Jumping into his first year as the new Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, and out of his last year as the Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival, Brett Sheehy chats to Eleanor Howlett from Australian Stage about memorable moments, some challenging bits, and a new light.
Belated congratulations on your appointment as the new MTC Artistic Director! What (apart from the job being advertised) brought you to this role?
Thank you! Actually the job being advertised didn’t initially attract me to the role for two reasons. The first was that no state theatre company in our history has ever appointed a resolutely non-directing artistic director (and I can unequivocally say I have no aspirations to direct plays) and secondly I wasn’t available anyway since I had two more Melbourne Festivals to direct.
But when the MTC Board courageously said they were open to a non-directing AD, and that they could create an interim solution for my not being available if I was interested and successful, I leapt at the chance. My artistic ‘home’ is theatre – I studied dramatic text within my English Lit major at Qld Uni (which, to my shame, I never graduated from), I worked as a theatre critic in Sydney from 1983 to 1985, and then I joined Sydney Theatre Company where I spent ten years in four positions as Assistant to the Director, Artistic Associate, Literary Manager and Deputy General Manager.
I also saw tremendous opportunities with MTC and where we might take the Company in the next five years or so, especially with its terrific new theatrical home – Southbank Theatre. And finally, after spending four years in Melbourne, I loved the idea of staying on here to continue to contribute to its cultural life.
The Melbourne Theatre Company 2013 Season recently launched; what's coming up?
In programming the season, I gather I went the reverse way around compared to how most ADs work. Rather than pick twelve or so plays I wanted to do or see done, I decided to throw it open to the theatre-makers themselves, and I went to some of our best theatrical talents, especially those who’ve not been seen on MTC stages for some time or at all, and asked them, quite simply, what they would ‘kill to do’.
This way, we’re guaranteed that artistic passion is driving what’s on stage – whether it’s a director directing the play they’ve always coveted, or an actor performing the role of a lifetime, or a playwright writing about something they have always wanted to, but for whatever reason, have not.
Having our new associates Leticia Caceres and Sam Strong tackle works they are deeply passionate about means three ‘don’t miss’ productions just from our in-house artistic team – Leticia with the ground-breaking (and I use that term consideredly) new play Contellations starring Alison Bell, which is as thrilling an example of innovation in dramatic form as Caryl Churchill’s early works, and Sam directing the classic of his dreams The Crucible with David Wenham and the new US play Other Desert Cities with Robyn Nevin and John Gaden.
Then there’s the raft of other works which interrogate subjects as diverse as Martin Luther King, bio-chemistry and brain function, post-apartheid South African politics, Rupert Murdoch, and the imaginary world of children’s fantasies, to name but a few, and peopled by such creative luminaries as Simon Stone, Jacki Weaver, Neil Armfield, Catherine McClements, Zhara Newman, new Griffin artistic director Lee Lewis, Paul Grabowsky, Pamela Rabe, Philip Quast, Peter Houghton, Kim Carpenter, Joanna Murray-Smith, Bert LaBonte… the list goes on.
And we are taking the first step in blowing open our design traditions with international visual art star Callum Morton creating the set for Other Desert Cities.
As well, there is the first ever presentation by MTC of a full, original production from the West End – the National Theatre’s runaway hit One Man Two Guvnors directed by Nicholas Hytner; the open slot Zeitgeist which we’re leaving available for the best, most up-to-date opportunity which presents itself to us (shaking off the straight-jacket of having to launch our season's six months out from the first show and nearly 18 months out from the last show of each year); and Neon - the first boutique festival of independent theatre.
What are three words you would use to describe the MTC 2013 season?
A new light (that’s actually our 2013 theme, so it fits nicely!)
You’re also working on the 2012 Melbourne Festival for the final time; as this is your last year – what are some of the great memories you’ll be taking away with you?
Too many to mention, but I’ve loved the opportunity to finish my ten Australian festivals with this one in Melbourne and, as always with the festivals I’ve directed, I‘ve loved debuting for the nation artists and companies who’ve never been seen in Australia before. In the case of my time at Melbourne Festival they’ve included Hofesh Shechter Company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Ivo van Hove, Sasha Waltz with two epic productions, Ramallah Underground, Sebastian Nubling, Emmanuel Jal, Calder Quartet and especially the sculptural works of Russian art collective AES+F whose Angels and Demons took over Melbourne’s CBD last year for the most memorable and largest public art installation ever presented in this city’s 177 year history.
What are some of the challenges involved in constructing the Festival?
The biggest challenge is using Melbourne Festival’s limited resources (we’re fourth in line in terms of total government support – local and state – for Australia’s capital city festivals) to still deliver a festival which in my view stands proudly alongside our fiscally bigger interstate colleagues. This requires an adept combination of savvy artistic programming by our team, a scientific approach to branding and promotion, extensive collaboration, boldness and confidence.
What would you say to entice the public to the Festival?
Over 16 years in festivals – 10 as artistic director and the previous six as deputy director – I’ve worked with some of the greatest artists on the planet. This year we decided to celebrate that history by inviting back some of the ‘best of the best’, to present their latest works. So Thomas Ostermeier, William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Luke Wright are just a few of those who said “Yes, we’ll come.”
As well, I have always championed epic, international, contemporary opera, and our big opening event is a work I believe only Melbourne Festival alone in the nation would ever present. It is called After Life and in my view no one interested in contemporary culture – of any genre – should miss it. It’s only one hour and forty minutes long, and I can’t top the London Financial Times description of it, which has been echoed across Europe: “After Life is the all-embracing art form of the future – five stars!”.
What is the best thing about the arts in Australia?
The openness of the Australian personality translates to an openness of art making, where we are at the forefront of dissolving silos and barriers around artforms, making them more accessible and more holistically ‘celebrations of artistic pursuit’ – period.
I also love the increasing institutional collaborations within the arts (a necessity as artists dissolve those silos), I love our art still reflecting our irreverence and larrikin distrust of authority and rules, and I love that especially our younger generation of artists and producers eschews pretension, obfuscation and elitism, and in so doing is opening artistic doors to millions more Australians who in the past felt alienated, unwelcome and suspicious of the closed doors of some of our more arch and snobbish predecessors.
What is the worst thing about the arts in Australia?
Ironically, the first two negatives are sort of diametrically opposed. On the one hand we are obsessed with telling ourselves that we have the right to fail. To me this is something every artist worth their salt knows only too well. But if I read one more forum or discussion paper or supposedly encouraging speech titled “The Right to Fail”, I’ll scream. Let’s start telling our young artists they have the right to succeed, let’s start mentoring them in the ways to artistic success and leave the oppressive and ubiquitous language of failure at the door for a few years.
On the other hand, we still fear speaking to others honestly about our own weaknesses, feeling that our vulnerability to extreme anti-artistic and right-wing commentators will see them swoop on any hint of fracture in our ‘united front’. I don’t think a refusal to ever openly and robustly criticise ourselves or our artistic brothers and sisters leads to society unconditionally embracing us – I think it leads to a society believing we have no self-judgment or are simply dishonest. I also think we are timid in terms of speaking plainly and passionately about what we believe. We still face a fundamentalist right-wing agenda which demonises “elite artists” and the so-called “intellectual elite”, while “elite athletes” is a term of absolute deification and worship. How did we let this happen? We need to fight back and fight hard whenever those darker forces of political fundamentalism, extremism or censorship threaten us with their language of fear or trying to carve us away from our society as “the other”.
What attracted you to this type of work?
A love of being able to help enrich lives through art – who could want for more? And no one I know has been given more opportunities to do that than I – through a writer's festival (way back in my Brisbane days), through three capital city international arts festivals, and through two state theatre companies – sometimes I think I’m the luckiest guy alive.
What is one of your most memorable personal artistic moments?
I have to go back to production one of festival number one – the opening of my first Sydney Festival with Theatre du Soleil’s The Flood Drummers. I had been told all my working life, by so many people, that this was the greatest theatre company in the world yet they had never been to Australia, despite having been invited, I think, 19 times. I had also been told that they would never, ever tour all this way. When I finally tracked down Theatre du Soleil’s founder and artistic director Ariane Mnouchkine in Basel where she was touring, I sat down with her after the show and she said: “Brett, I think we can make this happen”. I went back to my hotel room and burst into tears. Still not quite believing it, when we opened the show at Fox Studios in Sydney that hot January night in 2002, I thought to myself – if this is possible, anything is possible. And so it’s been since.