Shelagh Magadza ends her four-year reign at the Perth International Arts Festival this month with success at the box office and pride in the support of Perth audiences.
As Perth’s summer heat stages a languid retreat, another season of Australia’s oldest arts festival draws to a close.
The 2011 Perth International Arts Festival was artistic director Shelagh Magadza’s fourth and final year in the lead role but her ninth with the festival.
Recruited by high-profile former PIAF artistic director, Sean Doran, Ms Magadza came to Perth from Wellington where she had been working for the New Zealand festival.
She knew a little about Perth from a brief holiday here, but the influence of the Perth festival on Ms Magadza’s career can be traced back as far as the 1970s and the work of legendary festival director David Blenkinsop.
“The Perth festival had such a good reputation in our region and internationally and under the time of David Blenkinsop they had been very generous in mentoring and encouraging other festivals in the region to develop, and New Zealand was one of those,” Ms Magadza says.
Born in Zimbabwe, Ms Magadza’s career path followed a traditional trajectory from school to university in the pursuit of a ‘proper job’ in one of the white-collar professions.
Despite her passion for creativity and musical parents, Ms Magadza never seriously considered a career in the arts until she worked on festivals as a student.
“It took me a few years to think this could become a profession rather than to think this is something I am doing to survive,” Ms Magadza says.
“I really applaud the opportunities that are offered here through institutions like WAAPA, it treats the whole sector with a great deal of professionalism right from the beginning.
“Economically, it is a huge industry, whether you are touring U2 or at the community level, it is an economic powerhouse and it needs a professional framework.”
Ms Magadza has been well served by a keen appreciation of the delicate balance between fiscal acumen and creative acclaim.
Box office receipts for this year’s festival are on track to hit $4.7 million, up from $3.2 million in 2008 and attendance is expected to reach 400,000 by the end of the Lotterywest Festival Film season.
“It’s not only money … the other is context, the social and economic context of your audience, what can people afford to pay,” Ms Magadza says.
“And the other thing that comes up in our research is time-poorness. You could put 600 of the world’s greatest theatre events in Perth but people can’t get to them.
“And because the festival is publicly funded, you have to be responsible and responsive to the community you are in.”
Ms Magadza says her experience in Perth has also taught her the value of a good management structure.
“That relates to the leadership and management culture of UWA, which we sit in,” she says.
“It’s about that continual balance in life, that everyone should have, between taking risks, taking really big risks but not being silly about it.”
Some of Ms Magadza’s proudest moments from the past four years, including Schaubuhne Berlin dance theatre work Trust, were not necessarily popular favourites. But, like the new works commissioned by the festival, they played a vital part in the city’s cultural evolution.
“It’s really important to use the festival as a platform for our own identity and uniqueness to the world and Australia,” Ms Magadza says.
Perth audiences defy the city’s dullsville tag and are the envy of many festivals around the world.
It’s a reputation Ms Magadza said Perth should be very proud of and presented many exciting opportunities in combination with the reshaping of the city.
“It’s a very intelligent and informed audience here and I know there are other festivals that are jealous of our audiences, who are able to pick up quite challenging works,” Ms Magadza says. “It’s one of my greatest lessons and I think I learnt it every year.”
In her nine years in Perth Ms Magadza says she has witnessed big changes to the city both physically and socially.
These developments have brought a more varied texture to the city, with smaller, creative hubs and meeting places embroidering and enlivening the bigger, harder infrastructure.
“With the new stadium and the new theatre now open and the cultural centre being revised, you can see the huge impact that whole redevelopment of that space will have,” she says.
“I also think the other change is social diversity, there are just a lot more different kinds of people here with the labour migration. It’s an aspect of change you have to be conscious of and accommodate all these new people so they find ways of belonging and spaces where they feel comfortable.”
The festival enters its cyclical period of renewal with Ms Magadza’s departure.
Energetic new UK director, Jonathan Holloway, has already been installed for season 2012 and Ms Magadza’s immediate focus will be on the $2.45 million cultural program for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in October.
With no firm plans beyond that the future unfurls like an open road for Ms Magadza. She just needs to decide where she wants to go next.