“It’s about providing a canvas for epic ambition”: New Adelaide Festival Directors

Adelaide Festival artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy discuss how they will honour the Festival’s astonishing heritage with next year’s program.

The Adelaide Review calls Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy during the middle of Europe’s festival season. They are crisscrossing the continent to squeeze in as many shows as they can for possible inclusions in upcoming Adelaide Festival programs.

“I think I’m in a different country every night to see different shows,” Healy says of her itinerary that includes multiple trips to Edinburgh for its famous festival, as well as Zurich, the Netherlands and Belgium, before going on to explain that they have to be systematic with the festival shows they catch.

“We don’t spend all year travelling,” she says. “It’s expensive to travel. We try and cram in as much as we possibly can into a short period. The shows we select to see are those that really tend to meet certain criteria.”

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t was during last year’s European festival season that they discovered Barrie Kosky’s Saul, a groundbreaking opera from the former director of the Adelaide Festival that has been announced as the centrepiece of next year’s Festival.

Saul is the inaugural announcement that broadcasts the Healy and Armfield era after David Sefton’s four years at the helm, which saw him drive a more contemporary experience, especially with his music program. Armfield was at Saul’s opening night at the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival and in the interval rushed to see Kosky.

“I said this show would have to go very wrong in the second half for us not to want it next year,” Armfield says. Healy went to the final night of the Glyndebourne season and says it was an “unbelievably thrilling night” for her and those sitting around her.

“Everybody, almost from the moment it started, was looking at each other – strangers – with our mouths open like kids saying, ‘Oh my God – this is incredible, this is so exciting’. We were all on the edge of our seats; it was one of the incredibly rare pieces of work that literally everybody I talked to that night, and subsequently, was just rhapsodic about it.

You feel like a kid again, you feel like you’ve discovered theatre for the first time.” Healy knew Saul would be the major work for their first Festival. “We were going to move heaven and earth to make that happen because it was so special,” Healy says. “Being the artistic directors of the Festival we feel the responsibility incredibly keenly, partly because I grew up in Adelaide, Neil lived and worked in Adelaide in the ’80s, the Adelaide Festival has loomed so large in our lives.

It was so influential for me and, growing up, it was an incredible icon, and the work was astonishing. We feel we have to honour that heritage. We have to program work that’s genuinely astonishing. Obviously the more you see, the harder it is in some ways to find work that makes you feel like you are discovering theatre and performing arts for the first time. So, to find a piece – that magically was also directed by somebody who also had his own deep connections to Adelaide, who loves Adelaide – was so wonderful. We would have probably mortgaged our houses to make it happen.”

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To secure Saul, they had to rely on $700,000 from the State Government as well as national Catalyst funding. Healy says there is lots of data that says audiences will travel for opera.

“We know this because Opera Australia has had such success in taking works to Coolangatta for Opera on the Beach, and with Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour as well as the Ring Cycle in Melbourne [which was directed by Neil Armfield]. We know if the work is of sufficient quality, and we know this from Adelaide’s own Ring Cycle, that people will travel to see it.

Australia, unfortunately, very rarely secures major international opera companies. They’re very expensive to produce and present but when they do come to these shores we know that people who love the artform or, in this case, who love Barrie Kosky’s work, who is so rarely seen in Australia now, will travel. We made a very robust business case to government about the economic value of the cultural tourist to the state, which was really the underpinning of their support.”

As the first co-directors in the Adelaide Festival’s 56-year history, Armfield and Healy have deep connections to the Festival as it shaped their tastes and professional careers. Healy grew up in Adelaide while Armfield – the theatre, opera and film director – worked in Adelaide in the 80s for the State Theatre.

They worked together at Sydney’s acclaimed Belvoir Theatre – Armfield as artistic director, and Healy as general manager – before Healy moved to the Sydney Opera House (during her time there, the Opera House introduced popular festivals such as Vivid and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas) before becoming Sydney Council’s executive manager of culture. Armfeld left Belvoir in 2010 and his CV is one of the most impressive in Australian performing arts: director of the films Candy and Holding the Man, director of Opera Australia’s the Ring Cycle, as well as scores of acclaimed work with Plan B and Belvoir.

They decided to co-apply for the directorship at a party and the rest, as they say, is history. “Our models were the Festivals we grew up with really,” Armfield says. “That’s what formed our tastes and to some extent our professional practice – the festivals of the ‘80s and ‘90s – and we’re satisfied that we’ve gathered quite a lot of that energy.”

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Armfield says they want to put their artistic stamp on the Festival immediately. “We’ve got three years and we want there to be a consistency and a sense of growth from one end to the next, but for them to be quite distinctly ours.

That’s not from an ego point of view; we’re just trying to present the Festival as the central event of Adelaide in March. What’s great about having a three-year job, and three festivals, is that you can create a shape and a journey from one to the next. You have to start at a very strong place.”

“Neil and I haven’t really made any secret of our interest – and it’s clear from our backgrounds, and our own backgrounds in Adelaide – where we think our programming approach will be different. I think David [Sefton] did extraordinary work but with our program we do want to see a return of the festival opera. We think it’s really important we keep an eye on scale and having works of scale in the program. Again, it’s about offering audiences and visitors a point of difference.

The works that are small-scale are of the absolute highest international quality – very carefully curated. We’re also keen to think about what a curated festival can do that nobody else can do. It’s about providing a canvas for epic ambition, epic ideas and epic theatre experiences.”

As Armfield is one of this country’s most respected theatre and opera directors, will he direct or present work at an upcoming Adelaide Festival? “Look, I’m in discussions with myself about that,” he laughs. “At the same time I don’t want to view the festival as a personal platform. I don’t want to take advantage of my privileged position if you like. Well, it’s quite possible.”

Finally, Healy says that a Festival Hub is on their minds after disappearing from last year’s Adelaide Festival. “Without giving anything away, it would be fair to say that the Festival Hub is something that Neil and I have loved over many years and we don’t see it as just a watering hole or an artist bar. It’s been the beating heart of the Festival for many [Festivals.]

I don’t think anyone’s forgotten Red Square, Barrio and Lola’s. We’re looking at it very seriously. It all comes to down to money, I think.”

Further Adelaide Festival shows will be announced on September 23, and the full program will be released on October 27 adelaidefestival.com.au

Photos: Tony Lewis

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