Sydney Festival: dynamic disruptors

Sydney Festival ran from 7 – 9 January, with more than 700,000 turning out to attend its events. Artistic director Wesley Enoch reviews this year’s edition, and explains why festivals must always be pushing forward into the future. Interview by Andrew Anderson

I’m constantly searching for objective measures of success, and numbers are a good place to start – numbers don’t lie. This year we sold 80,000 more tickets than last year and increased our attendance by 200,000 to 700,000 in total.

How did we manage that? Well, we introduced some lower pricing, which gave more people an entry point to the festival. Once someone has bought an AUD15 (€11) ticket they are suddenly more likely to also buy an AUD30 or even an AUD50 ticket because they’ve got into the habit of connecting with us; of course, we also have their data, so we can reach out to them and make them offers once we have secured that first purchase.

As for marketing, we made it a goal to engage people. I’d estimate that around 45 per cent of all audiences come because of word-of-mouth conversations. If people come to an event they talk about it with their friends, who then also attend. This kind of tribalism is very important, especially during a festival when there is such a short time frame to engage with anything (after all, there might only be a handful of performances over a few days). We wanted to create more ways for audiences to share their experiences with their friends, rather than putting out ads or trying those traditional modes.

Sydney Festival

© Jamie Williams

An example of this approach was The Beach, which was a large ball pit. We put this in mostly for its interactive and visual qualities, but it ended up being tagged or shared more than 22 million times on social media. That sense of buzz really makes the festival happen, and gives the people of Sydney a sense of ownership of the festival.

The next step for us is to work out how our audiences are curating their own festivals – do the people that come to our free village events (where we have restaurants, bars and a stage) also go to ticketed events? Do people attending our new Australian musical Ladies in Black also go to other parts of the programming? We’ve not quite got that out of the data yet, but we’re working on it right now.

That brings me on to the curation of the festival itself – how do you make sure that these different tribal groups have their needs met by the festival? I looked at the past programming and came up with four distinct identities.

First, the free programmes, like large outdoor concerts and family offerings; secondly, the idea of Sydney being a summer festival – a place where you can share the city in the summer with your friends. Thirdly, the international festival, where audiences use us to connect with national and international cultural conversations. Fourth, the festival has an identity as a disruptor and an enabler of change. The festival programme was a mix of all four, with both ticketed and non-ticketed events.

For me, that fourth identity is particularly important: the role of an arts festival is to prototype change, not to just to maintain the status quo. Our job is to create a vocabulary for what the cultural experiences of the future will be. We can’t just be the bread and butter – the orchestras and the theatres take care of that. Instead, a festival has to imagine what’s coming up, so those other companies can learn from that and experiment with it, seeing what worked and didn’t work.

Sydney Festival

© Jamie Williams

However, this fourth identity can create a tension. Let me give you an example: for the last 30 years the festival has put on a free concert in The Domain, which is a big park. In its heyday, it used to get about 80,000, but now attendance is down to around 20,000. This tells me that the audience is no longer as engaged, and it might be time to transition into something different. But there is a very loyal group of people who want to hold onto it and who say ‘we must have this’. The challenge for me is how to have these conversations in a respectful way, so that we can continue to stay dynamic. Audiences like a status quo, whereas a festival has to be a changeable offering.

It is interesting that there is a natural tendency towards ossification of what should be incredibly dynamic – it is one of the reasons why I believe festivals must have artistic directors rather than executive producers. The artistic director has to be able challenge and cajole audiences, helping them to imagine things in a different way. An artistic director must be curious about the future and able to pick up signals of what is to come.

The danger with an executive producer is that management comes first and precedent is more important – they try to remove risk and find a fool-proof way. But festivals by their very nature are about risk. What a good artistic director must do is take risks, but communicate clearly with audiences so they understand that even if they don’t like something they see, they know it is an important part of the cultural conversation.

This is an extract from a full feature in the April 2017 edition of IAM. Click here to subscribe

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