Ruth Mackenzie CBE, Artistic Director of Adelaide Festival chats to us about the ’Adelaide Festival 2024 program, the first curated by her. She talks about the importance of creating a safe space for artists and audiences and of being able to find a way to open the festival doors to everyone and to do things throughout the year. Mackenzie believes that we all start out as artists but lose our confidence along the way. Read our interview with her below.
You started in the role of Artistic Director late 2022 but Adelaide Festival 2024 is the first program you’ve curated?
It is the first festival I have programmed because I started in November 2022. But the first festival that I saw was in March 2023. It was programmed by Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy.
But it was incredibly useful for me because it was the chance to see how the festival worked. What did audiences think? I was able to question the public. They could be honest because it wasn’t my festival. I was able to learn many things, actually.
So, what did the public say? What did you learn last year?
I understood that we have a courageous audience. That’s something absolutely wonderful. It’s an audience that dares to go see artists that they don’t know, and who can really understand the quality. For example, A Little Life from Ivo van Hove, is something quite difficult. And so, of course, the public has had the chance several times now to see works. Roman Tragedies for example, Kings of War, but that was Shakespeare’s stuff, so it was something not incredible, but not shocking, But I can say that A Little life, it’s shocking, it’s really, really shocking.
But the audience were there. There were people who left, but there weren’t people who said “It’s unbearable, I’m asking for a refund” or “I don’t understand why they did something like that”. Not at all. That’s an enormous strength for a festival. It’s impressive too.
There is the brand, if I can say so, of Adelaide Festival. We know that there will be artists known around the world, that’s very important But, we also like emerging artists, those that we can say are the stars of tomorrow, and that’s really quite something. For example, everyone tells me that Adelaide Festival found Robert Lepage before he was famous. I’m not sure if that’s true. It Is true though that Robert was in Adelaide quite early in his very long, enormous career of course.
We know that there will be artists known around the world, that’s very important But, we also like emerging artists, those that we can say are the stars of tomorrow
And so, we like the idea that we are discoverers of world talent. And that’s an advantage for me of course. We like surprises. And that’s perhaps most important. There is a taste for things, even when we don’t know what they are. That’s huge for me.
Is the Adelaide Festival audience different to others you have worked with?
Yes, because the qualities are not everywhere in the Anglophone world. But it’s the same audience that I found when I led Holland Festival in Amsterdam. The festival was created in 1947, that is to say the same year as Edinburgh and Avignon. It’s the same model. It’s for the same reason. That is that the citizens of Amsterdam asked « how can we build the future after the world war” and replied “we need artists”. That’s something quite extraordinary.
If we imagine that the world was destroyed in Edinburgh, that there wasn’t a lot to eat. Hospitals and schools had all been destroyed by the war. But notwithstanding that, they said “the priority is the artists”. I found the exact same spirit in Amsterdam It’s an audience that looks for adventure, for inspiration, artists who are looking for unknown things.
Before Adelaide, you were in Paris where you were at the head of the Théâtre du Châtelet, again in the role of Artistic Director. One of your projects was to open the theatre up to new audiences, to a more diverse audience.
Yes, at Châtelet, we had 68% of attendees who had come for the first time. We found an audience with a desire to see things that were a bit different. The ambition was to work with greater Paris, that is suburban Paris. As you know, the suburbs contain a pubic which is not rich. A public who perhaps didn’t think that the theatre in the city centre was for them.
The ambition was to work with greater Paris, that is suburban Paris. As you know, the suburbs contain a pubic which is not rich. A public who perhaps didn’t think that the theatre in the city centre was for them.
It’s a beautiful initiative that you took.
Yes, I was able to work with extraordinary French and international artists of course, because it had always been a house for famous international artists such as the Ballet Russes. The theatre also worked with Picasso, Erik Sarti, Cocteau, you understand the idea.
Will we see some of the artists that you worked with in future Adelaide Festival programs?
Yes, I hope so. We have Angélique Kidjo of course. I did not work with Edouard Louis at Châtelet, but he is a hero now too. I worked with Angélique a lot in London and in Paris.
I saw that her Adelaide Festival 2024 concert is part of her worldwide 40th anniversary tour. You’re also introducing some diversity into the festival by including children and residents of Adelaide in Create4Adelaide and Floods of Fire: Our Citizens’ Orchestra. Why is it important for you to involve the public?
First, there are the well-known global artists who are favourites with Australian audiences, such as Robert Lepage, Angélique Kidjo, Laurie Anderson, Barrie Kosky and Steven Page, two artistic directors of the Adelaide Festival who are adored by audiences here.
It has to be said, we start of course, with the things we have to have for the public. But also, for me, it’s always the same spirit, i.e. all the citizens of South Australia have paid for the festival, in effect, through their taxes. You have to serve everyone, not just Robert Lepage’s supporters, etcetera.
all the citizens of South Australia have paid for the festival, in effect, through their taxes. You have to serve everyone
So, we have to find a way of opening the festival doors and doing things every week of the year, not just for three weeks in March. And to say that for everyone, we start by singing, dancing. We start out as artists, and for the most part, we lose the confidence to make art ourselves. But it’s something that nourishes every person, and it’s a shame we don’t have the chance to try and take the lead in creating things. The citizens’ orchestra is a good example. Not everyone has the creativity to play an instrument in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra but anyone could start. Anybody could. There’s a chance, there’s nobody who can’t be in an orchestra. That’s our view.
We start out as artists, and for the most part, we lose the confidence to make art ourselves.
And it’s the same thing with Create4Adelaide. This is something we’re going to do every year. Every year, we will always start with a democratic process with the young people. So, we started last year with a vote. What are the issues? It’s to study, with the artists in the schools, about climate change here in South Australia. As you know, more than 2,000 young people decided firstly on the extinction of plants and animals, secondly, the issues of drought, floods and bushfires, and thirdly land and water pollution. And so, we did six months of workshops, workshops in schools with artists and then we had over 1,000 works of art.
And now the young people of South Australia have voted. The young people have chosen like Artistic Directors, in effect, for the exhibition in the 2024 festival.
Which schools were involved in this project?
It was open to everyone actually, because it was a digital project. But we had a budget for schools in levels 1 to 4, i.e. schools in the poorest neighbourhoods. We had 125 schools registered for Create4Adelaide. It was open to all the other schools too, but we didn’t give the other schools money to pay the artists. Whilst we invested in South Australia in number one to four categories, any other school could I could also have workshops but they have to pay themselves. Anyone could enter in the open call because it was online barriers online so actually people of any ages from anywhere in the world could submit in artwork.
Sabir created Create4 Name your city for the COP 26 in Glasgow. And in Glasgow, it was also the case everyone had the chance to make a work of art. But for the young people who decided who won, the young people from Glasgow chose the young people from Glasgow. There were some fantastic professional artists from all over the world, but they didn’t stand a chance! But it’s right. If you give power to young people, you have to accept it. And young people love young people.
But being inspired by professional artists because the task is not just to make something that is artistically great, but to make something that illuminates the challenges of climate change and maybe even proposes solutions.
Did any of them propose solutions?
Sometimes. It’s for all children. There’s no age limit. I’m not sure if you saw The Guardian who did a nice gallery of the children’s art and you’ll see that there is more on the plants and animals than proposing how to save them of course. But it’s very clear that they want to. The older people to go further down the road of what the art and what you need to do to stop it. That’s fair. For the younger ones, there’s the two-year-olds, which isn’t bad if you’re 2.
You don’t have the solutions to the world’s problems,
Not yet, but you know the world’s problems already, not bad!
Earlier you mentioned that we all start out as artists but that we lose confidence. Were you also an artist?
Visual art was not my strength. As a child, I sang in a professional choir created by Benjamin Britten in London.
I only sang contemporary works and that was extraordinary for me. And of course, when I was eight years old, I didn’t understand that contemporary music is more difficult than older stuff. That’s a huge gift, actually. And I was lucky enough to sing in the biggest concert hall in London.
That’s a huge gift, actually. And I was lucky enough to sing in the biggest concert hall in London. I thought everyone else was as lucky. But they aren’t!
I thought everyone else was as lucky. But they aren’t! And I think that was the start of my understanding that it’s better if everyone gets a chance. The Royal Festival in London was a playground for me. We ran up and down the corridor was we made a nuisance of ourselves in our place. But this was a gift.
If you think the cultural world is open, that’s a chance. It’s one of the reasons I’m sure I ended up working in the arts. I was lucky to have an extraordinary musical education. And then at university, I did a lot of theatre too. So now, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a millionaire, I work in the arts. That’s pretty good.
Yes, it’s not bad! I thought that one of the highlights of being artistic director of an international festival was travelling the world to find shows to program, but you decided to forego a lot of the travelling and recruit an Associate Director based in the Netherlands, a sort of European correspondent, who went to see the shows that are or aren’t part of the Adelaide Festival 2024.
Yes, there are two things that I have seen as director of the European festivals. Every year, I would see my Australian colleagues coming and it’s quite far. Now, I understand very well. So, you can’t do much research.
If you run a festival in Australia and you’re lucky enough to go to London for five days or Amsterdam for three. You don’t dare go and see the unknown artists. You have to go and see the famous artists. In fact, we see the artists we’ve already chosen for the most part. And that’s not bad, because there are some wonderful European festival directors, but all the same, it’s as if you’re going to a restaurant where someone else has already chosen the dishes. You’re not actually constructing a menu that includes surprise.
…it’s as if you’re going to a restaurant where someone else has already chosen the dishes. You’re not actually constructing a menu that includes surprise.
You’re not taking those chances.
You can’t go to Antwerp on a wet afternoon to see somebody you’ve never heard of because you think they might be great but Wouter can.
So, we have a European associate director who lives in Amsterdam and does all the travelling. He’s part-time, of course, he does the other things, but we get the benefits of all the things he does. But I can say to Wouter ” This is an interesting person so you should go and see them” because it’s just cheap. It’s really a question of money. So that’s why we have Mario Banushi in the 2024 programme, who will be one of the great theatre artists that everyone will brag about having seen him. Goodbye, Lindita, is his first show and he wrote it at the age of 23. You can’t do that [travel to see someone’s unknown show] from Australia, but you can do it with world-class talent in Australia, and that’s a big priority for me, and first and foremost, First Nations first.
But you can do that with the world class talent in Australia for me and that is a big priority for me and of course above all first nations first. You will see we have commissioned and invited a lot of First Nation work and that for me is one of the great joys of the job and to say to the world, we are putting these artists in the program alongside European artists. We are saying to the world “these are all world class artists.” We banned the word local. These are all world-class artists. Some of them, like Restless Dance Company, are based in Adelaide and others are based elsewhere in Australia, but they are all whole world class and some of them of course them from New York or Paris or London or wherever!
we have commissioned and invited a lot of First Nation work and that for me is one of the great joys of the job and to say to the world, we are putting these artists in the program alongside European artists. We are saying to the world “these are all world class artists.” We banned the word local. These are all world-class artists.
As my website is dedicated to things French and Francophone in Australia, I’m going to take you further afield. I’ve noted several shows in the Adelaide Festival 2024 programme that have a link with France and the French-speaking world. …. Edouard Louis, Angélique Kidjo, and Robert Lepage, who is of course from Quebec.
It was the Opéra National de Lyon, in coproduction with the Festival d’Aix and the Canadian Opera Company [and Dutch National Opera]. The production comes from the Opera de Lyon.
Is the Robert Lepage production at Adelaide Festival 2024 part of the agreement with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence that Rachel and Neil signed?
What Rachel and Neil did which was a very clever thing to do, was they signed an agreement with Aix, which is an outstanding, world-class opera festival. They would they would invite they would work with Aix and invited operas from Aix. It was sort of exclusive it wasn’t entirely exclusive. We have not continued that but Pierre [Audi] is a great friend of mine and we have worked together from London times and of course when I was at the Holland festival, he was running Dutch National Opera and we did project together every year, so we will still work with Aix but I’m also saying I think I’m free to go shopping anywhere I want to go.
Of course. Yes, you not limited to Aix.
We’ve already found the others for 2024, of course, but also for 25 and 26. And that’s an opportunity for me to showcase some of the best directors and composers… because for me, an opera is really a blend of the worlds of theatre and music. So, you’ll see some good things coming for 25, 26 as well as 2024 of course.
And The Threepenny Opera which Brecht and Weill called an anti- opera, but it is an opera so you’ve got two fantastic examples of great geniuses of theatre, usually musical, inspired by the music and a working to bring a picture of a world that where the music leads, but the theatre is an equal partner of great technical beauty and originality.
So that covers the two operas quite nicely. So, turning to Edouard Louis, you said you hadn’t worked with him prior to Adelaide Festival 2024, but I guess he’s on your radar because he is who he is.
I only didn’t work with him because I ran a 2000 seat opera house and Edouard Louis has been has many, many talents, but he has not so far produced something put on in in the Théâtre du Châtelet.
Honestly, in the French world, we have someone who is now an intellectual star who comes from the world of the working-class family. He shares all that. But I’m not telling any secrets, that’s his subject. But he comes from the world, in my opinion, of the gilets jaunes. And it’s not a world that is normally discussed at intellectual, artistic, cultural levels in France. And so, he has created a small revolution, honestly. And I admire him enormously.
he comes from the world, in my opinion, of the gilets jaunes. And it’s not a world that is normally discussed at intellectual, artistic, cultural levels in France. And so, he has created a small revolution, honestly. And I admire him enormously.
And he’s huge in Australia. Who Killed My Father? (Qui a tué mon père?) is well known, and it’s Edouard’s first time in Australia. He’s also at Writer’s Week, of course, but he’s playing in Qui a tué mon père? himself, the play he wrote with Thomas Ostermeier. Of course, it’s an adaptation of his novel Qui a tué mon père? It’s quite rare now that he performs. This is really a once in a lifetime chance to discover Edouard Louis that everyone in France knows. It’s very unusual for him to agree to perform now. He is in effect playing the role of Edouard Louis. That’s quite a coup.
This is really a once in a lifetime chance to discover Edouard Louis that everyone in France knows. It’s very unusual for him to agree to perform now. He is in effect playing the role of Edouard Louis. That’s quite a coup.
Definitely, and you’re going to interview him at Writers Week as well.
I had understood that was because Louise thought he would be more comfortable talking in French and I spend a lot of my time in Paris moderating events where I would translate from French to English. But in fact, on YouTube, I have found him talking fantastically good English. So, I’m thrilled of course to be interviewing him but I don’t know that I will have to do simultaneous French/English.
I was wondering if you would be interviewing him in French and then translating it for the audience.
Maybe I will. That is something, I got to be very good at when I was working in Paris. So, I am very comfortable doing that.
Coming back to Create4Adelaide, it’s a project from French company Sabir, that created the first Create4. Tell me a bit about your work with them.
I worked with Sabir in Paris and they are an incredible company. They are young start up, they do a huge range of work, but the one of the things that they have made their own are these large-scale participative projects that are digital. The first one they did with me is when I was at the Theatre de Châtelet was during the confinement. David Hockney, the artist, was living in Normandy and was locked down in Normandy. As you know he famously paints on an iPad. He painted a different tree every day, in spring and posted some of them. He lent us a tree and wrote us a beautiful letter about his experience of following spring in lockdown and about hope, new life and also about death. A beautiful letter.
So, with the Centre Pompidou, we launched a digital open call for everyone to be inspired by Hockney during lockdown and to make an artwork inspired by the idea of what David was doing following spring, and following nature which was called Hockney Printemps. We got 4000 artworks from 60 countries around the world while. That was an incredibly beautiful project.
Then later, after Brexit, we worked again together on the project called I love you moi non plus, which was inspired by Serge Gainsbourg’s fantastic song and obviously is a joke. That was with an art centre in the Marais called 35 37 and Somerset House, a big arts Centre in London. It had a whole host of professional artists who made in artwork to inspire people. So actually, Angélique Kidjo, made an outwork and Brian Eno, Ai Wei Wei, Christian Marclay, who is a French–Swiss artist, and Mohamed El Khatib, who is a French artist. It was a huge list. Then that was again an open call for anyone – anyone could participate – which was a fun project.
As I already mentioned. Sabir invented Create4 name your city for COP26, which we have we asked them to recreate it for us as Create4Adelaide. Of course, we have people in Adelaide in the team who are doing the work with schools and with young people, but they are the owners of the project, they are the producers and the creators, and they so they lead the process actually. Also, they understand about how to stimulate the vote, how to run the digital program. If you look at Create4Adelaide on Instagram, you get a very good picture of the way in which they are have been leading and animating it. They’re, very good and they will be here. Which is very nice, so they will be coming to see the end of the journey [for info about the exhibition click here]
I did wonder if they would be coming over for Adelaide Festival 2024 or not.
We wouldn’t dream of not saying to someone come and see this play that you’ve directed. In the same way, they are the creatives, who have conceived this and led it.
To finish up, this is probably a question you get asked all the time so apologies for that but what do you look for in festival show?
I’ll give you the simple answer first. First of all, quality, of course. International quality, but also surprise and innovation of form and having something to say. It’s not a case of saying something political or something about climate change, but something. I’m always looking for power in shows. It’s an artistic power, it’s an innovative power, but it’s something that the audience will remember. Because for me, total failure is something you forget right away.
I’m always looking for power in shows. It’s an artistic power, it’s an innovative power, but it’s something that the audience will remember. Because for me, total failure is something you forget right away.
And, of course, I hope that everyone will love all the shows, but I think it’s preferable that there are people who hate the shows. For me, the worst thing is people who only think about what they’re going to eat after the show.
And then I guess the more complicated answer is for me being Artistic Director is not about shopping. I think everyone thinks Artistic Directors we have a so of imaginary shopping trolleys and we got to these Big Warehouses and we say will have a red show and then I need a blue show, I’ve got my fish course and now I need my vegetables. For me, it’s not about shopping. It’s first of all living in the community and understanding who you are serving. And secondly, developing an understanding and a trust with the artist and with artistic partner, so that you, the Artistic Director and the festival, can give the artist the chance to make things that are exceptional, to take you can be a space a safe place for the artist to experiment for audiences to experiment and when that happens, it’s the most exciting thing. When everyone feels they are in a safe space. If we are lucky Jacob Boehme with his biggest stage work that he has ever made in which is out of several years of work on the Yorke, on country on the Yorke Peninsula, with creatives, with the elders, with communities. If what he creates is as exceptional as I think it could be you know we’re going to have an unforgettable experience.
it’s not about shopping. It’s first of all living in the community and understanding who you are serving. And secondly, developing an understanding and a trust with the artist and with artistic partner, so that you, the Artistic Director and the festival, can give the artist the chance to make things that are exceptional, to take you can be a space a safe place for the artist to experiment for audiences to experiment and when that happens, it’s the most exciting thing.
In order to get to really exceptional work, you have to take risks and in order to take risks you have to have a safe space and that’s my job. I am the human shield for the artist and for the audiences if you like. I’m trying to make a space where we can all come together to have an experience that none of us will ever forget.
to get to really exceptional work, you have to take risks and in order to take risks you have to have a safe space and that’s my job. I am the human shield for the artist and for the audiences
We thank Ruth Mackenzie CBE for this interview and cannot wait to attend the shows she has selected for her Adelaide Festival 2024 program!
KEY INFO FOR ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2024
WHAT: Adelaide Festival 2024, programmed by Ruth Mackenzie and Kath M Mainland
WHERE: various venues in Adelaide
WHEN: 1 – 17 March 2024
HOW: Check out the program and purchase your tickets via this link
Read our other Adelaide Festival 2024 interviews via the links below: