The Antidote to Echo Chambers

Sydney Opera House’s head of talks and ideas, Dr Edwina Throsby, believes the right stories can change our core beliefs. She’s out to prove it with Antidote, a new festival that just brought some of the world’s most provocative minds to Sydney.

Published on 25 September 2018

The room feels like the ribcage of an immense animal. Curved beams of steel and wood stretch overhead, shouldering the weight of the famous curved roof. Sound is swallowed by plush purple carpet. It’s warm – the afternoon sun bounces off the glittering harbour and directly inside. This is the north foyer of the Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House, a destination rivalled perhaps only by Uluru when it comes to fame abroad. Millions visit each year.

At this moment the place is curiously devoid of visitors, as Dr Edwina Throsby, head of talks and ideas, holds a meeting. She stands at the top of a wide staircase. Even in jeans and white sneakers, she has presence. It’s a combination of her height, and the mellifluous voice that seems to run in the family. Her aunt is Margaret Throsby, the beloved ABC broadcaster sometimes called “the velvet voice”.

Throsby is talking logistics for Antidote Festival, which debuted at the start of September. Its predecessor, the nine-year-old Festival of Dangerous Ideas, has moved its program of subversive talks to Cockatoo Island. She's a month out, and needs to lock down when the visual artworks will arrive and how they’ll be installed. The works will reflect the tenor of the talks. There will be sculptures that examine the problem of plastic and large-scale pieces that celebrate feminism.

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“For feminism, we’re in an incredible time,” Throsby tells me later, over lunch. We’re eating grilled salmon at Portside, an eatery that overlooks a sightseeing thoroughfare on the west side of the building. A school group wanders by and tourists take selfies against the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge. “People are finding their collective power again, and it’s vastly aided by online connectivity.”

Collective power is a social sciences term coined in the 1960s and refers to the way power and influence increase when people join forces. “It was a fashionable idea in the ’60s and ’70s that fell out of favour at the end of the century,” Throsby says. “Today, people are connecting again, finding power in movements. It doesn’t manifest the same way it did when hundreds of thousands of people marched on the White House for civil rights, but with things like the Women’s March there’s the sense that ordinary people can affect politics. It’s invigorating.”

Throsby has spent a long time thinking about the principles behind the worldwide Women’s March. Growing up she had strong female role models in her mother and aunt; women’s studies was the focus of her honours degree at the University of Sydney; and her professional life started in an industry dominated by men.

“I came up in television in the ’90s. It was an astonishingly sexist place,” she says. “When I started as a young woman in a newsroom, one of the senior reporters had this ritual: when any new woman started, he’d assign a type of burger to her genitals. It was a common joke and we were all meant to laugh.” Throsby pauses before saying with venom, “I mean, fuck off. Just fuck off.”

This was more than two decades before the #metoo movement and it didn’t even occur to Throsby and her colleagues to make a complaint. They did stand up for themselves though. “After my friend and I told him to fuck off, we became known as ‘the lesbians’, because if we don’t find completely gross and revolting jokes hilarious, then obviously we’re lesbians. That was the culture we were dealing with.”

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In Throsby’s world, lemons are traded up for a better fruit. That is to say, if the space she’s in isn’t accommodating, she makes a new space. There was the time she had a baby and realised that early motherhood doesn’t agree with the long hours required to be a television producer. She quit and earned a PhD in politics. Or the time she couldn’t get a break moving out of research for current affairs shows, so she applied to the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), beating hundreds of applicants to secure one of four coveted postgraduate spots. “It was transformative,” she says. “Every day we were being taught by genuine experts in their field. We learned cinematography from Dean Semler and storytelling from Helen Garner.”

Throsby earned a scholarship for a stint at La Fémis, a respected French film school. And for her AFTRS graduate project she wrote and directed a film about the relationship between scent and memory called A Sense of Smell. When it was selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Throsby was back in Sydney, working at Darlo Bar and studying. She didn’t have the money to fly to the screening, so the regulars ran a fundraiser to send her.

As an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Throsby was adept at telling her own stories. In her current role, she’s the custodian of other people’s, the same way she was when she founded and produced ABC’s Big Ideas and later, heading up TEDxSydney. She has a knack for picking people and ideas that capture the zeitgeist, although she wouldn’t describe it that way. For her, finding insightful narratives is an ongoing process. “I’m a chronic over researcher. I read as much as I can of news, opinion pieces, essays and books in the ideas-y space. I listen to podcasts and the radio constantly. Then pictures form of the areas where the most interesting discussions are happening,” she says. “When I was preparing for Antidote, there were a lot of interesting discussions going on about race and identity. The arguments weren’t just about whether people should be more inclusive. They were getting more nuanced. ‘Is the insistence on identity precluding the imagination?’, for example. I looked at who’s having the biggest cultural impact in this space, and that’s unambiguously Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

The American journalist and author headlined Antidote alongside Ronan Farrow, the journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Whistleblower Chelsea Manning appeared via satellite link, after her visa was knocked a few days before the festival. For Throsby, including Farrow in the program required almost no consideration. “I read his piece in the New Yorker and immediately thought, ‘He needs to come and talk. This is such an important piece of journalism and we need to hear from this man.’”

There are three essential experiences to be had at the Sydney Opera House. The first is to see an outstanding performance. The second is to be threatened outside for your lunch by a gang of aggressive seagulls. The third is rare: a glimpse behind the curtain, which can only be had by knowing the right person or paying for the right tour. Throsby’s podcast It’s a Long Story is an entry to that inner sanctum, where the public can access the person behind the talk.

We walk into a vast space on the ground level of the building. Trucks, small cranes, enormous lighting rigs, ropes, sound equipment and bits of set co-exist in an organised chaos. A series of twists and turns takes us to the sound studio. It’s a pleasantly minimalist maze of rooms with dark wood and leather seating areas, people editing at computers, and engineers stationed at an enormous sound mixer.

In a tiny room with one square table and two chairs, Throsby draws out the festival speakers to tell different stories than they told on stage. The latest series features speakers from the All About Women festival in March. “Maybe it’s because the room is so small, but it gets quite intense in here,” she says. Author Fran Lebowitz spoke frankly on the podcast about her sexuality, and after years of avoiding questions, novelist Barbara Kingsolver talked on the record about her difficult relationship with her mother. “I read so many interviews where she deflected questions and I expected her to do the same with me. She didn’t – she just went there. Later she told me her mother had passed away, so she felt less inhibited about what she could say. Moments like that, people really surprise you.”

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So Throsby’s not just good at finding stories. She’s also good at convincing people to tell them. She says there are no complicated tricks. Empathy is the key. “Storytelling is about connection. That can be an emotional connection or an intellectual connection. It’s about making the person listening profoundly understand what you mean, imagine what you’re talking about, and envisage their own relationship with it.”

Connection is important, but so is making space for the story. You see it in the way Throsby interviews, asking a succinct question and then falling quiet to let the interview subject answer, never inserting herself until they’re finished. You see it in the way she interacts with staff, allowing people the space to take charge of the part of the talks and ideas machine they’re responsible for.

You also see it in her consideration of the audience, which she hopes will always be more than just left-leaning folks who agree wholeheartedly with everything they hear on stage. A conflict-free echo chamber is not what she’s trying to achieve with Antidote. “I don’t program a deliberately progressive festival and I don’t want to put ideas out there that are explicitly left or right wing. I do try to apply a set of values to the programming though,” she says. Inclusivity is one of those values, but it’s not just about gender or race. Throsby says it’s about inclusivity of political perspective, ideas, background and class.

“I want to create a space where people can come and have their ideas challenged,” she says. “I love when someone can make me think differently about something, even just for a while. It’s that space where you get taken out of your entrenched belief systems and there’s a potential for freshness. It’s easier to ask people to be open to other ideas, rather than get them to change a belief system they’ve held since they were a teenager. That’s the first step to a dialogue that will break down the entrenched political binaries we find ourselves in.”

In the afternoon, the staff assembles for an Antidote work-in-progress meeting at the Opera House’s Pitt Street office. There are negotiations with artists to discuss. Branding considerations for the festival. A plan for social media. The most important part – the line-up – was settled long ago. Throsby seems relaxed discussing the minutiae that will round out a thought-provoking weekend. As she listens to the updates, she pushes a tray of baklava towards people, making sure everyone gets a piece of the honey-soaked sweet. It’s just women seated around the table, which I’m told is a common phenomenon in the arts. It’s a long way from the sexist newsrooms of the ’90s. Antidote brings to Sydney some of the most influential, trajectory-shifting minds in the popular consciousness, but Throsby is modest about her part in the story. “There’s a power and possibility in these sorts of talks that I find motivating,” she says. “What brings me the best personal satisfaction in my work is a sense that something I’ve programmed has been heard by someone, affected them and changed the way they think for the better. That’s why I do it.”

Dr Throsby’s podcast, It’s a Long Story, is available on iTunes and at sydneyoperahouse.com.

This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 15.