Festivals as we know them today have their origin in World War Two, when civic leaders decided to create annual events to celebrate culture as the greatest expression of the human spirit. Thus in 1947 the festivals of Edinburgh and Avignon were born, focused on Art with a capitals, and their example would be followed by hundreds of others. Over the course of time, the activation of culture, the intensification of the flow of capital and the emergence of the Internet and other means of digital connectivity favoured the appearance of a new type of festival that completed the offer of those early versions and were characterised by a radically new sense of opening.
Sydney. I had been waiting my whole life to get to Sydney. I got to my hotel, checked in, and there in the lobby was the brochure for the Sydney Festival. I thumbed through it, and came across a show called Minto: Live. It read: ‘The suburban streets of Minto become the stage for new and original performances created by critically acclaimed Australian and international artists in collaboration with Minto residents.’
What was this place called ‘Minto’? Sydney, as I would learn, is a city of suburbs, and Minto lies southwest, about an hour away. I was intrigued. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my first day down under. The Sydney Opera House or Bondi Beach maybe … but Minto? But I’m a theatre producer, and the lure of an innovative site-specific project was more than I could resist. So off I went, into the Friday afternoon traffic.
I will never forget the performance I saw when I finally arrived. The audience walked around the neighborhood, from house to house. The performers—the local residents, came out of their homes and performed autobiographical dances on their front lawns. The show was a collaboration with the UK-based performance company Lone Twin, which had spent a few weeks working with the community. An Australian-Indian girl came out and began dancing on her own front lawn. Her father peered out of the window to see what the noise was about. He and the rest of her family soon joined her on their driveway for an exuberant dance.
As I made my way through the neighborhood, I was amazed and moved by the sense of ownership the whole community clearly felt over the event. Minto: Live brought local and international artists into dialogue with Sydneysiders, and celebrated the diversity of Sydney on its own terms.
The Sydney Festival, which produced Minto: Live, represents a new kind of twenty-first century arts festival. These festivals embody a spirit of openness; they transform cities and communities. In order to fully appreciate what’s new and timely about arts festivals like Sydney’s, it helps to consider where they came from.
The modern arts festival grew out of the rubble of World War II. Civic leaders created annual events to celebrate culture as the highest expression of the human spirit. The Edinburgh and Avignon Festivals were born in 1947; hundreds more followed in their wake. The work they curated was knowingly and unapologetically ‘high art’. Stars emerged who created work for this circuit: Laurie Anderson, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham or Robert Lepage—to name a few. There were landmark shows, such as Peter Brook’s The Mahabarata and Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach.
But as decades passed, this first-wave generation of modern arts festivals became the establishment. The exclusivity they represented no longer mapped onto the reality of globalized existence, as flows of culture and capital accelerated, and the internet and other electronic media brought people together. While older festivals continue to thrive, a new kind of festival has emerged to compliment them. Such festivals, thriving from Norwich to Perth to Rio, are characterized by a spirit of radical openness.
As in Minto: Live, these festivals are open because they create a dialogue between the local and the global. They are open because they encourage audiences to be partners, players, and protagonists, rather than passive spectators. And they’re open because they are curated on the principle that imagination cannot be contained to traditional buildings: the work they do is often site-specific and outdoors. These festivals truly are a celebration of a place and time that could only exist at that place, in that time.
The new festival expects audience members to do more than just listen; they’re invited to play an essential role in shaping the performance. The work of the Argentinean company De La Guarda—which I’ve produced in New York, feels like a South American rave at 4 am, where just about anything could happen. The cast runs through the audience and then straight up the walls; they fly through a rainstorm above us, and crash through the ceiling into our midst. For Punchdrunk’s shows, such as Sleep No More and Faust, the company takes over disused buildings, spending months meticulously designing each room. Then each audience member is given a mask and is left to wander and explore. The whole building becomes a set on which stories simultaneously play out.
While De La Guarda and Punchdrunk put us at the center of the action, the German performance company Rimini Protokoll takes the idea of participation to a whole new level. Their series of shows, which includes 100% Berlin, 100% Melbourne and 100% Vancouver, are literally reflective of society. Through a careful process that begins months before, one hundred people are chosen to mirror an exact cross section of the city in terms of class, gender, and race. Statistics are brought to life. The hundred people offer bits of stories about themselves and their lives, and the whole show becomes a snapshot of that city at that particular moment. It’s surprising and beautiful and moving.
The new festival isn’t restricted to standard venues. Theatre and performance can happen anywhere—in a schoolroom, a department store window, or an airport. Artists are explorers. Who better to show us the city and make us see the landscape anew? Artists can take us to far-flung parts of the city we’ve never investigated, or into a building around the corner that we’d never previously noticed. And artists can help us to see people that we might otherwise overlook.
Back to Back Theater is an Australian company of people with intellectual disabilities. I saw their extraordinary show small metal objects at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in New York—at rush hour. The audience were seated on one side of the terminal and were given headsets. We could hear the actors’ voices, but it took us a while to locate them among the commuters. They were right there in front of us, but we might otherwise never have seen them. Back to Back Theater uses site-specific performance to help us think about who and what we edit out of our daily lives.
The dialogue between the local and the global; audiences as participants; site-specific and outdoor venues: all of these characteristics come into play in the work of the French company Royal de Luxe, whose work epitomizes these new festivals’ spirit of radical openness.
Royal de Luxe’s 12-meter-high puppets arrive into a community and then take up residence there for a few days. Festivals from Antwerp to Berlin to Santiago de Chile have presented them. For The Sultan’s Elephant, Royal de Luxe, working with Artichoke Productions, brought central London to a standstill with the story of a little girl and her friend, a time-traveling elephant. For several days, they transformed a massive city into a community where endless possibility reigned.
The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner wrote: ‘If art is about transformations, there is no more transforming experience […] What The Sultan’s Elephant represents is nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people.’
We could talk about the huge economic impact festivals have on their cities. But frankly, for me, the numbers are the least interesting part of the story. A festival can bring a community into a new awareness of itself. It allows for more vibrant self-expression. And so a festival’s impact reaches far beyond its actual time span. Festivals promote diversity. They put neighbors in dialogue. They create opportunities for civic pride, improve psychological well-being, and increase creativity. They make cities more livable places.
When The Sultan’s Elephant appeared just nine months after 7/7, an man from Manchester wrote, ‘For the first time since the London bombs, my daughter rang back home with that sparkle in her voice. She’d gathered with others to watch The Sultan’s Elephant and it just made the difference.’
As Gardner eloquently argues, a truly great festival ‘can show us a map of the world, a map of our city, and a map of ourselves.’ But there is no fixed model: festivals must keep on evolving. What is thrilling about the emergence of the new festivals is how fully they capture the complexity and excitement of the way we live today.