The Melbourne Festival’s AD explains that audiences in the city, and in Australia, inspire him to go further and harder.

The Melbourne Festival opened last week with events as diverse as Taylor Mac’s The Inauguration, Brenda Rae’s Glories of the French Baroque, Please Continue (Hamlet), Under Siege and more. With the Festival now well underway, Limelight caught up with Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway to find out how it’s all going.

“Incredibly well so far, actually, and it’s beautiful because you spend a couple of years thinking about it and then a year really putting it together as a team,” he says. “Tanderrum [the Festival’s opening ceremony and Welcome to Country] was exquisite, and owned by the First People. It was the Kulin Nation who after five years have taken it on, and it’s theirs, and you just watch them enjoying it and it’s perfect. And then [on the second night] we had four or five shows that went really, really well, so people seem very excited.”

Jonathan HollowayMelbourne Festival Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway. Photo © Sarah Walker

This year’s Festival is Holloway’s second as AD – so was there anything he learnt from his first year that fed into his plans for this year? “Interestingly, just go further, go harder,” he says. “Just really push it, because Melbourne will respond to anything you offer – so making it quite full-on works.”

“So a show like Taylor Mac, which is 24 hours over two weeks, and incredibly complex, or Backbone which is a beautiful piece of circus – whatever you offer Melbourne, and in fact Australia, will respond.”

“With The Inauguration by Taylor, there was a real sense from so many people that that was what they needed at this moment. It has been a hell of a year. And I’ve almost flippantly said that we wanted to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and see the wide lens. But a Festival can be food for the soul. It can be something which – in the middle of crazy world politics, in the middle of the most damaging postal vote that a community has ever seen, in the middle of, basically people setting fire to the comments section of everything – a festival can give a degree of hope and release, and a change of the conversation, a change of pace.”

While Holloway admits that such sentiments sound “Pollyanna-ish”, seeing The Inauguration was a powerful experience. “I watched it happen,” he says. “I saw people who I’ve seen having a difficult year laughing and smiling their way through – I love that because I remembered that’s who they are, and will be again. And I know that’s a big call, but it actually genuinely feels like that at the moment.”

Holloway hopes that this feeling will be infused through the entire festival. “I hope that people see things they’ve never seen before, and I hope that it gives them a reminder, gives us all, us, a reminder of who we are and what we’re capable of.”

Taylor Mac and Jonathan Holloway. Photo © Jim Lee

It is in this spirit that the Festival is raffling off the magnificent headdress that Taylor Mac, who has just been announced as a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant in the USA, wore at The Inauguration. Anyone can enter the raffle by donating $10 or more to Switchboard, a community based not-for-profit organisation that provides a peer based, volunteer run support service for LGBTQI people and their friends, families and allies. “Taylor and the company were absolutely passionate that this event also feed and fuel Melbourne and the people of Melbourne even though they’re from somewhere else. Taylor and the company are mainly from the US but wanted to give something back to Melbourne.”

“Machine [Dazzle] is an incredible costume designer,” says Holloway, who also wore the headdress briefly on stage. “It was crazily light and yet absolutely beautiful. I had to scooch to get through doorways.”

With the Festival well under way, there are plenty of events Holloway is looking forward to. “Bangsokol is exquisitely beautiful, and important,” he says. “It’s the first time there’s been a recognition of that scale of what happened with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the issue of the killing fields and the history of that. So I’m really looking forward to that. After the exuberance of something like Taylor Mac or The Siege, I’m looking forward to the exquisite precision of [Tenebrae Choir’s] Path of Miracles, which is an incredible piece of music. I’m obviously thrilled about [Australian composer Liza Lim’s opera] Tree of Codes.”

“There’s a rare moment as a festival director when you know that the beginning and the end are going to work,” Holloway says. “It was Thomas Beecham who famously said, “As long as the orchestra starts together and finishes together, most people don’t give a damn what happens in between!”

“That’s not true about anything,” he clarifies. “Or indeed particularly festivals, however, knowing that with Tree of Codes the end will come together and match that energy and focus of the beginning – that’s really important.”

Holloway has been buoyed by the response of the audiences so far. “I remembered the absolute 100 percent commitment that audiences bring to work in Australia,” he says. “There really is an acknowledgement and an awareness that the effort it takes to bring work this far from the rest of the world is worth responding to. And artists completely love coming here as a result.”

The Melbourne Festival runs until October 22