Since its launch in July, tickets have been selling fast for the 2010 MIAF. Having directed last year’s prestigious arts festival with aplomb and great success, in 2010, Melbourne will again be presented with an exciting array of both home grown and international acts across multiple genres. Anna Lozynski spoke to Festival Director Brett Sheehy to get the low down on his vision for this year’s “fiercely contemporary” program.

Brett SheehyHow did you spend your downtime between the end of the 2009 festival and the preparations for this year’s program?

There really is no downtime and I say that with not the slightest hint of martyrdom. On the contrary, it’s with relish that in a job like this you are working it through in your head constantly. And long before the 2009 festival even started we were well down the track with 2010, and likewise this year with 2011. So the end of one festival and the beginning of the next are punctuation points for the public, but irrelevant in our own planning cycle.

Which artists have you chosen to debut and which do you believe will make waves in 2010?
The distinguishing feature of most of the 908 artists in the 2010 festival is the wave-making nature of their practice.

Following on from the Australian debuts of Ariane Mnouchkine in 2002 (Sydney), Thomas Ostermeier in 2006 (Adelaide), Sasha Waltz in 2009 (Melbourne) and so on, this year we present Ivo van Hove with his production ‘Opening Night’. Dozens of other artists are also making their debuts from the Calder Quartet to Taryn Simon to Pieter de Buysser and Jacob Wren to Stigmata to Dengue Fever.

Because the program is fiercely contemporary and especially looks at great artworks challenging their forms and genres, most of the work in the 2010 program will make waves. Certainly van Hove’s ‘Opening Night’ and our contemporary opera ‘Tomorrow in a Year’ reconfigure notions of opera and stage drama. Heiner Goebbels’ ‘Stifter’s Dinge’ pulls audiences into a magical environment and in Goebbels own words, “the work is an exciting invitation to see and hear – but not in the way conventional theatre goers are used to…there is a gap between what you see and what you hear, and that gap leaves an important space for your imagination. With no performers on stage, the audience becomes the centre of the piece – they make the piece with what they experience.”

The list is long: Akram Khan, Hiroaki Umeda and Michael Clark in dance, John Cale and Thomas Ades in music, Ranters Theatre, Finucane and Smith, the writing of Daniel Keene, Jack Charles and many of the contemporary music program artists and visual arts program artists are all Australian wave-makers rather than wave-riders.

What was the rationale behind selecting the international acts featured in the program?
This year is the consolidation of my festival vision for this city: the presentation of the best contemporary work across every artform, the rigour of core criteria of excellence and innovation, and the establishment of the Melbourne Festival as Australia’s ‘destination festival’, with 90% of the work being exclusive to Melbourne and some of the finest international artists making their Australian debuts. I have embraced projects which, in my view, are among the most relevant artworks of our time, reflecting and questioning the issues, desires, conflicts and joys of us all.

Again, audiences will also have a choice of free and ticketed events, indoor and outdoor presentations, every kind of music, theatre, dance, opera and visual arts, and they will experience them all in the most celebratory, accessible and affordable way.

Take us through the process by which you make your assessment of submissions for the program.
We receive between 12 and 15 submissions, ideas or proposed projects per day from here and abroad, multiply that by 365 days per year, and you have an idea of the scale of the task.

These have to be immediately assessed as “of no interest”, “of some interest” or “of passionate interest” based on the potential for innovation or excellence expressed in the submission, the quality and reputations of the artists, my own experience of the works or artists, the issue of the correct platform for the work and so on.

A number of the submissions make it on to my ongoing ‘short-list’ of existing and proposed projects which runs around the 450 to 500 mark at any given time. This short-list travels in my thinking 24/7 from year to year.

While our core duty is to be the city’s ‘international’ festival, we also use our platform to present Australian work which would not necessarily happen without the festival’s involvement, and also which can stand beside the best work in that genre, internationally. Would the Australian work have the potential to be seen on, international festival stages around the world? Is it work my corresponding festival directors in Caracas, Shanghai, Vienna or Edinburgh would present to celebrate Australian artistic pursuit in this 21st Century?

You twittered recently that the pressure was on for this year’s festival, given that you exceeded expectations in 2009. How do you keep your nerves at bay, and at which point for you does the adrenaline ease?
Clearly the adrenaline had not eased when I tweeted that comment! I am hyperactive and can only subdue that with physical exhaustion, so I exercise a little obsessively. Emotionally, I simply cannot keep the nerves at bay. Nature made me this way, and I am relentlessly self-critical, totally insomniac, and a 24/7 worrier.

That said I would not wish it away. This is how I achieve what I achieve, for better or worse, and although it may seem contradictory, I am also completely and perhaps naively optimistic.

What is one important lesson you learned from last year’s festival?
That Melbourne has such a rich cultural life there is a need for clear delineation by all of its arts presenters about which platform is the appropriate one for artistic creations. When I arrived I was concerned that the conversations seemed to be not so much about the best possible forum in which an artist’s work should be seen, but more about just getting the work staged wherever and whenever a presenter can afford it.

However, an artist is not automatically best served by having their work premiere on an international arts festival platform, and the free-for-all that can result from a mistaken belief that this festival’s platform is always the best does not optimally serve the artist, the art, nor the festival. I first learned this lesson in the 80s when I was literary manager at Sydney Theatre Company and the Australia Council’s quota system applied. The damage I believe this did to several playwrights (and directors) was significant. Indeed some disappeared from Australia’s cultural landscape altogether, when I believe they had enormous promise to contribute great art in the future.

The festival was launched on 13 July. How will you be spending your time between now and 8 October?
First, being the bridge between the artists’ visions and the potential audience for the 2010 program by talking about the festival in clear, intelligent and passionate language to facilitate that connection. This is especially important with my programming given many of the artists are new to Melbourne and/or to Australia, so no dialogue yet exists between them and our audiences.

Secondly, I am planning the 2011 program feverishly. Most international artists of stature schedule their presentations a full two years in advance.

Recreationally, I will be reading, cinema-going, discovering more terrific Melbourne restaurants, cycling, going to the gym, and still worrying about everything!

Tell us about your working relationship with Vivia Hickman, CEO of the festival.
The relationship between the artistic and administrative sides of the festival ‘coin’ is a critical part of a festival’s culture. Happily, I have been blessed in my festival career with a raft of exceptional general managers, and Vivia is my fifth. As Head of Programming for the festival, she plays a vital role since the program is the core business. I think we both benefit enormously from our vast respective experience and can empathise with the objectives of our respective roles.

On a personal level, she is a muse, sounding-board and inspiration, and while the phrase “I couldn’t do the job without her” may seem disingenuous, certainly I couldn’t do the job in the way I do it without her.

Finally, which two words best capture the essence of the 2010 Festival?
Original. Innovative.

The 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival runs from October 8 until October 23. Festival website»

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