Sydney Festival is celebrating its 40th year this January. That’s four decades of summers celebrating Arts and Culture in Sydney. Jayne Cheeseman had a chat to current Festival Director (and regular ferry commuter) Lieven Bertels about how he became involved in the arts and later Sydney’s arts scene, what he loves about living and working in a harbour city, his scariest moment of Sydney Festival, plus what’s in stall for the big fortieth year!
Where did your love of the arts stem from?
I think I’ve always been a bit of an organiser and I, very early on in life, learnt that I didn’t want to be a performer. I tried various instruments. I learnt to play the piano but I wasn’t very good at that and I learnt to play the saxophone and I thought “Gosh! I actually like to organise more and be involved in it rather than being on stage.” So very early on as a school kid, and then as a student. I was the guy who would organise the PA for concerts. I’ve always been doing that or essentially being a producer without knowing what the word was. As a student I got more serious about that and started organising classical music concerts. That’s how I rolled into it. I did a degree in Musicology. I thought “I don’t want to go into Academia”. Of course I enjoy seeing theatre and music and dance – I am a happy member of the audience. But my biggest enjoyment is seeing other people enjoy the arts.
When and why did you first come to Australia? Did you come here specifically for Sydney Festival or was that just a lucky coincidence?
I had a connection with this country over a number of professional connections. I had developed an interest in a number of Australian artists and I had presented some Australian artists back in Europe and that got me interested. I‘d been here for Melbourne Festival, Brisbane Festival and Sydney Festival. At some stage I thought, “I would actually love to work in Australia for a couple of years” and had thought, “Maybe Melbourne Festival would be nice”, because of course every Australian will tell you that Melbourne feels more European so that’s where you should be looking. Which is completely wrong, actually, but I learnt that much later. So, one day you receive a phone call with someone saying “You might be interested in Sydney Festival, because that role of Festival Director is coming up”. I thought “Ah, that might be a good dress-rehearsal for if ever wanted to go after the Melbourne job”. So I put my hand up and then of course, you land yourself the job. That’s the true story. And I fell in love with this city more than I would have ever thought. It is such an attractive place. Its orientation towards the harbour, the enjoyment of life in this city and the pulse it has. I love this city so much that it was absolutely a very happy coincidence.
Were your expectations of what Sydney would be like, what you have actually experienced?
Oh, I would say for 99% yes, but then my expectations were surpassed in many areas. People that have lived in Sydney and then returned to somewhere else will always tell you about how it’s such an outdoorsy lifestyle, how people are very approachable and how people really welcome newcomers. Of course all of that is true, but it’s only when you experience it for yourself that you appreciate it for what it really is and how exceptional it is. And it is! It’s also when you work in a role like this, of course you understand that you are very privileged and the amazing people you get to meet and the amazing opportunities you have so I’m very aware of this being an unusual situation perhaps.
What’s really striking is that some of the general clichés about Australia are much more nuanced like clichés tend to be. One of the things, for instance, is that a lot of Europeans will always think of Australia as a very laid back country – it sounds almost like they’re a bit lazy. Whenever an opportunity arises to go to the beach or head to a barbie, that’s what they will do. Then of course when you arrive here, you realise that this is one of the most committed teams of any festival you’ve ever seen. There is this amazing energy and people always go above and beyond whenever they have an opportunity to really deliver. Whilst that happens with the most laidback atmosphere and mindset, the work that gets done is just amazing. So that’s something I’ve really come to appreciate is just how willing people are to finish a job, give it their all and all with a friendly smile.
And then after that they go to the beach?
You’ve been living Harbour-side for some time and you’re now living in Manly. What do you enjoy about living there?
I think it’s just so attractive when you arrive here. I feel very privileged that I was able to live harbour-side since it is quite special. We thought when we arrived here as a family we wanted to make the most of our time here, we knew it was a limited time as you only get assigned a couple of years. That’s why we started looking at places that worked well in terms of my commute. Our offices are right here on the beautiful harbour in The Rocks, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to go and live somewhere inland if I had the opportunity to take the ferry. For me, very much all of the houses that we’ve lived in so far, it’s always been about a connection to the water and a connection quite physically to a good commute on the ferry.
We’ve seen a lot of your great photos from the Manly ferry. Do you have a favourite ferry route?
Oh! It depends on weekdays or weekends. I use the ferry for leisure as well. Even before we moved here in 2008, we did a long trip around Australia with the family just as tourists to get to know the country and that’s some of the things that as an outsider you do perhaps more than Australians. I meet a lot of Australians that haven’t been very far out of their native cities. They’ve maybe been to Melbourne or to Brisbane once, but a lot of people here in the office have never been to more remote places. When you are a visitor you really want to explore. On that long trip in 2008, as tourists, we had a couple of amazing experiences and one of our most memorable ones was absolutely the ferry rides in Sydney. We came for the Biennale in 2008, so we explored Cockatoo Island and then we learnt about Sunday Funday Family Tickets and we started exploring with those. That’s how we got hooked on ferry rides as a family.
There’s a couple of favourite ones, I must admit. On weekends I love to hop on a ferry that goes more inland to the west, perhaps even to Olympic Park, or hopping off at Cockatoo Island. One thing which I think is absolutely magical is to just cross the harbour after a performance at the Opera House. There is nothing more magical after you’ve seen a beautiful thing at the Opera House than to catch the ferry. Other people in other cities would pay a fortune to do that! And here it’s part of the public transport system! Then, of course, my regular commute from Manly with that beautiful half-hour on the water, as I did this morning. It’s just perfect. I don’t mind that it can be a bit stormy. There’s times of course where it can be a bit choppy and there’s high winds. There’s always those five minutes when you’re sailing past the heads and you’re exposed to some of those waves coming in which makes the rider a bit bumpy on those rare stormy days, but I actually think that’s quite adventurous and nice. I like that.
Have you copped a wave yourself?
Oh, yes! It’s very spectacular. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera – but I’ve seen some of the other commuters post beautiful pictures of the wave rolling over the tip of the boat. It’s added fun.
As you mentioned, the Sydney Festival office in The Rocks has spectacular views of the harbour and Opera House. Have you ever worked somewhere as picturesque?
Well, I’ve been very lucky because actually my previous office at the Holland Festival was at the Passenger Terminal in Amsterdam, where all the big cruise liners would dock. What’s really incredible is that some of the ships the Holland America line which are beautiful cruise liners, some of them quite old ones which have been restored, do a summer season in the northern hemisphere and then they do the southern hemisphere summer season. So to my surprise, some of the ships that would dock right outside my office in Amsterdam suddenly appeared here like old friends! So yes, great water views are definitely a plus.
What do you love about the annual Ferrython?
I think the Ferrython is such a tradition, you wouldn’t want to change it. One of the things that Sydney Festival does really well is to organise free activities. We are an arts festival but we definitely acknowledge that we are an arts festival during the summer holidays and we set aside up to half of our programming budget for free activities. They can be big concerts in the domain, free installations and so these free activities are really popular and people really appreciate that we put them on. The Ferrython is one of those things where you arrive and you get the brief to program an arts festival, you scratch your head and go “Really? A ferry race as part of an arts festival?” but when you experience your first one you just see what it does to the city and how people really love their ferries and love the race – it’s a very joyous moment. In total honesty, it’s always the last day of the festival, it’s Australia day. You’re so exhausted you don’t necessarily feel the urge to spend more time indoors in a dark theatre, you’re actually quite happy to sit on a ferry and be part of the race and maybe have a nice glass with your friends and colleagues. Especially when the sun is out, it’s just glorious.
I read that the first event you ever put on was the Hilliard Ensemble. You actually brought them to Sydney a couple of years ago. That must have been a great achievement for you.
It was! And it was quite emotional as well, as this was their farewell tour. It was the very last chance to present them to an audience and indeed they were at the very start of my career when I was just a student. This was in the days before internet and email so it was all very old school. You would look up their agent in a directory somewhere in the library and you would ring to London from Belgium and enquire whether it would be possible and you would put down a deposit. It was all very artisan back then, organising concerts. The great thing was that it really got me going and certainly fired my enthusiasm for doing exactly that.
I think learning by doing is absolutely a very valuable educational path. Hence why I think it’s so important that we keep a lot of internships going in this organisation and in many organisations. Not so much to have a bit of fun between studies, but because you really get an opportunity to find out what you like in life and whether you are indeed destined for something like this. I’m very happy to see so many people here that start as interns at Sydney Festival and grow into a career and keep coming back, or spread their wings and become really good at what they do somewhere else. If you were to look at all the people over the last four decades that have cut their teeth here at Sydney Festival, that’s an amazing group of alumni that have learnt something useful in life and have made the most of it.
You spend a lot of the year around the world looking for things to showcase. You’ve described yourself, The Festival itself ranges from high art to light entertainment. How do you decide what comes to Sydney?
A lot of it is down to gut feeling, surprisingly. There is no magic formula. We don’t have a tick list where you go “Ok, what are the 23 criteria that the production needs to meet before it makes it into the festival?” The important footnote is that I’m not the sole programmer in the festival. We have a wonderful team of five people that program the festival, so we sit together and we discuss. And that team of five should also reflect the diversity of your audiences. A big festival like this has multiple audiences and has multiple stakeholders, so you try and work towards a diverse program. You need some degree of specialisation. You need people that are specialists in say, contemporary music or family theatre or circus or big events. And then you also just have different tastes. But, without trying to shy away from bringing it all together, I think for me personally, a lot of it is gut feeling based on previous experiences and if you need to explain something for too long, it’s not going to work. If it all gels together, if it feels like it’s the right act for Sydney at the right time and it’s a beautifully presented thing then you go for it.
I’m sure your time at Sydney festival has yielded some great stories and adventures. What were some of the funniest, scariest or inspiring moments?
The scariest moment was definitely the very first festival I presented on the very first day – presenting the Rubber Duck. The Rubber Duck was a very simple idea, and first of all it was scary because I didn’t know whether it would actually work. It’s one thing convincing your board you’re going to spend big dollars on having a rubber duck bob-around in Darling Harbour. A lot of people scratched their heads and thought, “He’s nuts. A bath toy?”. They accepted it, but then we said we would create this spectacle to welcome the Rubber Duck which had never been done. Even the artist was a bit worried about whether that could work. We had this wonderful team of internal producers and external advisors to create this spectacle together with Legs on The Wall, with a beautiful story about a boy who had lost his bath toy which he needed to find. Of course this five storey Rubber Duck was waiting behind one of the naval vessels at the Maritime Museum, ready to sail in.
We had rehearsed the previous morning at dawn out of view of most cameras – a dress rehearsal of the glorious entry of the Rubber Duck. For the entry, the Pyrmont Bridge had to open, which it did perfectly well at the dress rehearsal. It was very sunny on the day itself and so Over the production radio I hear our Head of Production, John Bayley sort of… “Lieven, we’ve got a problem! Can you maybe come to Pyrmont Bridge because the Monorail won’t open?” I rushed to Pyrmont Bridge, go on my mobile phone, ring our then Head of Marketing, Jill Colvin, and say “Jill, you might need to run back to the office and start drafting a press-release”. I could see the headlines in the newspapers. “BELGIAN BRINGS LAME DUCK!” It had all the looks of the duck being stuck outside Darling Harbour with 11,000 kids and their families cheering and wanting to see the rubber duck which would never make it. Then the people actually towing it in together with our Production Manager, Mick Jessop made the right call, got the tide tables out and knew it was low tide and knew that we would have just enough clearance. Knowing that the monorail was still live and had something like 11,000 volts on it, we didn’t want the Rubber Duck to explode by touching it. Sure enough, somebody made the call to squeeze under the monorail and I was standing there, literally within touching distance of the duck and it cleared with like thirty centimetres. That was like, “Oh my god!”. I was, elated I think is the right word. Most people in Darling Harbour didn’t know what the fuss was about or why there was even a delay. That is absolutely one of those moments that I will never forget. But the duck made it! And it made over a million people happy over the course of the festival.
What can you tell us about what’s coming this year?
It’s our 40th anniversary and we have a couple of projects that we are very proud of. A beautiful mix of free stuff and ticketed stuff. In the ticketed shows we have a couple of international shows that are really, really special that you can only see in Sydney. One of them of course is the beautiful Woyzeck which we already announced, which was written by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, presented here with a German director – she’s this really bright, young director in Hamburg. I think this is an absolute highlight and beautiful theatre work.
Another one I would highlight is an amazing circus production. We do a lot of circus and family stuff, and this year we have a beautiful Italian-Swiss circus work coming up in Parramatta to the Riverside Theatres, again a place you can reach by ferry. It makes for a great day-trip during the festival. We have a season of this show called La Verita. It’s a really funny show. It’s based on a painting by Salvidor Dali the crazy-surrealist Spanish painter. He made this giant backdrop for a ballet production in New York and people has presumed the theatre curtain had been lost. Somebody found it again and this Swiss circus company talked to the Dali Estate and got permission to use the theatre curtain as the source of inspiration for a new circus work. It’s a crazy visual world of golden eggs and beautiful hats and amazing double helix letters, daffodils. It’s a very beautiful, colourful, surrealist circus.
We’re going to make everyone’s trip to Parramatta an even greater day out. We’re adding to the show a beautiful festival hub which will be behind Riverside with a fantastic Spanish Fairground with quirky fairground rides built by this crazy Spanish company that are all made out of recycled materials where the kids get to enjoy the rides and parents need to operate them. So you’ve got a ferris wheel which is hand-cranked by parents and the kids can get to ride around. Every single ride is like that except for the last where the parents get to rest and the kids need to operate it, which is really funny. There’ll also be some live music there and some eateries – it’s going to be a mini village.
And of course one thing that we are very good at is exploring new places. One project that we are very proud of is the exploration of the new space at Barangaroo. We’re going to do a massive project in Barangaroo in the new Arts space – The Cutaway. It’s a community project, an amazing building project where an architect will invite you to help build these beautiful big buildings out of cardboard boxes. They are life size buildings which can be three stories high. They can be eighteen metres high, built out of nothing but empty cardboard boxes and sticky tape. Then we will be able to move around different buildings to create a city in whatever way we want. It’s like reinventing Barangaroo almost. We’re also going to have a giant video work in that space and a giant flying fox zipline. So you’ll be able to fly over the city we’ve built over the course of the festival. While it’s intended for kids, I can already tell that many big kids will want to ride on this too.
The Festival is about summer fun and similarly celebrating the 40th anniversary is a beautiful project that we have commissioned from a London-based photographer to shoot forty portraits of people connected to the festival around the world. She’s travelled four continents, shooting artists from around the world. Not just artists, also festival enablers such as production staff, people in the office, audiences, volunteers. We have a festival volunteer that has been volunteering with us for 23 years. These forty portraits will be a free public exhibition in the CBD.
View the 2016 Sydney Festival Program here. You can buy your multi-packs now!