A tale of two Darwin Festival Artistic Directors

Outgoing Artistic Director Felix Preval and incoming AD Kate Fell sit down together to discuss programming, population, and the unique flavours and challenges of Darwin.

‘How has Darwin changed me?’ Felix Preval ponders as he oversees his sixth and final Darwin Festival as Artistic Director.

‘The opportunity I’ve been afforded as Artistic Director for Darwin Festival is the biggest highlight of my career to date, indeed my life to date. So it’s definitely changed me. It’s given me the opportunity to prove that I could do it,’ said Preval. He stepped into the role of Acting Artistic Director in 2017, following the departure of Andrew Ross from the position due to ill health. (Ross subsequently passed away in March this year.)

‘The board was sceptical at first, to say the least. They were like, “You seem very young. We were imagining someone much older than you,” and I was like, “Well, this is the person you’ve got. Let me have a crack.”‘

Clearly, Preval’s confidence was justified, with the Festival Board also being won over. He subsequently oversaw the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 festivals as Artistic Director, with this year’s Darwin Festival marking his swan song.

‘But how has the festival changed me? That’s a good question,’ Preval continued.

‘Six years is a long time. I’ve come to love the tropics; I’ve fallen in love with the whole of the city. I’m terrified of being cold again, but I know that it’s coming so I’ve grown a beard in preparation,’ he laughed.

‘The opportunity to work with the really amazing diversity of artists and cultural practitioners in the Northern Territory has been deeply enriching, and obviously working so closely with so many First Nations artists from across the NT too. The opportunity to travel through Arnhem Land for work; to see and meet artists on Country; to spend some time in the desert and connect with the  Arrernte community and just to absorb it without a lot of the transactional pressures that can exist in those marketplace moments, or even in casual moments in a traditional Western context – that’s been such a blessing,’ said Preval.

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This year’s Darwin Festival – the 43rd festival to date – opened with a free public performance of the remarkable Buŋgul, attracting over 4,500 people, and continues through until 21 August. Among the many people attending the Festival’s opening weekend this year is Preval’s replacement, the newly appointed Kate Fell, who starts formally in the Artistic Director’s position in October.

Fell, who has over 20 years’ experience as a Creative Director, Program Director, Executive Producer and CEO for festivals, venues and arts companies currently works as Program Director at Brisbane Festival, but told ArtsHub – over a coffee with Preval – that she is looking forward to moving to the Territory to take up her new role.

‘I don’t know Darwin well, and I’m getting to know it. And that’s an incredible part of this role, to get to know a new city and then to be that city’s Festival Director – that is an incredible privilege,’ she said.

So why relocate to Darwin? Indeed, why apply for the role? ‘I’ve had a great four years at Brisbane Festival, and was ready – probably not dissimilar to you, Felix – in wanting to take that next step,’ she replied.

Celebrating Darwin

Professional reasons aside, Fell said she is also keen to explore and celebrate everything that makes Darwin unique.

‘Darwin has got such a special place in the festival landscape of Australia. As Felix said, it’s got a very special connection with First Nations communities and artists, and there’s also its proximity to Asia. I love outdoor work; I love work that’s embedded in community. And just being here and seeing all these audiences come along, like the 4,500 people to Buŋgul on opening night, all these different audiences that are coming to Festival Park – it’s kind of like a gift, this festival. There’s no other festival like it,’ she said.

Incoming Artistic Director Kate Fell. Image supplied.

Preval agreed, saying: ‘It really is a gift. Darwin loves its festival. I think lots of that’s because of its grassroots origins; the community has a real stake in the festival. Also, it’s a small city. So, people really talk and they really care and a very small percentage of people see a show every single night at the festival and they let you know.

‘When you get the pleasure of being the Artistic Director here, they know who you are and they will come and tell you at the supermarket what they think,’ he laughed.

Fell said she is excited, not intimidated, by the local population’s intimate connection to, and passion for, Darwin Festival.

‘That’s super exciting,’ she told ArtsHub. ‘And it’s not like I’m gonna throw everything Felix has done out and completely change it. That’s not what I’m here to do. But absolutely I’m gonna bring my own flavours to it and do some different programming and use different sites and spaces, all of that sort of thing, of course.’

Arlo Parks plays the Sunset Stage at Darwin Festival 2022. Photo: Helen Orr.

So what sort of new flavours will Fell bring to the Darwin Festival program?

‘Well, I love family work for example. I love really big stories. I love physical work – you know, dance and circus and physical theatre. I really am about [asking] how do you broaden the audience and make sure that toddlers are coming as well as the nannas and everyone in between? I think my flavour is warm and inviting and accessible; I think that’s what I bring,’ said Fell.

Rebuilding the festival

When Preval came on board in 2016, originally as Head of Programming, Darwin Festival was in a precarious position which soon led to its entire Board being dismissed by the Territory Government – though the festival eventually went ahead despite the strain the political dramas placed on staff at the time.

‘I had the challenge of rebuilding the festival’s capacity, so I had to program really strategically for the first year, because we didn’t have any money. And we needed to make a lot of money. And so we went for a really kind of fun, accessible mix of small theatre, comedy, First Nations work and cabaret, and a little bit of international work. I guess I could say I felt out the audience, and then I saw them come back,’ Preval explained.

In subsequent years Preval ‘pushed the envelope and introduced more contemporary performance work and more contemporary dance, more of the work that I’m super passionate about’. His 2019 highlight was selling out a 500-seat outdoor venue to a solo Iranian hand drummer, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi.

‘It was transcendent – and there’s no way that would have been possible in 2017,’ said Preval.

Celebrating the local

From the highs of 2019 to the challenges of 2020, with its first wave of lockdowns and border closures – issues which impacted Darwin Festival again last year – Preval has experienced a range of challenges in his time. Nonetheless, his memories of the ‘homegrown’ 2020 festival are fond ones.

Darwin Festival Artistic Director Felix Preval. Image supplied.

‘So 2020 was a nightmare and a gift. To have to reimagine the festival entirely as a homegrown event for local audiences and local artists only was such an amazing, nightmarish challenge. And the response could not have been better. We sold every single ticket that we printed, and people were falling over themselves to tell us how good it was for it to be only local. And the sentiment was like, “If only it could be only local every year,”’ Preval explained.

‘And that’s Darwin. Like lots of small towns and remote towns, Darwin really wants to see and feel its own stories told back to it. That’s a fundamentally human thing. It’s just more intense when you’re in a small town in the middle of nowhere. And of course, we can’t do that every year, because we don’t have enough artists to have a homegrown festival every year. But it was a treasure to have that once in my time here,’ he said.

As the Festival’s incoming Artistic Director, Fell said she is excited about the opportunity to work with local artists and organisations to grow and strengthen what has been previously described as a fragile arts ecology.

‘Growing the ecology has always been a part of what I’ve done,’ she said. ‘It’s not easy anywhere and I am just scratching the surface of what that really means up here. Getting to know everybody is my next step – all of the meetings and all of the artists.

‘But for me, I think it’s [about recognising] that you can’t do everything at once. And I think for the tenure of any Artistic Director it’s about looking at the period of time that you have and asking: How do you build? How do you invest in certain key artists and projects?

‘But especially up here, it’s just such a connected sector, so it’s about taking the time to learn what the strengths are here. And honestly, I don’t know that yet. That’s the next step for me, to find what those strengths are and then really play to Darwin’s strengths in my festivals. That’s the honest answer,’ Fell responded.

Advice and celebration

Does Preval have any advice for Fell?

‘Look, it’s tricky here because it’s such a small population [which means a small tax base] so there’s less money. But things cost much more,’ he said.

‘So you have to be pretty judicious about where and how you spend that money. You also have to cross your fingers that you sell a lot of beer. But thankfully, it’s always a good day for a beer in Darwin!’

Fell responded by telling Preval he should be proud of what he and his team have achieved during his time at Darwin Festival.

‘It’s a beautiful Festival. It’s a beautiful team and that’s the other really great gift – a great board, a great CEO. I just think you should be really proud, and it’s really lovely just being here and being able to watch you in your element,’ she said sincerely.

Preval responded by saying, ‘I am proud, I’m proud of all the work we’ve all done, particularly the last three years. And although it’s bittersweet, I couldn’t be more excited to be passing the baton on to you, Kate. I think you’re a fantastic successor and I know that you will connect with Darwin and Darwin will love what you bring to it. So many exciting opportunities await.’

Felix Preval finishes his tenure as Artistic Director at the end of September. Kate Fell commences her role full time in early October and will lead the Festival’s creative direction for the 2023, 2024 and 2025 Festivals.

Darwin Festival in on now until 21 August.

The writer was hosted by Darwin Festival with support by Tourism Australia through the Regional Arts Tourism Package.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts