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Deep dive with Robyn Archer

Robyn spoke to us about her career beginnings, her important work at the head of arts festivals around Australia, and the love of cabaret and song that has propelled her to devise this all-new show.

Robyn Archer credit Claudio Raschella

PART ONE: THE ARTS LEADER

Preparing for her new show An Australian Songbook, which premieres at the Bille Brown Theatre on 25 June, Robyn spoke to us about her career beginnings, her important work at the head of arts festivals around Australia, and the love of cabaret and song that has propelled her to devise this all-new show.

You have had a strong connection to Australian arts festivals throughout your career, including the National Festival of Australian Theatre, The Light in Winter, which ran for a decade at Federation Square in Melbourne, The Centenary of Canberra in 2013, the Adelaide and Melbourne Festivals, and Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island, which you founded. Can you speak about your most memorable achievements leading those festivals, and any particular show or event that you programmed that stands out as a great coup?

The most important achievement in all of them was that I was able to use those festivals as a platform for so many Australian artists – and in many cases, to be able to commission new work from them. What you do from those positions of cultural power can have massive ongoing effects.

For the Adelaide Federation Celebrations in 2001, I commissioned from Jonathan Mills his Sandakan Threnody, a work for orchestra and voice which Jonathan wanted to write before his elderly father died – Frank Mills had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese, in Sandakan POW camp in Malaysia in World War II. We premiered that on the Parade Grounds in Adelaide, but Jonathan then worked on the piece with a further commission which I made from my Melbourne Festival. Now he worked with artists in Japan and Singapore, very much as a project of reconciliation, and a theatre work of the same name was created. Then the audio recording went on to win the Prix Italia, the most important radio prize in the world. So I love the things that have a life beyond the one festival.

I consider Skywhale to be one of the most productive commissions. For the Centenary of Canberra I observed that Canberrans loved their balloon festival, but I thought we might be able to create a balloon that was more creative than most I saw. I approached Patricia Piccinnini, she accepted the challenge, Skywhale was born and for years afterwards it toured Australia and the world, delighting audiences and giving Patricia the opportunity to express her brilliant original aesthetic about evolution. And most recently the National Gallery of Australia bought Skywhale and commissioned SkyPapa from Patricia – and more tours have followed.

On an international front, I was able to encourage French actor and cultural leader Jacques Martial to pursue his idea of turning Aimee Cesaire’s Journal of a Return to My Native Land into a stage show. The show came and played Hobart as part of Ten Days on the Island, then played throughout the world, including a concert version in front of the French President on the occasion of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery.

It was a privilege to be able to use those festival platforms to offer First Nations artists a prominent place. In Adelaide, we had the idea to make the Adelaide Biennial all Indigenous artists for the first time and we invited Brenda Croft to curate it. At the 2000 Adelaide Festival, we invited many First Nations bands to perform. In my first Melbourne Festival, I invited a large-scale theatrical epic that told the tale of a brutal massacre – it was quite a shocking piece to open the festival in the main theatre at the Arts Centre. In the Centenary of Canberra, we used $1.7 million in federal funding to invite First Nations artists in all genres from every part of Australia to bring their work to the national capital. And in The Light in Winter, we always opened with local First Nations artists, such as Vicki Couzens and Rob Bundle, and elders lighting the fire – which then burned 24 hours a day through the month of June, and acted as a gathering spot and talking circle for the festival.

When you get the opportunity, it is a fantastic feeling to be able to make that cultural space available – often to voices that don't get heard enough. We began The Light in Winter with five different communities, including Iran, India and Vietnam, and after 10 years we had more like 35, proudly occupying the main public piazza of a major city.

In terms of mentoring and shepherding the next generation, you are an arts leader and speaker who has imparted advice to arts communities all over the world. What would be the single most important piece of advice you could give to an up-and-coming artist, and why?

Whether you are a performer or other creative within the arts, or you are part of the legion of arts workers who support the creatives, I say just put your head down and in every role just do your best. I don't treat any role at any time as some kind of stepping stone to something better. I have never had a ‘goal’, never had ‘a dream’. Being untrained, I really don't have the qualifications to do anything I do, but I have often been lucky enough to be offered roles that I don't have experience in. It’s always been scary to accept those, but I did accept and just learnt on the job. I advise people not to be scared to take advantage of opportunities — even if you feel you don't know everything about the task at hand. But if you work hard, focus on the job at hand, and don’t just treat it as some kind of stepping stone, then people see what you do, and will invite you to do more.

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