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'A grand experiment': Adelaide festival launches 2021 program after major overhaul

Kelly Burke
·6-min read

The Adelaide festival has launched its 2021 program after a nightmare year that has seen more than 200 international artists scratched from its form sheet – and the program announcement itself pushed back after South Australia went into immediate lockdown a day before it was due.

Staging the international arts event in unprecedented times, organisers are still coming to terms with a massive hit to revenue from the 50% capacity rule in venues and an overhaul of insurance cover that will ensure festivalgoers and the artists themselves will not be out of pocket if another pandemic-led shutdown is called early next year.

Only a handful of international headline artists will make it to South Australia, arriving early to quarantine before rehearsals in January and February, ahead of the festival opening on 26 February.

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But a number of international acts will now be livestreaming their performances into Her Majesty’s Theatre from their home bases in Europe and the US, on a scale believed to be most ambitious yet embarked on by an international festival.

“At this point now we’re quite Zen,” Rachel Healy, co-artistic director with Neil Armfield, told Guardian Australia in the days leading up to the postponed launch.

“One thing you can guarantee is that the situation will remain entirely dynamic until a vaccine is distributed globally.

“So even though it was incredibly disappointing to have to postpone our launch, by now we are all very experienced at rolling with the punches.”

Adelaide festival artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy.
Adelaide festival artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy. Photograph: Mark Brake/AAP

Bearing in mind the unenviable predicament of Adelaide’s equivalent in Scotland (the Edinburgh international festival had to cancel the entire event in August), Healy said planning was in place to cover the worst possible scenario.

Yet-to-be determined, however, is how game Australian audiences will be to pay for tickets, in uncertain times, for events that aren’t scheduled until the end of February.

“I think everyone in the arts has tried to ensure that anxiety in ticket buyers doesn’t become a barrier to purchasing a ticket, that people don’t start thinking if the state closes down or there’s an event cancellation then I’ve done my dough,” Healy said.

“If the borders do close again or if you’re sick and you can’t come, there will be an immediate refund.”

The festival was not prepared to go into the details of the additional insurance hoops it had to leap through to deliver on that promise if called upon. But it is watching closely Live Performance Australia’s concerted lobbying of the federal government to establish a temporary interruption fund for the arts, not unlike the $49.5m fund already in place to get the film industry back on its feet.

A handful of international artists will arrive well in advance of the festival to comply with the 14-day quarantine rule.

American countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who will sing the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will arrive mid-January. The choreographer for the festival’s opera centrepiece, Denni Sayers, will arrive early February, as will New York artist Robin Frohardt and her team to install her Plastic Bag Store, fresh from its run in New York’s Times Square.

When the first lockdown was announced, Healy said the festival believed it would be able to create a bubble of sorts.

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“We knew the [overseas artists] wouldn’t be able to go into the community, they wouldn’t be able to attend sponsorship functions and the things that festival artists normally participate in, but we believed that we would be able to create this bubble where they could be taken from airport to hotel, hotel to theatre and back again, so they could at least perform for Adelaide audiences,” she said.

“But the second wave in Victoria didn’t just affect Victorians. It meant that the entire country had to recalibrate, and we knew this sort of model was not going to fly.”

It was then that Armfield and Healy realised their original program would be impossible to deliver. They estimate more than 200 artists, including authors from the writers’ festival and Womadelaide acts, had to be cancelled.

One of the largest annual events in the country’s music calendar and a staple of the festival for the past 28 years, Womadelaide has been pared back from a four-day extravaganza spread across seven stages in Adelaide’s Botanic Park to just four concerts on a single stage in the city’s CBD Park Lands.

Salvaged from the wreckage was four major performances that will now be part of one of the world’s most ambitious livestreaming projects to date.

Australian director Simon Stone’s production of Euripides’ tragedy Medea, created for Ivo van Hove’s International Theatre Amsterdam, will be relayed to a live audience in Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. The audience reaction will be livestreamed back to the performers.

It’s a grand experiment, we’re not pretending it’s anything other than that

Rachel Healy

Young South London choreographer Botis Seva’s Olivier award-winning BLKDOG will be seen by Australian audiences in the same mode, as will a concert by Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, and the Vakhtangov State Theatre production of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which will be streamed live from Moscow.

“It’s a grand experiment, we’re not pretending it’s anything other than that,” Healy told Guardian Australia.

“But companies around the world are saying that we don’t know anyone else who’s doing this and we’re so excited to participate because maybe it’s something that we can all learn from and take into the future.”

This is one year the festival will not have to weather time-worn criticism over its overemphasis on international artists – a criticism that has always been unjustified, says Healy.

“Those who criticise the Adelaide festival for not being completely Australian forget that we are not on the eastern seaboard, and we don’t have a massive parade of international artists coming through our state on a regular basis in a way that Sydney and Melbourne do.

“This is the only opportunity [South Australians] have – that’s 17 days a year – where they will see great international artists, without having to fly anywhere to see those artists. For 365 days a year there are local artists and Australian artists in Adelaide.” Many of those artists are in town at the same time as Adelaide festival, performing at Adelaide fringe.

The Adelaide festival runs from 26 February to 14 March; Adelaide fringe runs from 19 February until 21 March