Home arts Performing Arts Looking for cloud nine



Looking for cloud nine

October 2012

  • Paul Ransom

Even as his fourth and final Melbourne Festival burns bright, Brett Sheehy is sinking his curatorial teeth into his new role as Artistic Director of Melbourne Theatre Company. 

“I am not an artist.” 

If at first this seems like an odd assertion for a man who has directed ten major festivals and is about to jump into the big chair at Melbourne Theatre Company, the firmness of Brett Sheehy’s conviction on this point starts to make more sense as you drill down. The outgoing director of the Melbourne Festival and freshly appointed AD at the state’s flagship theatre company is more than just a little spotlight shy; he remains in serious awe of artists.

Across a career that has taken in a decade fronting Australia’s three big international arts festivals, (Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne) he has clearly had the opportunity for serial shoulder rubbing with creatives from every corner of the arts universe; yet Brett Sheehy is anything but a name-dropper.

“Not being an artist myself I hold artists in awe as shamans and magical people,” he says without irony. When it comes to putting together a festival or MTC’s 2013 season his veneration maps out with uncluttered pragmatism. “I call myself a curator or a director and what that means is that I’ve always looked at the work through the eyes of the audience. I come into an artwork with no artistic aspirations of my own. I come to it without any agenda, with nothing that I’m personally trying to express in terms of a vision. All I’m interested in is what the artists are creating.”

For MTC patrons what this means is that the new AD will not be directing the usual two or three handpicked shows a year but giving the floor to others – Nadia Tass, Sam Strong and Neil Armfield included. “Being a non-directing Artistic Director I came at this the other way round. I didn’t say, ‘well, these are my favourite thirty plays and I want to see them produced’.”

Following his non-artistic nose, Sheehy approached the writers, directors and performers who populate the dozen shows of next year’s season. A meeting with David Williamson led to a commission to pen Rupert, whilst Jacki Weaver opted for Lara Foot’s contemporary South African drama Marion & Solomon

“I just put the question to them. If there was one thing you would kill to do what would it be? And that’s how it all came to be,” Sheehy explains. “Passion has to drive all good art and so if I let the artists have their voice and select the work that they are passionate about doing, we’re well on the way.”

Passion projects aside, there are pointy left brain realities: viability and the battle for relevance foremost. Big names and lighting rigs have to be paid for and in a town that loves its gritty independent theatre, the high budget shine of MTC means that the pressure is on from the outset.

The role of Artistic Director also means that Brett Sheehy is CEO of a $20m thespian behemoth. “Your final mission is to keep the company healthy artistically and financially and so you have to take into account what is going to put ten to twenty thousand people into seats per show.”

It’s the classic conundrum; making art survive in a marketplace increasingly focused on dollar outcomes and in a political and funding climate that is less enamoured of poetic licence than it once was. Whilst down-market temptations will invariably excite accountants, theatre, unlike film or TV, doesn’t have the luxury of stupidity. 

“It’s about acknowledging all that but still doing what you’re passionate about,” Sheehy admits; all of which is code for accessibility. “For me it’s kind of breaking down the perception boundaries around flagship companies and also challenging the ‘siloing’ of artforms. I love demolishing those boundaries. I love the idea that what is defined now as a theatre work or a dance work is being dissolved. So for me, I’d like the programme to reflect that.”

Although genre smashing and greater accessibility are not new ideas, they are very much cant in theatre, which, it seems, must continually assert its right to exist in the face of numerous onslaughts. Even sixty year old brands like MTC find themselves fending off premature eulogies. Indeed, as Sheehy observes, the death of theatre commentary has been around since the 1890s. “It’s written into the human DNA that we always have and always will come together with members of our tribe to hear stories told about our world around a metaphorical or literal campfire. The live experience is sacred and precious always,” he asserts.

Apart from its existential duties, MTC is often called upon to be patriotic, to be actively Australian. However, far from seeing himself or the company as a megaphone for Oz theatre, Brett Sheehy takes a subtler approach. “I don’t feel a responsibility to impose on the world my vision of what Australian culture is. I do feel a responsibility to have Australian artists tell whatever stories they want to tell the world.”

Here again, we are back to the artists he so reveres. In an industry notorious for vanity and self-aggrandisement, Brett Sheehy strikes an oddly demure note. “Oh, I’ve got an ego,” he declares, “but it’s a different kind of ego. I’m incredibly uncomfortable doing this – press – not in a ‘being above it’ sense but because that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m absolutely a behind the scenes, backstage person. The most exciting moment for me is standing at the back of an auditorium and experiencing the connection between what’s happening on stage and the audience who have come along and invested their time and money in the experience. When that link happens, that’s when I’m on cloud nine.”

Having decamped from festival land to the coalface of theatre, he will doubtless be hoping that Season 2013 will have MTC patrons in similar raptures.




Latest Edition

February Issue
February Issue
January Issue
January Issue
December Issue
December Issue


Stars Of The Lid – Goodnight