Current Issue #488

Driving Mr Hunt:
Annabel Crabb's Adelaide Festival memories

Annabel Crabb and Julie Bishop in conversation at Adelaide Festival's Long Lunch series in 2019
Shane Reid
Annabel Crabb in conversation with Julie Bishop at Adelaide Festival’s Long Lunch series in 2019

As Adelaide Festival celebrates its 60th anniversary, a specially-commissioned book has compiled reflections and memories from a vast array of festival-goers. In this extract, South Australian expat Annabel Crabb looks back on her time with the festival.

The Festival Theatre is exactly the same age as I am, I discover courtesy of a search engine which is younger than both of us. I feel a small pulse of satisfaction in this piece of trivia, because that building—and the Festival which in the early 1970s necessitated its construction—have given my life a shape and texture I would not have had growing up anywhere else.

When you’re a kid in the country, trips to the theatre take on a special significance. It’s not just the performance itself; it’s the visit to the city, the crawling along Victoria Drive looking for a park, the running-slightly-late hustle along the Torrens, the drive home in the dark, falling asleep as the streetlights blink past at broadening intervals then disappear altogether.

I was five when Mum and Dad took us to see Compagnie Philippe Genty in Anthony Steel’s 1978 Festival; the drive home was full of trailing waif-puppets and the darkness replete with possibility. In the 1984 Festival, Two Wells Primary School—my school— was selected to take part in Singing The Sun Down, the Festival’s dementedly ambitious idea for sunset on the closing night to be marked by a kaleidoscope of colourfully dressed poppets in their thousands, singing in flawless harmony.

We rehearsed our parts for weeks and our music teacher (Hello, Mrs Wilson!) was a beacon of persistence as she coaxed us through our parts. The piece had no lyrics, which made it a tall order; I recall a series of tonal “ooohs” and “aaahs” regulated by the vigorous chopping motions of Mrs Wilson’s right arm. We caught a bus around to Gawler East Primary (also participating) and rehearsed with them. Were our T-shirts yellow? I think so. We were intended to be a visual marvel as well as an aural one; shapes were marked out around the Rotunda and the T-shirted children, seated by colour and harmonic part, would form a swirling collage as the sun dipped below the horizon. Radio 5UV broadcast a click track which synced several hundred conductors ranged around Elder Park, some armed with glowing batons. A quintet of adult soloists held things together on the Rotunda, monitored by composer Alan John. I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. Crackers! But wonderful.

Many years later, I was studying arts and law at the University of Adelaide, financed by the customary random assortment of casual jobs (farmhand, petrol pump attendant, Wilderness Society koala, lightly-remunerated participant in the odd medical experiment, some of which were very odd indeed) when a particularly excellent one fell into my lap. The Festival was looking for a driver to whisk the Director between events. I was predisposed to like the Director— Christopher Hunt—because in his first Festival (1980) he had conceived the brilliant idea of placing a giant inflatable tube on the River Torrens, through which the children of Two Wells Primary were permitted to rampage on another fondly remembered trip to the city. All of us seven-year-olds were impressed at the time by the scope of Hunt’s conceptual vision.

Driving Mr Hunt was a brilliant job, fourteen years later. He was a real-life moody genius and had recently, irascibly, given up smoking, but I adored him and we kept in touch for years afterwards. Everything about his Festival was controversial, from his fallings-out with various key colleagues, to the poster (‘Looks like someone’s left an iron on and had a schooner without a beer coaster!’) to the program, which contained a lot of Asian theatre and had the RSC-loving luvvies in a bit of a flap. My job was to waft Christopher between events (‘Right! Get me to the Vietnamese Water Puppets in the Botanic Gardens!’) and execute the occasional diplomatic uplift if he’d just had a blue with someone.

But God, that Festival was superb. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, by William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, remains the most galvanising dance performance I’ve ever seen and it lit inside me a love for contemporary dance that’s never abated. It was the first time I’d ever seen Bangarra. Mark Morris’s dancers were like nothing I’d witnessed and the man himself was unbelievably charming. “Oh, you’re a driver? How erotic!” he drawled when I met him, in a voice I now remember as Truman Capote’s but only because I’ve told the story a million times that way. Penny Arcade was there, co-opting a troupe of Adelaide pole dancers in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Penny— Susana Ventura—was incredibly friendly and kind. I ran into her in the street 25 years later when she returned for the Fringe and I had to stop myself going in for a hug.

One day, I had to drive a vanload of Frankfurt Ballet dancers to the beach. They’d heard about Maslins and were super-keen to get their kit off and frolic about. As you would, if you looked like a genetically enhanced greyhound, which of course they all did. I took the sensible option of remaining clothed (“Someone’s got to look after das Auto, ja?”) but I never will forget the sight of those bodies in the water.

It was my friend and housemate Rachel Healy who suggested I apply for that job, and—a quarter of a century later—to see her and Neil Armfield take the Festival to new and exhilarating heights gives me a gloopily sentimental swell of pride. Not just in her, but in the capacity of my home state to create and sustain such a nutrient-rich tradition of the arts.

Curiosity, and delight in the creativity of others, are two of the most important generative forces in the career I’ve enjoyed as an adult. It’s notoriously tricky to teach a child to be curious, or delighted; all you can do is show them things, really. Wonderful things, mysterious things, scary things, glimpses of things that invite further attention or lead elsewhere.

The Adelaide Festival has been showing me things all my life. And it’s only now, as I sit down to write about it, that I realise how significant my architectural twin, the Festival Theatre, has been in giving my life shape and joy and depth. To all who have powered the Adelaide Festival over its 60 years of life: thank you. Changing lives is a longtail business, but I know mine would never have been the same without you.

Adelaide Festival – 60 Years (Wakefield Press) will be launched at Adelaide Writers’ Week on Saturday 29 February

Adelaide Festival runs from 28 February – 15 March 2020

Annabel Crabb

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Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s Chief Political Writer and presenter of Back in Time for Dinner, The House and the highly acclaimed Kitchen Cabinet series on ABC TV. With Leigh Sales, she is the host of the wildly popular podcast Chat 10, Looks 3 and is the author of five books, including two cook books with long-time friend Wendy Sharpe, as well as two acclaimed Quarterly Essays, most recently Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap.

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