Every part of Australia is,
always was and always will be,
Aboriginal land.

As a community gathering-place, a festival of arts, cultural exchange and celebration and as a site for the sharing of ideas and stories, Ten Days on the Island pays respect to the Palawa/Tasmanian Aborigines – The original owners and cultural custodians - of all the lands and waters across Lutruwita/Tasmania upon which our Festival takes place.

With thanks to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre for place names and other words in palawa kani, the language of Tasmanian Aborigines.

20 years of Ten Days on the Island – looking back, looking forward

Robyn Archer, this festival’s founding Artistic Director, on stage in Hobart as part of Ten Days on the Island 2021.

Over the last year, for all of Australia’s international arts festivals, the challenge of creating engaging programs for our communities was made more complex and difficult by the constraints of border closures and travel restrictions, audience capacity limitations, the instant impacts of random COVID-19 cluster flare-ups and an underlying sense of uncertainty about, well, everything.

For Ten Days on the Island, this 2021 Festival is a milestone: it’s 20 years since Ten Days on the Island ventured out into the world as Tasmania’s first international arts festival. By a quirk of fate, COVID-19 helped us reframe our focus on Tasmanian artists and innovation as an apt celebration of our 20-year history and an appropriate nod to the two extraordinary women who were there from the beginning: Robyn Archer, the founding Artistic Director and led the first three Festivals 2001, 2003 and 2005 and Elizabeth Walsh who led festivals 2007, 2009 and 2011. In these last few weeks, Robyn and Elizabeth have been sharing their memories of the early days of Ten Days on the Island as part of our anniversary celebrations.

As Robyn recalls: ‘Certainly, when it was created, a unique aspect was that if you wanted to see the entire festival, you would need to travel around the island for ten days to see it all in so many different Tasmanian locations: there was nothing like that anywhere in Australia at the time.’

A celebration of this extraordinary place

20 years later a strong relationship with place and sense of pan-Tasmanian adventure remains very much a feature of Ten Days on the Island. This has been experienced in the 2021 Festival’s signature series If These Halls Could Talk, encompassing 10 community halls around Tasmania. The World Premiere of Leonard’s Beautiful Pictures in the Gaiety Theatre in Zeehan and with Monique Brumby + the TSO in Stanley Town Hall were highlights of the first weekend; while incredibly diverse artists brought the second weekend of the Festival to five halls in the North + North East – Rowella (with contemporary dance from Tasdance), Liffey (with poetry), Ross (visual arts: Julie Gough’s Hunting Grounds), St Helens (music from Van Diemen’s Fiddles) and Scottsdale (with Leonard’s Beautiful Pictures). Elsewhere, Festival artists filled historical buildings including Westbury’s Holy Trinity Church and the convict-built barn at Waterton Hall with Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, Mozart and Bach.

Selecting the right projects and teams of artists for each venue is critical to this series’ success, as Elizabeth Walsh found with the international artists she selected for her festivals: ‘It’s not just about bringing, it’s an exchange. Matching artists to the place is vital. It was really important to meet people before you programmed the work, so you knew it was someone who was interested in making that connection with locals. You know they’re going to give the most incredible experience, and they’re going to have one.’

Adventures and shimmering moments

Robyn and Elizabeth both speak with such fondness of the adventure experience and unexpected delights that emerged in their years with Ten Days on the Island. For Robyn, trying to identify a single standout experiences is ‘extremely difficult – there are sooooo many’. She recalls with delight the famous long lunch in Stanley, after which the celebrated chef Tetsuya – curator of culinary delicacies – won the meat tray at the pub across the road and a night in Launceston’s Albert Hall with Fiddlers’ Bid from the Shetland Islands where

‘there was a moment when they changed tempo and riff mid-song and I thought the crowd was going to dance the floor apart and fall through the cracks: more sound and sweat and musical exhilaration than I have ever experienced.’ Elizabeth recalls the sheer exhilaration of sharing moments of beauty with local audiences: ‘being in a church with a 100 people and a group of Corsican folk singers, you know? These incredible moments where you know you’re in a real audience, it actually has a meaning, a reason these things are happening.’

I could not agree more. Shared experiences and shimmering moments of beauty within the Ten Days’ program, whether they happen in a rural church, on a beach, in a shed or a community hall, make this Festival special. The shared emotion was palpable at our opening event mapali Dawn Gathering on the pataway/Burnie foreshore, where the horizon and the sunrise and a thousand community members met in a celebration of Country and storytelling. And anyone who has experienced Big hART’s Acoustic Life of Sheds in the North West knows the expressive power of the synergy between music, landscape and the narratives embedded in sheds. Unique site-specific experiences in landscapes and built environments around Tasmania have been the domain of Ten Days on the Island for 20 years and offer limitless potential for artists and audiences in this Festival’s future.

A platform for Tasmanian artists

Ten Days on the Island’s 2021 focus on Tasmanian artists resonated with its roots, as Robyn remembers, when ‘the (then) Premier of Tasmania, the late Jim Bacon asked me to create a new international festival for Tasmania. He knew there were some terrific artists in Tasmania but that the state lacked a platform for them to strut their stuff. I took it on myself to make something genuinely unique to Tasmania – alongside Tasmanian artists, all international artists would be from other islands around the world.’

Over the last decade subsequent Artistic Directors have expanded the Festival’s scope beyond its original island theme, but the need for a platform for Tasmanian artists remains just as urgent in 2021. Ten Days on the Island has been this state’s most consistent and significant contributor to the creation of new performance works, developing and presenting multiple world premieres of Tasmanian work in every Festival program since 2001 from established companies like Terrapin, TSO, Big hART, Tasdance, Stompin, Tasmania Performs, Van Diemen’s Band. Alongside relative newcomers like Archipelago Productions, these teams use a confident, distinctly Tasmanian voice which, in this year’s Festival, demonstrates how the performing arts has gained in strength over the last 20 years.

In previous (non-COVID-affected) festivals, Ten Days has created opportunities for local artists to collaborate and meaningfully connect with their international counterparts, further enriching local practice. Lasting connections were made, for example, with New York’s Ethel string quartet and local musicians in Elizabeth Walsh’s time as Artistic Director and between Elevator Repair Service and local actors at TasPerforms’ Tarraleah artist residency during Jo Duffy’s time as Artistic Director in 2013.

By resisting the idea, as Walsh observes, that ‘mainland cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, were the arbiters of whatever came into Australia’, for 20 years Ten Days on the Island has forged a unique, alternative path as an international festival. This non-mainstream approach, we agree, is the future of the festival too. Be brave, do your own thing. Because Tasmania does its own thing and that’s what’s special about it. It’s a community that has great heart and great warmth, but it makes its own way. Acknowledging that and harnessing that’, Walsh believes, has given this Festival its voice in the world.

As the world knows, these last two decades have been culturally transformative for Tasmania. Sometimes quietly, sometimes noisily, Ten Days on the Island has been a constant force for transformation throughout that period. Good things take time and the grassroots establishment of an iconic festival is one of them. As Walsh says of the early days: ‘It was a slow build, we needed to take the time to understand the environment that Ten Days was in, what the opportunities were.’ And it was a huge risk, let’s not forget. Back in 2001, no-one had any idea whether this new festival would fly after its opening night in Salamanca Place in March 2001. But here we are, with a beautiful and entirely locally-made 2021 program, having built a cultural legacy of which Tasmania can be deeply proud.

As to the next 20 years, the romance and creative promise of this Festival, a celebration of art amid the diverse splendours of Tasmanian landscapes, is as alluring as ever. As Robyn says, ‘the invitation to see artists’ work all over this beautiful place is something very special.’ By staying true to its roots, its DNA, while evolving with the contemporary practices of artists from around the world and staying attuned both to the zeitgeist and the Tasmanian communities we serve, long may the epic shared adventure of Ten Days on the Island continue.

Artistic Director, Lindy Hume