While the white shells of the Sydney Opera House are arguably Australia’s most iconic architectural image, the venue can often feel as if it is a ship out at sea, away from the port of local performing arts. The new Festival Unwrapped, premiering this May, is setting out to be the dinghy that brings local productions by independent artists and small to medium sized companies to the Opera House.
Head of Programming at the Sydney Opera House Fiona Winning stated the value of the festival simply: “Unwrapped is an opportunity to put on works that would not necessarily be at the Opera House.”
Curating the program, Winning has brought together a diverse group of artists who all use their personal stories to construct a performance. The works range from William Yang’s photographs of Sydney’s underground queer nightlife, accompanied by live music from electronic duo Stereogamous, to Ghenoa Gela’s contemplation of her identity as a Torres Strait Mainlander. According to Winning, the value of these performances lies in the experiments taken as part of their production.
“So many generative ideas about contemporary culture come from work by independent artists and small companies, and more risk is taken around form.”
Whether described as the engine room of contemporary culture or an increasingly vital part of the artistic ecosystem, small companies or independent artists are constantly challenging our understanding of structure and bringing forth new ideas, yet receive little funding and often put on shows that only have a limited season. After Katy Green Loughrey, Program Producer of the Artist and Sector Development program, conducted research into what the arts sector was lacking, the team at the Opera House found that independent productions, or those produced by a small company, could spend up to two years developing a work, only for it to be shown for roughly four nights.
“As an artist you're concentrating on meeting your first audience, so this is an opportunity for the companies to meet their second audience,” described Winning.
Compounding these structural issues were limited access to economic resources for non-mainstage companies. In 2017, when the Unwrapped program was being developed, “the small to medium sector was actually being losing access to funding at both federal and state levels,” noted Winning.
In response to these issues, the Opera House conceived the Artist and Sector Development program, of which Festival Unwrapped is the presenting arm. The initiative as a whole includes mentorship opportunities, internships and access for artists to see the works that are produced by the Opera House’s resident companies, such as Bell Shakespeare, Bangarra Dance Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This program leverages the strengths of the Opera House, as a place where works are presented, for the benefit of those artists who otherwise miss out in the Australian funding landscape.
“The Opera House doesn’t actually have a lot of the things that artists in their making process need,” highlighted Winning, however, on the other hand, “presentation opportunities for local and Australian artists are actually quite rare, they're hard to get, they require support. As the biggest performing arts centre in Australia, it's really important for the Opera House to engage with local artists and stay in touch with local culture.”
In providing a platform for local, Australian work, Winning has devised a program that engages with a central contemporary concern of artistic practice, how can one tell a story? The works in a way answer this in their range of storytelling techniques, from PYT Fairfield’s combination of dance and theatre in Playlist, Lara Thoms’s blurring of theatrical forms and funeral rites and Ali McGregor’s sung and spoken word dedication to Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. In their variation, the works speak to the process of creation, as Winning highlighted.
“One of the things we really wanted to do was program works together that bounce off each other, both in juxtaposition with each other but also shed light on each other.”
Beyond the value of giving voice to a sector that can often miss out, the works assembled for Festival Unwrapped which draw from the lived experience of the performers, and according to Winning, “expose us as an audience to experiences we may not have had, images and movement we’ve not encountered and perspectives and ideas we may not have heard, potentially inspiring us to new ways of seeing and thinking.”
To view the full festival program click here: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/festival-unwrapped/2019/may/festival-unwrapped.html