Covid-19 may be the reason Sydney Festival 2021 looks different to previous years, but in many ways director Wesley Enoch’s program is a no-brainer.
For his fifth, final and largest festival, Enoch has programmed and commissioned 130 events that are 100 per cent Australian made, with many productions presented al fresco. And considering Enoch has made it a hallmark of his festival to support local, and Sydney in summer is best enjoyed outdoors, it wasn’t such a stretch.
The good news is, with international borders closed, there’s now more money to spend on commissioning local acts, who will all be performing in a Covid-safe environment.
“We’ve got a larger program than we’ve ever had, over 145 shows, activities and talk series,” Enoch tells Broadsheet. “We need to give gifts to the people of Sydney; the city is still coping and getting through things. I’m conceiving Sydney Festival as an invitation to be in your city again.”
Perhaps the biggest gift is the Headland, a monumental new purpose-built stage at Barangaroo Reserve. At 32 metres wide and with twin side screens to project close-ups, it’s larger than both the Capitol and Sydney Lyric theatre stages.
The Headland will host a mini festival of its own, featuring internationally acclaimed Australian circus company Gravity & Other Myths’ new show The Pulse. Conceived during lockdown, when the performers all returned home to Australia from abroad, it involves 30 acrobats and a 30-strong choir.
Electro-pop musician Paul Mac will join a choir of Sydneysiders in the celebratory music theatre event The Rise and Fall of Saint George, an homage to singer George Michael; while our storied national Indigenous dance theatre company Bangarra will present Spirit: A Retrospective 2021, bringing together some of the most powerful stories from its 30-year history. Musicians Paul Capsis and Iota join forces on Rapture, a song cycle featuring the music of Megan Washington, Deborah Conway, Blondie and the Kinks; while Katie Noonan, Christine Anu, Emily Wurramara and Suze DeMarchi will pay tribute to Cold Chisel songwriter Don Walker in Songs of Don.
And in even more great news: all ticket prices for shows at the Headland are capped at $25, with the festival absorbing the rest of the cost.
“Our big headline piece is to make sure we’re supporting Sydneysiders to come along and see things. We want to make sure dollars aren’t the reason people don’t do something, because the arts are there for everyone,” Enoch says.
Sydney Festival will continue its free and family programs in its regular parks and indoor venues, from Carriageworks to Parramatta Park. But this year’s program is also determined to support small struggling live-music venues through a new initiative, Allowed and Local.
“First the lockout laws then Covid have decimated the live music scene, so we’re getting behind around 50 gigs in small venues throughout Sydney and Parramatta to put live music back in,” Enoch says. Venues range from the Lansdowne to the Factory Theatre and the Vanguard, with performers and curators including Dew Process, Of Leisure, Alice Ivy, Urthboy, E^ST, Birdz and Ngaiire. The full line-up will be announced in late November.
Blak Out, a celebration of First Nations voices, returns by popular demand with a program of Indigenous works, including the inspiring play Sunshine Super Girl, about the humble beginnings of Wiradjuri tennis star Evonne Goolagong and her record-breaking rise to play at Wimbledon. Audiences will sit courtside in the Sydney Town Hall. Hide the Dog is the new work from popular Palawa playwright Nathan Maynard and Māori writer Jamie McCaskill. It’s an uplifting play celebrating friendship, culture and the Tasmanian Tiger. And The Vigil will return on January 25, allowing the public to gather at Barangaroo for performances and reflection.
The festival will have a strong visual-arts program featuring Janet Laurence, Lindy Lee, Judy Watson, Carol McGregor, Archie Moore and Megan Cope. And contemporary-music highlights include new music by the prodigiously talented crew from the Hayes theatre; Hugh Sheridan starring in a cabaret-style Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Enmore Theatre; and Ensemble Offspring presenting Musical Microparks – pop-up musical and performative walking tours of Erskineville. For those who are hesitant to venture out, there’s At Home – interactive digital conversations, podcasts and live-streamed shows.
“People have asked if I’m disappointed [Covid has affected] my last festival, but it’s been clarifying,” says Enoch. “It’s shown me what I believe in: community, relationships with people, trusting artists who are connected to their communities, First Nations storytelling and issuing the invitation for people to feel safe. That’s all there.”
Sydney Festival 2021 runs from January 6–26. For tickets and program information visit sydneyfestival.org.au.