Meet Mr Festival
Melbourne Festival director Brett Sheehy at the Regent Theatre which will host the festival's opening this Thursday. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
BRETT Sheehy is a man in perpetual motion, by his own admission hyperactive, possessed of a mind that rarely rests and a body that similarly resists the urge to relax. Why would he? For Sheehy, there is simply too much to do, too much to see, so much to absorb and so much to share - a whole world to be parcelled up and presented to anyone willing to go along for the ride.
The ride is the Melbourne Festival, which begins this Thursday and of which Sheehy is artistic director for the fourth time. But ''artistic director'' is a mere title. Spend some time in his company, and it's easier to think of him like this: as the compact commander of our cultural ship of state, in charge of a nerve-racking annual expedition that seeks to take the adventurous on a journey of his own daredevil creation.
He's done it for Melbourne three times before, and has directed the festivals of Adelaide and Sydney six times before that, but as he approaches his 10th - and, he reckons, his last - city festival, neither his energy nor his enthusiasm is flagging. If anything, at 53, he seems infused with the irresistible electricity of a tyro on the tear, a young man on a mission to make his mark, not an esteemed veteran of Australian cultural life who could, if he wanted, rest on the laurels he's gathered to his name across his long career.
Day In The Life: Melbourne Festival
Breakfast conference, 8:30am: Brett Sheehy and his team.
Come opening night at the Regent Theatre this Thursday, Sheehy will be forced to sit still for a while, but after decades of such experiences, he says the nerves never leave you.
''They are there, always,'' he tells The Sunday Age. ''They're there every single night. I'd love to have had the opportunity once in my life to present a festival - and I say this as a joke - where I'm put into an induced coma and I come out of it at the end and just say, 'Did it go well?' and people say, 'Yes.'
''It's just nail-biting. Every performance, there's an artist on the line in terms of an audience, and worrying and praying that the vision on the stage is going to connect with the audience … it is incredibly tough and stressful, I find. But also from that I hope comes good work, because it's the adrenalin of all that drives us.''
It's clear that adrenalin, aided and abetted by an infectious passion for seemingly everything and everyone that crosses his path, is his driving force, the twin engines that power him through days that at festival time can seem endless - from 6am starts to the end of a workday that might not come until two or three the next morning. There are shows to be seen, artists to be met, parties to attend, politicians and punters to meet and greet. (It is, after all, the punters, we the taxpayers, who pay the bills for the festival, and the politicians whom Sheehy needs to sign the cheques.)
Having spent one hectic day shadowing Sheehy, The Sunday Age can report that the man is not being careless with our pennies. Unassuming and down-to-earth, this is not a life of long lunches and lounging in limousines. He's in jeans, a polo shirt, sneakers. Lunch is a bread roll in a paper bag, scoffed when he gets a spare moment in between meetings, site inspections and visits to show rehearsals.
At festival headquarters at Federation Square, he has ceded the big corner office to one of his senior staff - his desk is side-by-side with the rest of the team on the open-plan floor. He is conscious, he says, that he doesn't own the Melbourne Festival - the people do - and he is careful how he spends our money. ''I'm incredibly conscious of it,'' he says.
''It's a weird thing, because to be overly deferential to it can make you too risk-averse, and the work then doesn't push boundaries at all and you could fall into the trap of presenting work that a commercial producer would present and, finally, I think that's what should distinguish festivals, by and large - that what we present should be work that no commercial producer in Australia would touch, and that's what the subsidies should be enabling us to do.
''On the other side of the coin, one ought to be mindful that it's not our money, and these festivals aren't playpens that we're dropped into to indulge our whims for a few years and then get out.
''I think the responsibility is not only financial but to the community to which we present the work, the artists of that community and so on. I think that's really important and it's something we should be really mindful of, and I think, by and large, most of us are.''
OUR day with Sheehy starts in a Russell Street cafe at 8.30am, where he is joining a dozen or so of the festival team for an operations meeting. Some of them have just come on board for the business end of the festival, the mad run to the finishing line of opening night, so Sheehy takes a back seat - a few quick words, then hands over to his operations manager, Donna Aston, a woman of whom he later says: ''She's as good as it gets. And she's just up for anything. You can say to her, 'Donna, we want to build a three-storey building on the banks of the Yarra in the middle of council turf in the middle of a bike way, can you make it happen?' And she does it.''
The building he's talking about is the Festival Hub, a Sheehy creation on the south bank of the Yarra opposite Federation Square that he hopes will serve as the city's social meeting point during the festival - a temporary playground for a bite, a beer and a boogie.
We'll be visiting that later, but first it's back to festival HQ for some housework - checking emails, catching up on phone calls, followed by a ''crisis management meeting'' - what happens if, God forbid, something goes terribly wrong from a safety or security point of view. Then Sheehy is ushered into a quiet office for an interview with an Italian travel magazine that is preparing a special feature on Melbourne, with a focus on its cultural life.
What, the Italian journalist wants to know, sets Melbourne audiences apart? Sheehy has had three years to think about this answer; he knows by now what makes us tick.
''In a festival context audiences here tend to be up for anything, incredibly courageous,'' he says.
''In the festival context, these 2½ weeks of each year, the audiences in Melbourne really will try anything. That's a really cheering and privileged position to be in as a festival director.
''Melbourne is considered by many the cultural capital of Australia and my personal view is that's true. To the extent that I've worked in the artistic milieu in the four biggest cities - in Brisbane, in Sydney, in Adelaide, in Melbourne - this is the first city in which I've presented culture in which pretty well every woman and man in the street, whether they partake themselves or not, will say culture is a critical part of the fabric of their city.
''I found that in no other city in Australia, but in Melbourne every taxi driver, every shopkeeper, every anyone - whether they involve themselves or not - will say this is a critical part of my town.
''That's a hugely privileged position to be in, in presenting work to them, because you know 4 million people pretty well think what you do is important.''
That interview over, it's time for the key meet-and-greet of the day: at the Regent Theatre, which will host the opening night performance of the Dutch work After Life, a contemporary opera Sheehy was determined to bring here for his final festival. Today he is meeting the production manager, fresh in from Europe, Frank van der Weij, but equally as thrilling for Sheehy is simply to stand on the Regent stage, to gaze at its glorious ceiling, and then to take a seat in the empty stalls and imagine the wonders to come when the theatre is filled and the stage alive with performers and musicians.
From the Regent it's on to a dance studio in West Melbourne to take in a rehearsal of a new work by choreographer Lucy Guerin. As Guerin puts it, the relationship between an artist and a festival director needs a rare foundation to work. ''When they commission a work, they don't get to see it until it's basically too late to pull it, so there has to be absolute trust.''
Sheehy pronounces himself thrilled. ''Thank you so much guys,'' he tells the dancers. ''After waiting for it for 1½ years, it's gonna be amazing.''
Our next stop is the Festival Hub - still under construction but already obviously a highlight for Sheehy. Donning safety jackets and scrambling up and down ladders of the three-level structure, he can already see it packed with revellers on (hopefully) warm spring days and nights.
The creative team behind the venue runs through the details - from live performances to bars on every level and lighting that will make it a new, if temporary, CBD landmark.
As the afternoon gets on, there is at last time to sit down, and this time Sheehy gets to mix business with pleasure. At Walter's Wine Bar at Southbank, he is catching up with Jonathan Mills, himself a former artistic director of the Melbourne Festival who now directs the Edinburgh International Festival. They are friends and they are peers, and Mills is eloquent in his description of both the importance of the festival to Melbourne and the importance of Brett Sheehy to its ongoing relevance.
The Sydney-born Mills says: ''We all gravitate to Melbourne. Melbourne can't take it for granted, but it has been a place that has been more nurturing and more open in the arts … Melbourne's primacy in the cultural space in Australia needs to be argued for constantly. I think anywhere is in danger of taking it for granted. You are at your most vulnerable when you're at your most successful.''
And of Sheehy, he is particular in his praise: ''Brett is a great colleague. He is respectful of other people's work and rejoices in other people's success. That's rare in the arts.''
The day is drawing late, and we leave Sheehy and Mills to their private conversation. Afterwards, Sheehy will return to the office to tie up loose ends, and then he escapes for what may be the most crucial part of his hyperactive day: a gym session. Exercise is what keeps him sane, he says. ''If I'm physically exhausted and sleeping, I'm much stronger than if it's all kind of nerve-endings and mental stuff going on.''
At night, the pace doesn't necessarily slow down, even before the festival starts. There may be a Melbourne Fringe Festival show to take in - a chance to meet up-and- coming talent, share a beer with arts colleagues - and at home he doesn't switch off: last week, for instance, he spent his down-time polishing some of the speeches he has to deliver.
Home is the Toorak apartment he shares with his partner of 18 years, Steven Nicholls. Both are originally Queenslanders, though they met in Sydney in 1994.
''I've just been so lucky,'' Sheehy says of his relationship. ''He's a chef and a very good one so he's completely transportable and he's just generously been good enough to say, 'Yes, Brett, I'm happy to start again just like you're starting again', in each city we've been into, and we've just up and moved.
''The only kind of agreement that we had was that if we bought a place we'd hold on to it, which we did in Darlinghurst. But then when we realised we were going to be in Melbourne for a while we thought we'd stretch ourselves and have a little investment property. So we've now got a place in both cities and the potential to live in either.
''But it's funny, it's probably because we're starting to turn into old men now we're starting to talk about, you know, where do we want to die, and we think maybe back in Queensland.''
But any thoughts of retirement are a long way off, as are any thoughts of leaving Melbourne, which Sheehy says he now considers home. He finishes with the festival on October 31. A mere five days later he embarks on his latest challenge: as artistic director and CEO of the Melbourne Theatre Company.
He is looking forward to that, but first he has 17 days of nerves and exhilaration to get through. ''There's a weekend in between there,'' he says, with a laugh, of the short time between one job and the next. ''Frankly, if I took two weeks off I just wouldn't know what to do, unless I went away. It'll be a couple of good sleeps and I'll be fine.''
■The Melbourne Festival runs from Thursday until October 27, melbournefestival.com.au.