Artistic Director's reflection: art as a unifying force

25 Oct

Artistic Director's reflection: art as a unifying force

COVID tears us apart. The arts bring us together.
I know this to be an unequivocal truth because I witnessed the healing power of the arts first-hand during this year’s Brisbane Festival.

In September 2021, I delivered my second Brisbane Festival as Artistic Director. Curated under the theme of Brightly Brisbane, the Festival ran over 23 days, it presented 17 new works, 16 world premieres, delivered 654 performances and presented events in 222 locations across the city including major hubs of activity at BOQ Festival Garden, South Bank and Hamilton Northshore and at major venues including Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane Powerhouse and The Tivoli. We reached our box office target within the first week of opening and our major commission, Boy Swallows Universe was the highest selling production in Brisbane Festival’s history.

The program engaged 43 Queensland companies and employed more than 1100 local artists and art workers. Most importantly, this year’s Festival delivered the largest First Nations program yet.

2020, my first program in partnership with CEO Charlie Cush, defied all the odds and delivered one of the only live performing arts events to take place globally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Brisbane Festival program was curated under the banner of Boldly Brisbane and saw the commissioning of 28 new works, a record number of local artists employed and a Festival that reached all 190 suburbs of Brisbane.

The responsibility of an Artistic Director for a major city Festival is to understand the city well enough to know ‘how to turn the city on’, how to inspire audiences with new ideas and deliver experiences that leave life-long impressions. This vision to create a Festival that is truly grounded in the city is at the heart of its success, however it must also and always be a Festival that engages with the world. The latter has been more challenging given the times we are in and so the past two Brisbane Festivals have embraced the local in new creative ways, ensuring solid foundations when we reopen to the world.

"I often said during the Festival, local artists and a local program is not a consolation prize. This is the time to go big, go live and go local. Productions like Boy Swallows Universe, RED by Dancenorth and The Good Room’s Lets Be Friends Furever are world class new works that should be seen on stages globally."

Each of these impeccable productions was made here in Queensland, each of a scale, ambition and artistry that comes from a major Festival commission. These works were created through the ups and downs of COVID, had stop-start rehearsals due to lockdowns and two moved from the 2020 program to 2021. Through all of this, lifelong impressions were made and new bold Australian work delivered at the most precarious and odd times.

We learned some important lessons in 2020, but there was little we changed going into 2022. I remained true to my instincts: that the Festival should reach out to Brisbane people wherever they are, and that the program be about the exhilaration of live performance, and that we continue to hero local works of scale.

The successful Street Serenades series of concerts, delivered to every one of the 190 suburbs of Brisbane last year, highlighted that people will respond to a festival when the festival goes to them. Street Serenades, which returned this year, was a response to the pandemic and a tactic to avoid having large numbers of people descend on the inner city in 2020. In 2021 it returned, this time with suburban hosts and longer time in community through artist led initiatives and greater audience attendance.

We would love to invite all comers, including interstate and international visitors to the Festival, but border closures have made a necessary virtue of a program designed for local people.  We deliver these enormous festivals in highly populated cities, and... 

"I believe we still have a long way to go to cultivate a deep sense of connectivity and pride in our city festivals. Now is the time to harness that love and ownership of Brisbane Festival, because we know that once the locals love it, the rest happens."

They are our best promoters, the ambassadors for it. As we start to open, we can use that wonderful, genuine connection that’s been made to spread the word even further about Brisbane Festival.

The 2021 program combined in-theatre performing arts with site-specific events, and a Festival hub at South Bank. The program embraced Brisbane’s warm spring climate and the city’s natural features. The Art Boat was the new creation for this year’s Festival that proved a massive hit with audiences, with each voyage selling out. The Art Boat has been a dream for some time, a way to truly embrace the river city and bring it to life through an artistic lens. The centre of the Art Boat featured illuminated, inflatable sculptures by Melbourne design team ENESS, and ferried people from sunset into the night between the industrial Northshore precinct at Hamilton and South Bank.

It is an honour and privilege to make live performances and experiences at this extraordinary time. So much of Australia has experienced long, soul-destroying lockdowns and here we were, celebrating the success of one of the very few festivals still able to proceed.

Last year, we felt the eyes of the world upon us as we delivered Brisbane Festival 2020, one of the first major events staged in a pandemic, not just in Australia, but globally. We are indebted to our incredible community across Brisbane and Queensland who safeguard this life we have and enabled us to fill the city with art, music and joyous experiences for a second year in 2021.

The lead-up to this year’s Festival was not without its heart-stopping moments and unrelenting obstacles as, once again, COVID tried to tear us apart. We faced a lockdown just before our program launch in July and again in the first week of August in what felt very much like a flashback to March 2020. The most dramatic difference this time was we were only four weeks out from opening the 2021 Festival with a program in market.

We held our breath as the city entered a lockdown, unsure how long it would last, how much of our 2021 Festival program we could present and how artists and audiences would be impacted. As we waited anxiously and planned contingencies, I found solace in a quote from Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Brisbane Festival saw endless twists, turns and pirouettes in 2021 and with each difficulty, an opportunity was found.

Once again, the arts brought us together. We were lucky, we held our nerve, we constantly evolved the program with each border closure and found new offers for our audiences each time.

Louise Bezzina
Brisbane Festival Artistic Director

Brisbane Festival expresses deep respect to and acknowledges the First People of this Country.