Interview: Sydney Festival’s new director Olivia Ansell talks direction, music and untold stories

Through some temporal wizardry, January 2020 simultaneously feels like yesterday, and many years ago. COVID-19 and its resulting lockdowns has confused our sense of time and wreaked havoc on the numerous industries that define Australia. The arts has been a most prominent victim of this ongoing global pandemic, but that won’t stop the tenacious scene from emerging front and centre once this is all over.

One thing we can definitely count on is that one of the country’s most definitive arts programs, Sydney Festival, will have a lot riding on it when it returns in January 2021. Not only will it be one of the first major arts festivals to mark 2021, it will be the last curated under current Festival Director Wesley Enoch, who from 2022 will no longer serve as Director.

In his place: renowned Australia curator and producer Olivia Ansell, who will commence a three-year tenure with the festival in November of this year.

Ansell brings to the role not only four years as Head of Contemporary Performance at Sydney Opera House, but over two decades worth of experience as a director, choreographer and performing artist. Her tenure at Sydney Opera House especially has thrust her expressive curatorial style into city’s spotlight, given she’s built a reputation for championing a diverse range of stories, from recent cult musical ‘SIX’, Lin Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’, and Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’ at Sydney Opera House, to previously serving as artistic director of Sydney Comedy Festival, co-Executive Producer of Hidden Sydney, and curator of Vivid Ideas’ Kings Bloody Cross.

To get a bit more insight into the perspective she will bring to Sydney Festival, her history with it, and her focus on untold Sydney stories, we had a little Q&A with Ansell which you can read below.

What about the current programming for the Sydney Festival each year resonates with you most?

Wesley Enoch has created an extraordinary body of new Australian work, championing First Nation and diverse voices through deep collaboration with some of Australia’s most exciting and innovative theatre companies. Works such as Counting and Cracking and Black Ties were critically acclaimed by audience and media. His Blak Out program will undoubtedly be his legacy.

Vigil, celebrated on the 25th January, will remain a key event in Sydney Festival’s program.

January is always such an exciting time of year, what are the first things you generally look out for when the Sydney Festival program is released?

I love all genres of art, so it’s hard to say I look for just one thing. I think Sydney searches for that epic piece of theatre or dance that is the hallmark event- the game changer. Younger demographics will be looking for that cool contemporary music act or edgy urban story and family audiences will seek interactive public art and entertaining circus and physical theatre events.

It’s fair to say that anyone who remembers Sydney before lock out laws is searching for the live music program. I can’t wait to restore this aspect of the festival.

Are there any changes you will be bringing to the way the Sydney Festival looks from 2022 onwards?

Coming out of COVID, we are facing a whole new era of programming. It’s all about relevance and throwing our support behind the cultural and tourism sector. Restoring the livelihoods of artists and local companies, leveraging our resources to help boost the hard hit night-time economy across Sydney and Western Sydney and hopefully, a re-engagement of international collaboration if the borders are reopened. We have so many interesting spaces and properties across the whole of metro Sydney, I look forward to activating these locations with untold Sydney stories and a thriving live music program.

What have been some of your proudest moments at the Sydney Opera House?

Having the opportunity to program such a diverse range of contemporary performance seasons across all of SOH’s venues. Ranging from A O Lang Pho by Cirque Nouveau Du Vietnam in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, Emmy award winning comedian Hannah Gadsby and her hit new show Douglas, Hofesh Shechter‘s Grand Finale and cult musical SIX about the wives of Henry the V111 by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow.

Is there anything particular you learned during those moments that will be informing your
irection for the Sydney Festival?

Our audiences are extremely diverse. Any cultural program needs to cater to that diversity by ensuring a broad and varied festival offering across multiple genres and sub genres. Sydneysiders and visitors look at the festival and ask themselves “what’s in it for me?” A balanced program needs to satisfy people’s thirst for their style of culture in Summer.

How would you describe what the Sydney Festival means for Sydney each year?

The Sydney Festival in Summer is when our vibrant personality as a city paints a canvass across the CBD, Western Sydney and Greater Sydney. We bring to life a vast array of cultural spaces, venues and outdoor locations with world class performing and visual arts, championing contemporary stories and songlines that are representational of our rich First Nations culture and contemporary society.

In recent years, the allure of a great night out on a balmy Sydney evening has been impacted by restrictions on night-time trade. I hope to work with the sector to bring back some of that charisma.

Sydney Festival will return in January 2021. For more information head to

Photo by Daniel Boud.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.