Brett Sheehy was Director of Sydney Festival from 2002 to 2005. He arrived in the top job after a six year Festival apprenticeship under Anthony Steel and Leo Schofield. At 42, he was part of a generational change; his programming attracted a younger audience to the Festival. One of Brett’s major coups was securing the 85-strong Théâtre du Soleil from Paris to stage their Australian debut Flood Drummers in 2002.
One thing which stuck in my brain from when Richard Wherrett was mentoring me at Sydney Theatre Company, he said to me one day “The two theatre companies in the world I insist that you see the work of are the Schaubühne in Berlin and Theatre du Soleil in Paris” and I said “Why?” and he said “Because they’re the greatest theatre companies on the planet”. And he said “Peter Stein (then at the Schaubühne) and Ariane Mnouchkine (at Theatre du Soleil) are the two most astonishing theatre makers on the planet”. And I said to him “Well, how come they’ve never been to Australia?” and he said “Well, no one could ever afford to bring them. They’re huge companies and huge undertakings”. But that was like a red rag to me and I thought “O.K, let’s change this. I refuse to kind of take no for an answer”.
So I contacted Theatre du Soleil immediately and the answer was “No, we’ve been asked 19 times to come to Australia” – because Ariane began the company in 1964 – she’d said no every time. And then I remembered kind of the personal thing that Leo had taught me. So I got on a plane, went to Basel and Ariane was performing in some huge airplane hangar or something, and she agreed to meet me before, during and after the performance. I remember at the end of it I just kind of poured my heart out and said “If there’s one thing I could do in this country of Australia, it would be to present your work.” And there was this incredibly emotional moment where I’d just sat through a four hour show, we were sitting together afterwards, having a drink together. And she just put her hand across the table and kind of held my arm and said “Brett, I think we should try to make this happen”.
This interview is part of the City of Sydney’s oral history project, Sydney Festival through the eyes of its Directors, 1977-2016