Interview by Kate Holland
Ruth Mackenzie was appointed as Artistic Director of Adelaide Festival in March last year, bringing with her over 40 years’ experience in the arts world.
With opening night almost upon us, we decided to share a snapshot of her story, experience, and insight into putting together an international festival – ours in particular.
Where did you grow up and who introduced you to the arts?
I was born in England but returned as a baby to Cape Town, South Africa, where I lived with my South African parents until I was almost 3 years old.
My parents met in a Johannesburg newspaper office. My mother’s family had fled to South Africa from Lithuania after the 1904 pogrom against the Jews, and the Reverend John Mackenzie came to Africa with his friend David Livingstone in the nineteenth century. Both families settled in South Africa, but neither family approved of my parents’ love for each other so, in the early 1950s, they eloped from South Africa to England and lived together unmarried until my mother was 21 years old and legally able to marry without parental consent.
Once they were married and I was born they returned to South Africa to join in the fight against Apartheid. In the state of emergency in 1960, after the Sharpeville Massacre, the government arrested and imprisoned many activists without charging them or taking them to court, including my mother.
With the help of her newspaper, and their many friends, she was released, and we were advised to leave the country. So, I was brought up by my parents in London, where I discovered my love of music, theatre, dance.
I remember going with my mum to see Ballet Rambert when they abandoned ballet and became a contemporary dance company, going with both parents to see Peter Brook’s Midsummers Night Dream, and singing in the children’s choir set up by Benjamin Britten. My mum shared her love of pop music, and one proud day got me John Lennon’s autograph – which I still have!
You seem drawn to working on international festivals, why is that?
Because they are the best and most exciting way to see quality artists from around the world all in one thrilling and fun place.
If you wanted to see every artist in the Adelaide Festival, for example, you could spend a huge amount of time and money travelling to every continent of the world to find them in their home countries, or you could just have the fun of 17 days in Adelaide – with the bonus of great food, wine and beaches.
How is the Adelaide Festival perceived overseas?
Adelaide Festival has a reputation around the world as the best known and best international festival in Australia, and the southern hemisphere.
It has a long and impressive record for programming the most exciting international artists – the already famous, as well as those on their way who are brought to Adelaide before they peak.
Landing a role at this festival is considered one of the best jobs in the world and many of the most respected international festival directors have worked here over its long history. I feel honoured to have the chance to take part.
I was also drawn to Adelaide personally by the opportunity to work with Kath Mainland, the Festival’s new Chief Executive. We worked together on projects for the London 2012 Festival when she was in Edinburgh, and I have long admired her international career.
Could Adelaide become home?
Absolutely. I have been renting on the South Esplanade of Glenelg and as I wake up every day to the sounds and sight of the sea, I can think of no better place in the world to live. I’m keen to buy!
I have sold my flat in London, and my furniture set off on a long sea voyage to Adelaide on January 5.
How important is it to include ‘local’ talent when programming a festival?
All the festivals I have worked on have taught me that it is vital to use the expertise and experience of the communities you are working with.
They often have more knowledge and understanding of the international cultures you are presenting.
Festivals are a showcase for the cities or countries they serve, and the job is to invite the best international artists. Some will be living and working in those cities and countries while others will come from around the world. All are of international quality and have significant and beautiful work to share.
So, for me, the Adelaide Festival must invite the best artists from around the world and recognise that includes the outstanding international artists from Adelaide and South Australia. Importantly, we can also share the extraordinary work First Nations artists are making.
Rachel and Neil have made a beautiful program of international artists, putting them on the same platform as equals and colleagues. Innovative and extraordinary artists such as Crystal Pite from Canada, Daniel Riley from Australian Dance Theatre here in Adelaide, Zurich Ballet (for the first time in Australia) and the Marliya Choir from Cairns, Kip Williams from Sydney, and Jennifer Koh from the USA, to name a few. Their program makes my point perfectly.
Where does your programming inspiration come from?
I have always learnt how best to do my job from my audiences and the communities for whom I am working.
Most of my good ideas come from conversations at the festival in the foyers of the theatre. So, if you see me at a show, please don’t be shy.
The Adelaide Festival runs March 3-19. Ruth’s first full festival program is in 2004 and she’ll be Associate Director up to and including 2024.
3 – 19 March 2023