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How to stand strong when the rug's just been pulled out from under your feet

Culture

When Louise Bezzina was putting the finishing touches on the program for her inaugural Brisbane Festival as the event’s artistic director, she had no idea the world as we knew it was about to change.

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With all mass gatherings cancelled as a result of social restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the future for the 2020 Brisbane Festival looked bleak, but Bezzina chose to remain optimistic, saying she hoped there would be “an opportunity for us to celebrate in whatever way, shape or form it can be in these bizarre times”.

The Brisbane Festival team have been tirelessly working behind the scenes for months to achieve that goal and Bezzina told InQueensland she felt a huge sense of relief when she was finally able to announce that the festival would by proceeding in September.

“Oh my God, it’s nice to be able to actually say ‘we are doing a festival this year’,” she said. “All the cliches – pivot, reimagine – are very real but the silver lining was that we had just enough time to completely shift.

“I think if it had been any longer, that would have been more difficult because just as this was becoming our new reality, I was finishing up the plans for the 2020 festival and then we were just going straight into delivery.

“I’ve just recreated it all in the space of a couple of months, so it was pretty full-on and the team have been amazing, we’ve all just really got in and made the most of the situation, really, so we can still proceed with a reimagined Brisbane Festival this September.

“I have been pretty determined to be honest, because I feel like we have a great ability to continue and the great gift that we have, being a festival is that we can be very nimble, we can be very responsive, we can be site-specific, we can be outdoors, we can be grassroots, we can kind of just respond to what the environment is that we’ve been presented with.”

Bezzina is no stranger to improvising or having to build something from scratch.  As the creator and inaugural artistic director of the Gold Coast’s Bleach Festival – a role she retained until taking over the reins of programming the Brisbane Festival in May last year – Bezzina transformed the event from its comparatively humble beginnings to an annual cultural showcase that has attracted more than one million visitors since its inception in 2012.

In that role, Bezzina took great pride and pleasure in being able to commission works that integrated the Gold Coast’s built and natural environment. During her final year at Bleach, the festival featured a musical concert series called Water Stories, which involved musicians performing from the waterfront into the back yards and public parks along the Gold Coast’s network of canals, creeks and channels.

Yesterday Brisbane Festival gave a sneak peek of what this year’s program will offer when it put the call out to residents who live in the city’s courts, places and closes to nominate their cul-de-sac as a venue for a street concert and Bezzina admitted the success of events such as Water Songs helped inspire the idea.

“The first thing that came to my mind, actually, when this whole thing hit, was ‘OK, we’ll just take the art to the people as opposed to the people coming to the art’,” she said.

“Canals are such an iconic part of the Gold Coast and cul de sacs are iconic to lots of suburban landscapes, but the great thing about a cul de sac, particularly in this environment, is it’s a very controlled environment and we’re hoping the people that do respond to our callout are people that have a really great connection with their neighbours.

“They might already – even throughout lockdown – have been having wines and a cheese platter on the driveway, talking across the road, those kinds of things. So hopefully this will be an opportunity for that kind of thing to continue, just with some of the best musicians that we have in the city.”

“I mean we’re in a new world and hopefully by September we may have another great easing of restrictions, but we don’t know that and we’ve got to plan for what we’re in right now. In fact we’ve planned for an even worse-case scenario to be perfectly honest with you because we’ve got to be able to be as COVID-proof as possible to ensure public safety at all times.”

Bezzina said she took her role as a cultural leader seriously, telling InQueensland, “when you get into a position like this you can’t just do the talk, you have to walk the walk and lead with real action”.

“There are very few positions that have the ability to do what I’m doing and we have to do everything we can to support the next generation, to ensure that we have an inclusive program that has a deep connection to our First People and that that’s being led appropriately with the right kind of cultural protocol framework around it.

“There are things that you just cannot get away with and you shouldn’t be able to get away with it, either – they’re accountable roles.

“You’ve also got this great ability to curate something for an entire city and make a city kind of feel like it’s very much alive.”

Despite her first year in the chair as artistic director of Brisbane Festival being a rockier-than-expected ride, Bezzina said she had refused to entertain what she described as “poor me syndrome”.

“You’ve just got to look at all the positives, so the ‘Why me?’ attitude, no, that’s just boring and you can’t do that. You’ve got to just lead and be practical, responsive and completely considerate to what’s happening around you and try to enable as much to happen as possible.

“We have an amazing city, I mean I can look outside my window and this city is really beautiful, we’re so blessed. We’ve got to back our city – back Brisbane, and back its arts and culture.”

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