Fergus Linehan

Fergus Linehan was Director of Sydney Festival from 2006 to 2009. Born in Ireland, he was the first director of the Festival to hail from overseas. He recalls how, during his tenure, audience figures and programming grew enormously and the issues that arose for the Festival’s sustainability. In the excerpt below, he describes the genesis of the hugely popular and extravagant Festival First Night.

A friend of mine from Ireland said the best marketing you can ever do is a road closure, because you’re just everywhere: You’re on every news report, you’re on all the TV reports, you become kind of part of this thing. And obviously Sydney goes into apoplexies if there’s a road closure. So it was this sense of, well, how could we get permission to do the one completely counterintuitive thing? There was also a big discussion going on of course around pedestrianisation at that time and it was this thing of “Well, what better way to show people? There’s nothing will advance this more”. But then, of course, the pedestrianisation argument was kind of obviously being driven from the City of Sydney and then there was how you get the government on board, who sort of saw all that was kind of lentil eating nonsense. But there was a whole discussion around that.

And then around the same time was the beginning of a discussion about an events body. So there was a lot of appetite for a new big event. And if you remember the government kept sort of stumbling out of each year with an embarrassing surplus at that point. So there was money at the end of a particular year so there was basically a certain amount of money for additional projects around. So I actually had a conversation, straight-up conversation, with Morris Iemma in the Domain where he went out and made a speech to the Domain crowd which was like sixty or seventy thousand people and he was quite popular and they gave him a big cheer. And then he came offstage and we said “Now, Premier, we need to talk about this event”. So it was carefully stage managed so that he understood the scale. If you show people, it’s amazing, and so he went “Oh, yeah”.

So initially I just wanted to keep it on the streets and say “We do not want to go in the parks, we want to be on the street and we want to close it all.” Because we do the big gig in the field, we know we can do that but this would be completely different. Because the big thing is it’s the question of the transformative effect: if you do something somewhere where you’ve never done anything before it just blows peoples’ minds. The second time not so much. The third time it’s a bit like snow: the more you see it the less kind of exciting it is. So we had loads of discussions and the Premier basically gave us cover on everything. Because we’d sit around in those enormous meetings where ambulance, police, they’d all kind of say how this wasn’t really going to fly, and then the Premier’s Office would go “No, I think it will”.

This interview is part of the City of Sydney’s oral history project, Sydney Festival through the eyes of its Directors, 1977-2016

Martin Portus