Exit interview: Joseph Mitchell, Artistic Director, OzAsia Festival

After five festivals, Mitchell has moved onto new challenges. Just before he left, he spoke with ArtsHub about the highs and lows of his time in the role.
Exit interview: Joseph Mitchell, Artistic Director, OzAsia Festival Joseph Mitchell. Image supplied.
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Richard Watts

Tuesday 24 March, 2020

Joseph Mitchell not only programmed five OzAsia Festivals for the Adelaide Festival Centre; he also reshaped the Festival’s focus and style.

When he was appointed Artistic Director, the OzAsia Festival – held over three weeks every Spring – tended to focus on the cultural output of a different Asian nation each year. Mitchell reoriented the Festival to become a showcase of the best contemporary art from across Asia. He also ensured the program had a much broader scope than just the Asian countries to Australia’s immediate north.

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‘It was a nice evolution of the festival’s reach, as well as an opportunity to try and play a role in shifting audience’s cultural perception of “what is Asia in the 21st century,”’ Mitchell told ArtsHub.

As he considered his remit at the start of his tenure, Mitchell began by asking himself: who defines what Asia is?

‘My view on that matter is, well, Mother Nature defines it and it's a geographical continental plate which basically reaches from Turkey and Egypt across to the far eastern islands of Japan and Korea. So that for me was an initial roadmap,’ he said.

‘Of course, when Australians look towards Asia, they look up. But funnily enough, you know, when Europe looks towards Asia, they look to the Middle East ... So I wanted to look very objectively and broadly at the continent.’

He also wanted to approach programming with a contemporary worldview: ‘One inspiring example of our programming was the Danish opera company Hotel Pro Forma who did a contemporary Japanese opera based on the traditions of noh theatre, but they used a Latvian chorus, a Japanese manga designer and the whole libretto was in Japanese and drawing on traditional Japanese theatre,’ Mitchell explained.

‘This is this is how we progress contemporary art forward in a way that breaks down people’s perceptions of what comes from what country or region. How do you pigeonhole a work into a particular place – is it an Asian work, is it a Western work? The idea was to blow apart all these old perceptions. Good work is good work,’ he said.

CULTURAL EVOLUTION

After almost six years in the role, Mitchell has seen considerable evolution in the Australian cultural landscape, whose arts leaders he once criticised for failing to engage with Asia in any meaningful and lasting way.

‘The landscape has definitely changed. We now recognize multicultural identity diversity within major policies across all areas of arts and culture, and I think that’s been a really positive shift in terms of the arts and cultural sector,’ he said.

When he first started at OzAsia Festival, Mitchell was aware that Australia’s engagement with Asia was more focused on ‘tourism and education, business priorities and government soft diplomacy relations,’ rather than culture in its own right.

‘That kind of shocked me, but I think it’s nice that we’ve seen initiatives from the Australia Council, major arts centres and other arts institutions to recognise diversity in not just the work itself, but in matters such as cultural leadership. I think that's a real positive … but I still think there’s a long way to go. Definitely a lot of the larger institutions and festivals are recognising diversity in programming, but the next step is harder, which is how do we recognise diversity in leadership?’

Read: Missing the boat to China

Mitchell’s five OzAsia Festivals featured approximately 100 Australian and world premieres, 28 of which were OzAsia commissions – a point of considerable pride.

‘Those 28 works covered off theatre, music, dance and visual arts. About two thirds involved Australian artists, both from South Australia and nationally, and about one third would have focused on international artists. And about half of those commissions also involved international collaboration – that was really a big part of the commissioning process for us’ he explained.

‘I was quite interested when we commissioned work, how do we do it differently, say, to someone who just gets a grant from the Australia Council or another festival that has different objectives? And for me, it was that we really had a platform to provide an opportunity for Australian artists to collaborate with international artists because of the reach that we had, in terms of the various international artists that we work with. Plus we also have a lot of international producers and partners who pick up and cover a significant amount of commissioning costs alongside of us. So it really offset a lot of costs in terms of airfare and accommodation, which often ends up being the inhibiting part of international collaboration.’

CHALLENGES AND REGRETS

When asked to identify his greatest regrets during almost six years with OzAsia Festival, Mitchell shrugs.

‘When you look back, you know, it’s easy to imagine the missed opportunities based on hypotheticals. So for example, if we had more money, we would have done this.’

He gives the example of ‘the big aerial drone shows that have really become a staple in more popular outdoor culture in contemporary Asia. But of course, the cost and scale those types of things are a bit too much.’

Another challenge for Mitchell and the OzAsia team were the public works in and around the Adelaide Festival Centre during his time as Artistic Director.

‘In our first year, 2015, we had the outdoor market in what used to be the Festival Plaza, And in what was only a 10-day festival, we did about 123,000 attendances, which was fantastic. But then of course, the Plaza was demolished, and it still is demolished to this day, so we had to move the festival hub to the other side of the building, closer to the river. And just because of Adelaide’s geography, it’s harder to get a drop-in audience on the other side of the Festival Centre.

‘So those numbers dropped a little bit. But again, it’s a regret that’s outside of your control. And while those numbers dropped, actually our attendance numbers, I think, grew by 250% through the ticketed shows. So it’s just one of those things where you can look back and think, “Oh, you know, if we had the Plaza the whole time, we could have grown that 123,000 more and more and more, but it’s almost like we had a huge handicap put on us with the construction,’ he said.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

While Mitchell’s replacement has yet to be appointed, he’s confident that some of the works he commissioned that are still in development will find their way into future OzAsia Festivals.

‘There’s actually still about three that are on the boil right now that have the potential to land in this year and next year. I’m pretty sure that the one that’s closest to full realisation will land in this year’s program. And the other two, you know, probably still need a good 18 months to two years. So I think those two really should be handed over, to make sure that the process and the new director all feel aligned,’ he said.

Speaking of his successor, does Mitchell have any advice for them?

‘My advice for a successor, or indeed anyone who wants to be an artistic director, is be bold, trust yourself. You know if the decision is right or not; you’re the expert. There’s a lot of other people who have views and opinions but festivals are not – or shouldn’t be – programmed by committee. There’s something wonderful in taking ownership of what you do. Don’t shy away from that, in fact, run towards it and own it,’ he said.

Joseph Mitchell's last day with OzAsia Festival was Friday 13 March. The appointment of a new Festival Director is expected shortly. OzAsia Festival 2020 will run from 22 October to 8 November. 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts