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Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what “needs to be” in the face of what is. Optimism is not uncool; it is rebellious and daring and vital.
Musing on themes floating in the zeitgeist as we begin designing the 2023 Festival, the above quote from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro resonates deeply with me. It has always seemed to me that creating a festival is an exercise in radical optimism, and over the last two years, many of us have learned that planning and making a festival in the middle of a pandemic, amid the horror of a war unfolding in Europe and Australia’s East Coast reels, punch-drunk after another battering, takes radical optimism to a new level. Implicit in the creation of a program of experiences that bring people together in celebration of our shared humanity is an idealism, a belief in the role of artists to help us make sense of a world in all kinds of chaos. Conversely, artists need the current of energy that flows and connects them with audiences and this connection, too, has been tested by the pandemic. Del Toro’s exhortation to ‘inhale or die’, to dare to stay optimistic, to challenge the pervasive atmosphere of fear and anxiety that threatens to diminish us as individuals and as a community, is the philosophical lifeboat to which we festival-makers cling in these turbulent seas.
Audiences show a determined optimism in simply showing up for festival events in our masks, fully vaxxed, seeking to glimpse a more connected, more expansive future in the works of artists, who in turn speak of more heartfelt appreciation of performing to actual humans instead of staring at screens. But pessimism is present too, having big moment in physical theatre with a run of environment apocalypse works. At the recent MONA FOMA, Legs on the Wall’s spectacular Thaw used a chunk of melting ice as its metaphor, while the concrete blocks in Stompin’s Fertile Ground were terrifying. Further afield, Townsville-based Dancenorth’s 2021 creation RED draws focus to a scarcity of natural resources, like breathable oxygen. How interesting that physical theatre is helping us find ways to articulate, without words, those fears that are part of everyday life now.
Last winter our hearts broke when RISING (ex Melbourne Festival) was forced to close the day after it opened – a second year of covid cancellation. Then Gold Coast’s Bleach* Festival, then Unconformity, and one by one, the summer music festivals made their devastated announcements. This January, watching as Omicron surged unpredictably and political warfare waged on social media ravaged Sydney Festival, I empathised painfully with first-time Festival Director Olivia Ansell. Last month Perth Festival had to cancel its perennially popular opening event because this time around its joyously huge audiences are suddenly ‘too large to be safe’, and both New Zealand Festival and Auckland Festival cancelled their live performance programs, a week before opening.
It’s impossible to quantify the tears of disappointment, the sense of creative waste, frustration and futility experienced by artists in the face of these cancellations, and the cumulative effect on the culture of our nation of being dunked into the turbulent surf of these last two years. There simply is no more business as usual, there’s certainly no going back to the way things were.
In the quiet hours of the winter lockdown 2020 I read The Mirror and the Light, part three of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Tudor trilogy, which opens with the social fallout across England after Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536. In the context of making festivals in this unsettling time, I found Mantel’s first two chapter titles eerily apt: Wreckage and Salvage. Seeking the Salvage amid all this Wreckage is fraught, but in order to reimagine and redesign our world, there is a need for expansive contemplation, a need to open out, cultivate new perspectives, new ways, deep learning from these experiences, to find insights and beauty in the debris and chaos. In this context, adopting a position of radical optimism is not simply, as Guillermo Del Toro says, ‘rebellious and daring and vital’, it’s the only practical way forward.