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Olivia Ansell has grand plans for Sydney Festival
Photograph: Daniel BoudOlivia Ansell has grand plans for Sydney Festival

‘Sydney needs help': new Sydney Festival artistic director Olivia Ansell lays out the future

Revealing the arts venues she's dying to visit, she lays out her vision for the city and the festival

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

As the newly appointed Sydney Festival artistic director, receiving the baton currently held by Wesley Enoch from 2022, Olivia Ansell is itching to check out a gradually reopening Sydney’s arts hot spots old and new.

“The Opera House is like family to me, so it’s going to be my number one stop,” she says. “Thank goodness the Theatre Royal is reopening next year, and there’s a brand-new venue out in Western Sydney, the Sydney Coliseum West HQ. I want to find the coolest warehouse in Camperdown, but I don’t know where that is yet, so maybe you’ll have to help me. And, look, I want to go and bang on the door of the Mint and tell them it’s time for a throwback.”

Ansell’s rich and varied career has taken in everything from performing contemporary dance to ballet, from helming the Sydney Comedy Festival to curating talk series Kings Bloody Cross for Vivid Ideas. Reaching out to wildly varying audiences is in her DNA.

“I’ve worked in musicals and commercial productions, but I was also a serious modern dancer and ballet dancer,” she says, affecting a posh voice halfway through her sentence. “I was that kind of rare artist that would bounce between two worlds, and I even ended up in a sketch comedy show with Glynn Nicholas and had to do a crash course in mime, which was no mean feat. But that eclecticism seems to have carried through to my work as a curator and producer.”

Even with this wealth of multi-disciplinary experience, she can hardly believe she’s been given the gig. “I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m a Sydney girl, and my whole career, from my youth to 42, the entire time your summer is shaped by that festival director’s vision. Never in a million years, watching Leo Schofield’s programme or Brett Sheedy’s as a young artist, would you think, ‘Wow, I’d be wearing their shoes’.”

She says it’s an honour to step into Enoch’s. “Wesley’s done an incredible job, and he’s absolutely going to leave a legacy with his Blak Out program. And I’ll continue the festival’s commitment to commissioning First Nations theatre and, in particular, The Vigil. It’s an incredibly important event and I like to think that it’s here to stay until the entire country celebrates on the 25th of January.”

"The music industry was decimated from the lockout laws. All of our much-loved live music venues were closing and small wine bars and pubs were having a terrible time"

She’s hugely keen to reignite the city’s war-wounded live music scene. “The music industry was decimated, let’s face it, from the lockout laws. All of our much-loved live music venues were closing and small wine bars and pubs were having a terrible time. If the festival leverages its support for the live music industry, then together we can make a difference. I want to play our part in making Sydney the swinging, charismatic city that we all remember it was before we faced these challenges.”

With most arts venues still closed, these are strange days to think even a month or two ahead, never mind a year and a half, But Ansell is up for the challenge. “It’s all about relevancy,” she says. “So you have to have program ABCD and E at your fingertips. If I think I’m going to have all these works right now for '22, that program may not be relevant to where we’re at as a society then, so you’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse and gauge the mood and the tone of the city, the country and the world.”

It’s an informed guessing game. “With border restrictions and the country being locked down to international travel, that’s another red herring to the risk matrix. So obviously within those plans A-E, you’re gonna have a plan where the pandemic returns, then it’s going to be all Australian artists, and if we’re clear of it, then we want to get back to normal and have epic international acts, and amazing Australian acts who go out into the world as a result of us commissioning them.”

Ansell wants to see a thriving night-time economy and creative industry rebuild stronger than ever before, fondly reminiscing about the Big Day Out at Moore Park, rock concerts at the Cricket Ground, the city’s winging basement jazz clubs that have blipped out of existence, the once-thronging Cross and the warehouse parties of her youth. She wants the city to sing once more.

"I’ve rarely had an experience in a new job where I haven’t had to rejuvenate and restore, so, rolling up my sleeves, getting in there and making a difference."

“Before the pandemic, I tried to take some visiting artists for supper after they’d performed at the Opera House and we went into the city and everything was closed. I even took them to a bar in a five-star hotel because I thought, ‘surely they’ll be open,’ and it was closed, too. I’ve ended up befriending restauranteurs and begging them to keep their restaurant open, because otherwise it’s highly embarrassing. Come to Sydney, you’ll need to get Uber Eats.”

It does feel like a grand dream, coming out of a bit of a nightmare. “I’m not gonna sugar-coat it. It couldn’t be a more difficult time to take the helm of a festival when the arts industry, and indeed all industries across the world are in a state of flux. I mean, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which I hope we never have to repeat, but the only thing I’ll say is that in most roles that I’ve had, I’ve had to get in there and drive a program or build an organisation or create a festival. I’ve rarely had an experience in a new job where I haven’t had to rejuvenate and restore, so, rolling up my sleeves, getting in there and making a difference.”

She has the energy and tenacity to take it on. “Before I even knew that artistic director was even a possibility, I remember being in an Uber and going past the festival club in Hyde Park when the bushfires were on and the smoke was simmering down,” she recalls. “It was such a terrible day, as was most of January, and I just had this sinking pit in my stomach, this feeling. And I thought, ‘Sydney needs help,’ and I know I could make a difference. I just had this yearning to want to help Sydney get back to its glory.”

Want more? Check out this interview with four inspiring women reshaping Sydney's theatre scene.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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Image: Supplied
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