilled by reporters, Sheehy showed no sign of weariness. His enthusiasm, which has almost a naive quality, is infectious. He says he is hugely excited and very nervous about his appointment. "I'm a huge fan of the Melbourne Festival, and I've attended every festival since 1992. Melbourne audiences are tremendously sophisticated and savvy, and it's a big challenge to present a festival here."

Sheehy has a long track record, and MIAF says he was the "stand out candidate" in their hunt for a new AD. Formerly literary manager at the STC, he's directed both the Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, winning various forms of kudos along the way. He's clearly good at attracting sponsorship - the 2008 Adelaide Bank Festival of the Arts, as it is now known, is the biggest arts sponsorship in South Australia's history.

But what are his plans for our favourite festival? "It would be insanely premature to say anything specific, especially given that Kristy has her own festival to run next year," he says. "But I am very conscious of the Melbourne Festival's Spoleto origins, and its international responsibilities. I am kind of... I am very ambitious and competitive for the organisations for which I work, I want them to strive for excellence in every possible way. And if I can do that, I know that Melbourne will be happy."

So far, so gold plated. But when asked what he thinks about Edmunds' programming, Sheehy is more than diplomatically polite. "Perhaps I'm a bit biased," he confesses. "I think Kristy Edmunds is a terrific artistic director, a terrific woman. But then, I've been programming people like Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Wilson, Lucy Guerin, oh, for years.”

He is aware of the “vicious” commentary that Edmunds’s directorship has attracted – which he says that he doesn’t understand. “It’s not true, as some say, that she's changed her course,” says Sheehy, referring to the unanimous praise for this year's festival. “She's followed her vision from day one with a wonderful integrity and rigor." But he puts a positive spin on the debate. “On the other hand, it’s exciting that such robust and vigorous debates are happening,” he says. “And that there is this real sense of ownership of the festival in this city.”

Sheehy says he is keen to include organisations like the MTC – a notable festival absence – in his programming, while Usher notes approvingly that he’s all for symphony orchestras and operas. But I'm not panicking yet. It’s worth noting that this year’s Adelaide Festival includes Chunky Move and the Malthouse Theatre production of Marius von Mayenburg’s Moving Target. Mayenburg’s Eldorado, also directed by Benedict Andrews, was one of the works singled out by Peter Craven in a broadside against Edmunds last year, in which the “fringey” Malthouse was caught in the crossfire.

Sheehy, on the contrary, thinks the Malthouse is the most exciting theatre company in the country. To my surprise, he claims that the Malthouse has made waves across Australia, not just in Melbourne. “It’s a role model for all of us,” he says. “Recently I picked Michael Kantor as one of the top ten influential people in culture. It’s just astonishing what they’ve done here.”

Sheehy says a city festival is 50 per cent artistic vision and 50 per cent the milieu of the city itself. In Melbourne, as he says rightly, he can access an artistic community of richness and depth. There’s not much sign that he plans to change the festival's present direction in any significant way. He wants to plug into Melbourne’s visual arts scene and engender collaborations with other artforms, but that’s about as specific as he will get.

For now, he has to steer Adelaide 2008 first. He takes up his MIAF position on April 1 next year. In the meantime, he says that Edmunds’s 2008 program is “absolutely astonishing”. If it’s better than 2007, well, as incoming director, he’ll have to live up to that.

Sheehy will be seen as a “safe pair of hands” – the artistic equivalent of Kevin Rudd – but if he’s sincere about exploiting the vitality of Melbourne's artistic milieu he could be a very good strategic appointment, providing a period of consolidation. Perception is all, and a program strong on innovation under Sheehy – especially after the icebreaker years of Edmunds – might well defuse criticism before it occurs, and end up pleasing everybody. The proof is, as always, in the festival program he actually produces: but for the moment TN feels sanguine about MIAF. I think Sheehy's appointment is a smart move.


Anonymous said...

After seeing the programmes for Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth I tend to think the only festival director at the moment who is trying to do something genuinely interesting in Kristy Edmunds.

The rest are just so generic as to be almost the same. It looks to me as if there is a list they have all chosen from and so every festival gets Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin, all the usual names and works from Australia and around the world.

I thought Brett Sheehy's Adelaide Festival next year is uninteresting and predictable. Unlike Melbourne this year where I really wanted to jump on a plane to come over, there's nothing here or in Sydney that makes me go, 'yay! art!'. And certainly nothing that engages with Adelaide as a rather unique little city.

It looks all rather boring, white, middle class, safe … not what I'd hope from a festival I used to hear such amazing things about.

Of course if I directed a festival it'd be a Norwegian Black Metal retrospective and Gisèle Vienne.

Alison Croggon said...

That's fair comment, Frances. Others are reading, quite reasonably, that the grinches have won. I'll hold onto a cautious optimism until I'm proved wrong. I'm hoping that I'm not wrong, that the surge that Edmunds has generated - while we're talking tradition, a director in the tradition of Truscott - will have its own momentum. And that Melbourne itself will have its impact - there's no question that Edmunds' festivals have attracted huge national and international respect, as well as an ethusiastic (and large) audience. I should hate that momentum to come to a screaming halt. But I guess none of us will know until Sheehy releases his own program. We'll all be watching with deep interest, that's for sure.

Nicholas Pickard said...

From afar, I find the new appointment quite uninspiring...