Jo Dyer’s first year as director of Adelaide Writers’ Week has been a whirlwind of grim tales and familiar faces.
Dyer gestures widely with her hands as she speaks, crosses and rolls her eyes, laughs easily and beams huge smiles. When she recalls her early work as a receptionist for the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STC), she mimes operating a switchboard and chirps, ‘Good morning! State Theatre Company!’ She performs, with gusto, her passion for the arts. Perhaps this expressiveness comes from a life immersed in theatre, or perhaps it’s just the way she has always shared her enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s simple gratitude – her year as STC’s receptionist saved Dyer from a life practising insurance law.
Receptionist was just one of many arts-adjacent jobs Dyer would have in her long career. She would take a brief detour after STC to work for the Human Rights Commission, but was unsatisfied there.
“I was working with Mick [Dodson], who was great – but the Human Rights Commission is actually, you realise, just a big bureaucracy. You think you’re going to be this activist, when actually you’re a public servant, and that didn’t really gel with me,” says Dyer.
A job then came up with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which Dyer viewed as an opportunity to bring together her interests in social justice and the arts.
“It (a) had never occurred to me that the arts could provide an ongoing career, and (b) that you can try and effect change using different media, if you like. That you didn’t have to be at the coalface to be part of a broader conversation.”
Conversations about change-making will continue as Dyer takes on her latest role: Adelaide Writers’ Week director. She brings to the job experience as CEO of Sydney Writers’ Festival and an impressive resumé of production credits across film, theatre and television.
Despite her interest in stage and cinema, Dyer will maintain Writers’ Week’s focus on books (prose and poetry). “I think there are lots of interesting questions that writers of other forms can answer, and those questions are about adaptation and the different ways we read, consume and absorb writing,” Dyer says. “But, principally, Writers’ Week, for me, is more about people who have written things primarily for people to read. There’s something different about reading on your own, using your own imagination, your own intellect to wend your way through those ideas, compared to those ideas being realised in three-dimensional ‘real time, real space’ in a theatre or on film.”
Her first program, pulled together as she uprooted her life in Sydney and relocated to Adelaide, is far from fainthearted: it is steeped in trauma, war and rage.
“Part of that is driven by the times,” she says. “In terms of the issues around war – Kassem Eid is coming out from Syria – those things are happening now and they’re in our very recent political history.
“It’s the [181st] anniversary of the Myall Creek Massacre – these are things that Australia is still dealing with and needs to come to terms with. Until Australia does, then those conversations need to be provoked all the time, by different people in different ways. That is a responsibility that we as programmers and curators take on: ‘That’s unfinished business, let’s keep talking.’”
While adults may be emotionally and intellectually exhausted by the sessions, Dyer is hoping that the under-18s will be invigorated. This year, a middle-years and young adult day has been introduced on the Sunday of the traditional kids’ weekend. Alongside presentations from popular writers for readers aged eight to 18, there will be an afternoon performance of slam poetry. This aims to encourage young people to “see themselves as creators of writing, rather than just readers and consumers of it”.
The 2019 festival aims to entice new audiences – teenagers, for example, but also working adults who are unable to attend the usual daytime programming. There will be five after-dark sessions: two free Twilight Talks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens, two ticketed panel discussions for the Zeitgeist Series at Elder Hall, and a new opening address (ticketed) at the Palais on the Thursday before Writers’ Week begins.
“I think there are lots of interesting questions that writers of other forms can answer, and those questions are about adaptation and the different ways we read, consume and absorb writing.”
Readers may be apprehensive about ticketed events, but Dyer is adamant: this is not a slippery slope.
“It doesn’t matter how often we say this, there’s always anxiety that we’re going to start charging for Writers’ Week, that there’s going to be a push to ticket it or make it like Byron where you buy a day-pass … there is not. That would absolutely, fundamentally undermine the nature of the event, and transform it terribly. There’s nothing like that on anyone’s agenda.”
Dyer’s return to Adelaide has been a mixed experience, marred by this air of distrust. People were unkind about her early months in the role, when she ‘commuted’ from Sydney while wrapping up other work and finding a place in an Adelaide school for her young son. In early 2018, not long after the state election, one of Dyer’s Facebook friends circulated screenshots of comments Dyer had written, criticising the new Liberal government. Treasurer Rob Lucas – who was Education and Children’s Services Minister when Dyer left the state in the 90s – called for her to publicly apologise; others demanded she be sacked.
“It did bring home to me some of the reasons why I chose to leave Adelaide in the 90s,” says Dyer, “but it was all a bit of a storm in a teacup. It was such a manufactured controversy.” She stresses that there are “no hard feelings” between Steven Marshall and herself. “Again, Adelaide being Adelaide, we’ve got close friends in common and, I think as Christopher Pyne said at the time – I’ve known him since our university days, too – my political views are not exactly a secret; I ran for Labor preselection back in the day.”
While that incident and her early reception have been downsides to the move back to South Australia, she has found positives through reunions with old friends. Tight Adelaide networks make this city appear closed and exclusive to outsiders, and are among the easily mockable things about our state (“Which primary school did you go to?”). But the fact remains, despite 25 years away, Dyer has returned to Adelaide to find many of her 90s peers once again in her circle of colleagues.
Heather Croall, the current director of Adelaide Fringe, was once Dyer’s supervisor at the Star Club at Lion Arts Centre. Rachel Healy, co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, was once Dyer’s housemate as well as her colleague at the State Theatre Company (Healy was then an administrator at Magpie, a branch of the greater STC tree). Lately, Dyer’s links to the festival circuit have been even closer to home: her partner Tom Wright wrote Black Diggers, which toured to the Adelaide Festival in 2015. He is now an artistic associate at Belvoir St Theatre – where Healy and Neil Armfield worked for extended and overlapping periods. Wright will present the ‘Breakfast with Papers’ sessions at this year’s Adelaide Festival.
The house Healy and Dyer shared was a grand old place in the eastern suburbs, “party central”, and later home to Annabel Crabb and others. Dyer remembers dodgy wiring, a rickety spiral staircase and extravagant vaulted ceilings. With her hands, Dyer draws the shape of the tiny fire hazard of a heater they bought to warm the draughty spaces in freezing winters. Her mother now lives near that old house, and her son will go to school close by – more links in an already dense Adelaide network.
Change is part of any life, but it seems so much more cyclical in our small city. As Dyer settles back in to Adelaide, she is content with her place in the circle.
“There will be trepidation about change, but hopefully people enjoy Writers’ Week. If they do, then some of their concerns will be alleviated. With each new director there’s a different emphasis and people get anxious. People gave Laura [Kroetsch] an equally hard time when she started and were then very sad to see her go. These things go in cycles. But, look, if the slight shift in direction isn’t to people’s taste, then they can take solace in the fact that I won’t be here forever, either.”
Adelaide Writers Week
March 2 – 7
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden