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Brisbane Festival – Past to present

Fiona Mackrell

The Brisbane Festival has come a long way since its very early days in the 60s when it was the Warana Festival.
Brisbane Festival – Past to present

Through their evolution and development festivals, like Brisbane’s, are intriguing insights into the communities they serve and the passions and politics of their time. A festival can be a mirror, but what are they showing us?

The Brisbane Festival has come a long way since it’s very early days in the 60s when it was theWarana Festival. With its theme, ‘entertainment for the people, by the people’ it embraced the concept of arts and entertainment broadly. There were all those great traditions of the 70s and 80s, parades, picnics, theatre and eisteddfods right across to sporting events and the Miss Warana pageant thrown in. But the city has aspirations for something more sophisticated after the 1988 expo and by the mid 90s it needed a revamp.

In 1996, the Brisbane Festival and the RiverFestival were separately delivered up: the Brisbane Festival to ‘foster the arts’ by the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council; and the RiverFestival as a ‘river-based celebration combined with community engagement’ by the Brisbane City Council.

The RiverFestival was annual. The Brisbane Festival was biannual: from 1996 to 2009. The RiverFestival had RiverFire, the popular fireworks extravaganza and the International Riversymposium as part of a key goal to raise environmental awareness. The Brisbane Festival had opera, theatre, dance, the Speigltent and Mikhail Gorbachev (in 2006). They seemed very different offerings.

From 1996 to 2004 the Brisbane Festival was under the artistic direction of respected arts administrator, Tony Gould. He had always been a notable supporter of Australian performers and expanding Australia’s arts image overseas. As the inaugural director of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre he helped establish its artistic direction and was named a ‘Queensland Great’ in 2005. Gould appears to have cemented the new Brisbane Festival into the social calendar creating an arts festival of international standing.

He was followed by equally admired, Lyndon Terracini, who moved on to become Artistic Director of Opera Australia. Terracini came to the job at the Brisbane Festival from the Queensland Music Festival and has long been an advocate for matching community and country town culture with the same level of respect as ‘high arts’; telling stories from the backyard as well as showing internationally acclaimed artists. He further expanded the festival programme over a period when Brisbane’s own sense of its’ place in the arts was also rapidly changing.

It was in Terracini’s final year with the festival, in 2009, that the Brisbane and the RiverFestival were merged in what seemed to be a very popular move. It made it big for one thing, and longer, three weeks. It cleared up the on-off year confusions for the Brisbane Festival while bringing popular RiverFestival events into the fold.

In a sense it’s a move that may be trying to bring the Festival back to its origins, to an entertainment focus as much as one on the ‘arts’. Is that the interpretation of this new baby as it goes to new Festival Director Noel Staunton? He’s done a city swap with Terracini, moving from the Sydney Dance Company to Brisbane. He also has several years under his belt at Opera Australia, as Technical Director, along with an impressive background of steering complex technical productions with commercial success. His much reported passion is to bring new works to Brisbane: World, Australian and Queensland premieres as a way to define what will make Brisbane Festival’s reputation.

So what’s the verdict so far? Does the Brisbane Festival still about ‘fostering’ the arts? Is the community engagement of the RiverFestival still there? What’s it’s all about now?

The Brisbane Festival has always claimed it’s offered ‘something for everyone’, which is a big ask in any city. It hasn’t always pulled it off for all demographics, a lot of family activities and ‘high’ art and less at the fringes. But things have been steadily broadening and by combining the two festivals into such a large programme it’s trying very hard to please. This year is supposed to be the last hurrah for the aging and soon to be retired F1-11s spectacular opening night fuel dump and burn over the river, the latest incarnation of the parade spectacular. Next year promises a more environmentally friendly extravaganza swapping aviatronics for pyrotechnics but still with that big crowd appeal.

Many Brisbanite’s were surprised to hear the Racecourse Road Street Party, which had attracted over 90,000 people in previous years to its music stages, dance events and food and craft stalls was cancelled in 2010. In its place went an evening of opera at Eagle Farm racecourse and the free Symphony at Sunset, an open-air performance by Brisbane Symphony Orchestra. Staunton’s reasoning was to ‘give people variety’ and maybe that’s true.

The jury still seems to be out as to whether this trade attracted as many people or proved as popular. Early signs though, if blogs, tweets and comments are anything to go by, suggest the symphony under the stars was a success, after all it’s a picnic with fine wines and food stalls.

The festival has plenty of fascinating signs of where ‘community’ arts engagement is trending. From A Close Knit, social knitting and crocheting of street art installations, to the very Brisbane, Backyard Gatherings, concerts in eight different peoples’ own backyards, a local expression of the arts is apparent perhaps with or without a festival to foster it. 

There seems to be more programmed for the crucial Gen Y audiences these days, people hungry for challenging and intriguing entertainment and cultural performance. The Belgian Spiegeltent in King George Square decked out with Astroturf and Hills Hoists seems to have hit a positive note with its international and local indie music programme, especially it’s chilled out Jazz on Sundays.

The Under the Radar series of fringe dwelling theatre and contemporary performances are frequently playing to very small audiences. Yet the festival is providing room for new talent to tune up, experiment and develop. For audiences this is where some of the gems of new and cutting edge theatrical productions are to be found.

Then there are the local arts institutions stepping out into the program such as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Vaughan William’s Symphony No 2: A London Symphony. The Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth, and Circa’s presentation of two new works Wunderkammer and Strange Familiar Angel take to the new QUT Festival Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre taking advantage of Brisbane warm clear nights.

Against these elements of the festival is a strong national and international line-up notably for its dance given Staunton’s recent history. Meryl Tankard’sThe Oracle, commissioned by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and the Sydney Opera House and performed in both cities last year is playing at Brisbane’s Powerhouse. There’s also Shaun Parker’s playful new work ‘Happy as Larry’, which since debuting in Sydney earlier this year has also played at the Perth Festival and New Zealand International Festival.

Hot on the world scene at the moment, Ballet Nacional de Cuba brings their mix of ‘Russian-style classic training and latin flair’ to Brisbane for the first time, performing Don Quixote. These Cuban dancers have toured 58 countries over the past few years to rave reviews.

These big-ticket items show how with the rise of a plethora of International Arts Festivals around the world, a little industry of touring works and productions has arisen. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as few companies can develop new work or extend themselves without touring. There’s a risk, however, with so many Arts Festivals around the world, international or otherwise, that they can become far too similar: different city, same shows. Finding a local voice and purpose is vital. And the notion of fostering the ‘arts’, challenging audiences to expand their worldview, rather than delivering up more of the same most palatable work remains. Do you have to go with what’s the best art or what gets people in and ‘entertains’ them’? Are these things mutually exclusive? Is breadth the most important thing, something for everyone?

It’s hard to define the difference between arts festivals as entertainment, and arts festivals as celebrations of artistic virtuosity. Maybe they can be the same thing? A glance around Australia too shows how managing festivals has become a job for professionals in the small world of international arts festivals. The director’s job is to balance popular appeal, bottom-lines, stay innovative and yet maintain some sort of idealised ‘artistic’ thesis along the way. Not easy.

How festivals like the Brisbane Festival have been perceived has waxed and waned over the decades. From not much more than city-wide fetes to providores of ‘high culture’ on to smorgasbords for cultural gourmets and buffet grazers alike. But in Brisbane some of the home-spun values that marked the very early days of it’s festival remain. Popular activities and events have been reincarnated to fit the times, but are essentially the same - people getting together with a positive attitude, socialising, and celebrating their unique community, outdoors under blue skies. It will be interesting to see how Brisbane evaluates the success of their 2010 Brisbane Festival, perhaps as great entertainment with an artistic Brissie twist?

Brisbane Festival
4 – 25 September 2010
Program and ticketing information via:

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out