Kirsten Krauth speaks to directors Glyn Roberts, Lindy Hume and Glenn Wright about their upcoming regional arts festivals
When you think of arts festivals, the first that spring to mind are the major city festivals: Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. But regional festivals are gaining increasing popularity, by focusing on a mix of local community and international and national acts to draw visitors to their areas. Many regional festivals, including Castlemaine, Bleach, 10 Days on the Island, Bendigo Autumn Music and Four Winds, highlight the uniqueness of particular locations, with festival directors programming works that draw on their communities, histories and landscapes.
What draws new festival directors to the regions?
Glyn Roberts is directing the upcoming Castlemaine State Festival – a 10-day biennial event with a well-established 44-year history – for the first time. He left positions at Brisbane’s SuperCell Festival of Contemporary Dance and La Boîte to take over from Martin Paten, who had run it for a decade. Originally from Victoria, and a frequent visitor to Castlemaine, Roberts is excited by the festival’s long-standing success.
“It’s a very old festival”, he says, “and I found the more I looked into it, the potential for this grand old dame to grow and to re-establish itself as one of the more important festivals of this country was all there.”
Lindy Hume also left Brisbane to become the first-time director of Tasmania’s 10 Days on the Island. She lived on the south coast of New South Wales for 12 years and found herself drawn to the possibilities of regional Australia. “When I finished as artistic director of Opera Queensland, I had planned to spend more time making work where I live in Tathra (near Bega)”, she says. “The Ten Days on the Island job kind of came out of the blue at the end of 2017. It was so aligned with my interests in international festivals and the office had been relocated from Hobart to regional Tasmania – it just seemed it was meant to be.”
While both Castlemaine and 10 Days are well-established, Glenn Wright took on the challenge of starting a festival from scratch in setting up the inaugural Bendigo Autumn Music (BAM) Festival, which incorporates a range of performance, including theatre. His background in regional festivals helped: he’d been instrumental in setting up successful festivals in Bellingen (Bello) and Mullumbimby (Mullum).
Mullumbimby and Bellingen are smaller towns with picturesque locations, and Bendigo seemed an ideal next step. “Originally I would not have contemplated a city,” he says. “The arts precinct of Bendigo, the streets around Rosalind Park, are perfect for the festival format we work with. Within one block there are more than a dozen very good venues, with the Capital and Ulumbarra Theatre world class. Bendigo is about two hours from Melbourne and perfect for a destination-style boutique music festival.”
Same same but different
When I asked Roberts how his 2019 program related to previous festivals, he gave a cheeky laugh. “Everything had to change so that everything could stay the same.” When visiting the 2017 festival he found an incredibly passionate and devoted audience who almost booked by clockwork, and says very few festivals sell as well.
He felt there were three areas “absolutely killing it”: community, classical and contemporary. In each of these areas he chose to focus on interests and dialogues already happening in the local community. “In the program we want to make sure we’re engaging with the most up-to-date, interesting and even form-pushing aspects of these areas,” he says. “And so when we do community-mobilising, and community-focused things, we take the best contemporary artists and get them to create a format that the community can easily plug into and express themselves.”
For Hume, who follows Robyn Archer and Elizabeth Walsh to direct the tenth festival, it was a question of going back to the basics. What does the festival do best? What makes the festival relevant? She decided to look at what had changed in the past 20 years. “The change – in the world and in Tasmania – has been profound, technologically, politically, economically, in terms of feminism and identity,” she says. “Certainly regional Australia is a much more sophisticated, culturally confident place, the arts in regional Australia too. So we needed a festival that reflected Tasmania in 2019.”
For a new festival like BAM, with support from the City of Greater Bendigo and commercial business operators, Wright believes it’s important that the various festivals in Bendigo and Central Victoria present a point of difference. “For BAM, we are big on diversity of participants, genres and audience,” he says. “We are all about music and the arts, but from many different perspectives.”
The tension between locals and national and international guests
Living in Castlemaine, it often seems like everyone is an artist – it’s packed with visual artists, writers, filmmakers, physical theatre performers and musicians. Many have moved here in recent years, helped by venues like The Goods Shed (which houses a circus), the Theatre Royal and the Bridge (who program a vast array of music from in and out of town). With so many existing artists in a small community, it can be difficult to promote the work of one over another.
For Roberts, it’s about making festival-quality local work while using the new space they’re developing, The Goods Shed, for work with international partners that feeds and benefits local practice. “I don’t think festivals should be a terminus… it always needs to be a step to the next thing,” he says. “We’re of modest means, but we have the power to take a local artist and connect them with, say, an artist working in China or Japan or Europe, to make a work that’s internationally relevant but locally specific.” Roberts’ aim is to make Castlemaine “both a site for development of local artists, but also one of international collaboration, because this place is very quietly but also quite amazingly globally connected.”
For Hume, it’s about finding balance between the needs and recognition of local artists and support for more high-profile work. She favours Tasmanian innovation above all else. “We start with looking at the local opportunities for local artists, the broader Tasmanian scene, then what’s happening in the national context, and then the international context,” she says. “Not necessarily strictly in order, because some international works resonate perfectly in the Tasmanian context, and there are many Australian works that simply need to be seen in Tasmania while they’re new. I’m already scoping ideas from local artists for 2021 and I haven’t begun my global ‘shopping’ for Ten Days’ 2021 programming yet.”
Wright says BAM has been very careful in its programming decisions, with 30 per cent local artists (Central Victorian region) and 50 per cent women. With the number of musicians in the area, it hasn’t been difficult to find local talent. He says that good festivals showcase local artists as well as those outside the area, and agrees with Roberts that the best festivals encourage collaboration between the two.
“Through a number of special events and a general lack of pretension, BAM aims to create opportunities for local musicians, showcasing them on main stages at key prime times during the day, while giving out-of-region artists the opportunity to check out some of the local talent,” he says. “It’s this interaction that can’t be manufactured, how artists connect with each other.”
A key component of the BAM festival is the Youth Mentorship program where talented singers, musicians and songwriters under the age of 19 from Central Victoria are paired with local and national mentors like Harry James Angus, Thando and Skyscraper Stan.
Shaped by the cultural landscape
For Roberts, a key component of research involved meeting with local artists and community members and observing what it was that inspired people to move to the area. He discovered that important motives were a sense of history, a foodie culture, an emphasis on DIY, sustainability, landcare and child-friendly facilities, along with inspiration from the environment to make art.
“We created a program that is very much in tune with the conversations that are very important to this town,” he says. “We tried to connect local conversations that can sometimes be purely localised and make people understand that they’re maybe the forerunners in this thought, which helps grows our confidence and local inspiration.”
The 10 Days festival uses place as the central line of inquiry. Given that the festival spans three different areas, the “heartlands” of the island, Hume emphasises that location completely affects the approach, “whether it’s a site-specific landscape-based work or a project in a small village venue”.
She uses the example of NZ artist Lisa Reihana’s video work In Pursuit of Venus (infected) in the disused Burnie Pulp Mill’s dining room. “The Pulp has had a huge resonance within the community throughout the 20th century and the town was devastated when it closed, so to have this internationally significant work installed there has been really significant for the Burnie community,” she says. “Similarly, in Acoustic Life of Sheds, audiences drive about 60kms from shed to shed to each musical experience. Both adventures are unique to the north west of Tasmania.”
For Wright too, the Bendigo venues are key, influencing the kinds of artists programmed. “BAM has such a diverse lineup because the venues are so different. So rock’n’roll at the Tap House, blues at the Shamrock, concerts at the Capital and Ulumbarra, and beautiful acoustic sets at the Engine Room. There are great spaces for workshops, and many cafes and restaurants for pop-up performances. The magic of Rosalind Park links the venues.”
One idea that all three festival directors share is the need to work together to attract audiences. Rather than seeing their festivals in competition, all highlight the importance of a collegial spirit and mutual support, while fostering the qualities that set their festivals apart. As Hume says, “We already have relationships with other leading regional festivals, in particular Bleach Festival, Darwin Festival and Castlemaine Festival, and in future I hope to work with Four Winds Festival in the South Coast of NSW, which is my other regional home. There’s no competition these days — only collaboration.”
Ten Days on the Island Festival, North West, 8-11 March. North East, 15-17 March. South, 22-24 March Website
Castlemaine State Festival, 22-31 March Website
Bendigo Autum Music Festival, 25-28 April Website