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Five ways Sydney Festival is getting political – and you can join in

Pussy Riot Theatre image courtesy Arts Centre Melbourne for Supersense 2017
Photograph: Supplied Pussy Riot Theatre

"If people are scared of debate and conversation, then they are scared of an arts festival."

Sydney Festival's Wesley Enoch is unapologetic about the political focus audiences may notice in his second outing as festival director. In 2018, punters will encounter major events exploring Australia's treatment of refugees, consumer culture and climate change, Indigenous issues and gender politics. It's a new vision for audiences, where arts participation and active citizenship are inseparably enmeshed.

Enoch didn't set out looking for explicitly political works. He's been led by artists, who are increasingly engaging with the big questions of our time. He sees it very strongly as his responsibility to provide the platform for this work to unfold – but has noticed a level of timidity towards to programming shows with an explicit ideology, even among other arts leaders.

"When it comes down to buying a ticket or donating money or committing your company to things, there’s still a level of aversion to risk," he says. "I worry that aversion to risk creates a kind of flattening out of society. It says: we won’t be good, we won’t be bad, we’ll just be in the middle. We’ll be just okay. And at an arts festival I think it’s dangerous to be just okay."

There's arguably nothing more dangerous than posing difficult questions about our world and collective fate within it, but for Enoch there's one question that sits above it all: how do we wrangle some sense of control over that fate?

"It’s almost like politics has become a dirty word," he says. "If you’re a politician that’s almost the worst thing in the world you can be. And at the same time if you’re politically active, you’re a real ratbag. And there’s a question: how do we become more active in contributing to and making our society, and not have it just happen to us. How do we assert ourselves in a way that’s logical and reasonable and thoughtful and compassionate about the world?"

Enoch's message to audiences is simple: dive into the program and pick something you think might make you uncomfortable, or that you know very little about.

"It’s alright to disagree, it’s alright to have different opinions, and it’s almost the duty of an audience to go to things that they don’t know if they’ll like or not."

1. Connect with Sydney’s history and return a frozen fish to the harbour

Four Thousand Fish is a public artwork with a deep connection to Sydney's history and a participatory element like no other. The Festival is inviting anybody to create a frozen fish sculpture using water from the harbour. The frozen fish will then be returned to the sea as part of a sunset ceremony, melting down from a vessel modelled on a traditional ‘nawi’ bark canoe.

The reason for all this? Back in 1790, just two years after the Sydney colony was established, the new arrivals pulled in 4,000 fish in a single haul. This had a disastrous effect on the local ecosystem, resulting in massive and unnecessary waste, and undermining the role of the Darug women who'd maintained the systems of fishing for thousands of years. Sydney artist Emily McDaniel is retelling the stories of largely forgotten Indigenous women and asking participants to confront the impact of European settlement.

Read our interview with McDaniel and learn more about how Four Thousand Fish will actually operate.

2. Witness an infamous chapter in feminist history

The Town Hall Affair recreates parts of a fiery 1971 women's liberation panel at New York Town Hall. The debate between the baldly misogynistic Norman Mailer and a group of prominent feminists – including Australian Germaine Greer – was filmed and released as a documentary eight years later.

The film, called Town Bloody Hall is considered an essential record of a pivotal moment in feminist evolution, and is recreated in a theatrically gripping way by New York company The Wooster Group. Leading the cast is Maura Tierney (ER) as Greer, who appears alongside the real 1971 Greer on a TV screen.

Enoch says the work remains startlingly pertinent: "You watch how Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer and the panel of women debate. You think ‘oh my god, that’s repulsive’, and then you watch modern media talk shows and realise we still have those same tropes playing themselves out: the male anchor telling people what they can and can’t say."

3. Learn to speak Sydney’s Aboriginal languages

Before colonisation, there were more than 250 Indigenous dialects in Australia – now about half of them have been completely lost. Sydney Festival's Bayala language classes are an attempt to bring Sydney's Indigenous languages back to life.

The language classes were a big success last year, filling up within two weeks of registrations opening. In response, the Festival has doubled the number of classes for 2018.

Learn ten Darug words and their meanings from Joel Davison.

4. Get a ‘masterclass in activism’ from Pussy Riot

There have been few artists in recent decades whose activism is as well known as the women from Russian punk band Pussy Riot. In 2012 three of its members protested inside a Moscow cathedral and were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", sentenced to two years in prison. They were speaking out against the clergy's support of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who they say is a dictator.

Pussy Riot Theatre is an offshoot of the band itself, and in this performance Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina tells the story of her incarceration through music and theatre.

Enoch thinks this "masterclass in activism" might be what Sydney audiences need.

"We don’t reward activism," he says. "We think that it’s against the egalitarian dream of the country. That dream that we’re all equal means we shouldn’t have activism and you shouldn’t try to assert your way of seeing the world, and I find that quite antithetical towards what’s happening in this country."

5. Participate in a people’s court grappling with Australia’s treatment of refugees

Tribunal draws together a whole range of Australians to speak about many of the things we find difficult to tackle. It's a kind of people's court, overseen by Indigenous elders and populated by refugees, artists and human rights lawyers, who all tell their stories, putting Australia itself on trial.

It's difficult to explain exactly what this work is and why it's so compelling, although we caught its first Sydney season at Griffin Theatre in 2016 and found it to be an extraordinary and vital experience. It pulls together various injustices in Australia and then allows audiences an opportunity to speak and ask huge questions.

Enoch says: "It manifests itself differently each time, which I really enjoy, depending on who’s available to be part of it and how it engages an audience in a much bigger conversation."

See what's on at Sydney Festival Village Sideshow