Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy new directors of Adelaide festival

The former top team at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre will take over from current director, David Sefton, for their first festival program in 2017

Nine years after they last shared the running of Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy have been announced as the new co-artistic directors of the Adelaide festival of the arts.

Scheduled to take over from the current festival director, David Sefton, in 2017, Armfield and Healy will be the first duo to run the Adelaide festival in its 55-year history.

The announcement, made on Thursday, is the latest high-profile appointment on Australia’s major city festival circuit, with Jonathan Holloway moving to Melbourne, Wendy Martin taking over Holloway’s role in Perth and David Berthold presenting his inaugural Brisbane festival later this year.

Armfield and Healy worked together for a decade as artistic director and general manager at Belvoir – then named Company B – but this will be their first collaboration since Healy left the company at the end of 2006.

“We know each other’s taste, we know each other’s foibles, we know each other’s sense of humour,” said Armfield of their working relationship. “But particularly we both have a sense of how great and fabulous work can be created that goes from the energetic core of the theatre in which it is happening and spreads through the city and the community who come to see it.”

One of Australia’s foremost theatre directors, Armfield was artistic director at Belvoir from 1994 to 2010. His feature film Holding the Man – his first since 2006’s Candy, starring Heath Ledger – will close the 2015 Sydney film festival, and in November he will direct long-time collaborator Geoffrey Rush in King Lear for the Sydney Theatre Company.

A founding member of the influential Nimrod theatre in Sydney, in the late 1980s Armfield became associate director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

“The work I saw in the festival,” he said of his time in Adelaide, “has absolutely informed my artistic practice and set a benchmark for every festival experience since then.”

For Adelaide-born Healy, the city has also played an important role. “I don’t think you could underestimate the impact [it] has had on my life and my career,” she said at Thursday’s announcement.

General manager of Belvoir from 1997 to 2006, she left the company to become director of performing arts at Sydney Opera House where she worked on a range of festivals, including Vivid and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In her most recent role as executive manager of culture for the City of Sydney, she launched the city’s cultural policy and the 10-year action plan, designed to give artists and communities increased cultural ownership of the city and its public spaces.

Blinc, the centrepiece of Sefton’s 2015 festival. Armfield and Healy will program from 2017-19.

While Armfield will continue his work as a freelance director, working part-time from Adelaide, Healy plans to relocate to the city early in 2016.

“We both feel really strongly you have to throw yourselves into the life of a city in order to program properly,” she said. “You want to get a feel of a city, you want to explore the bars, you want to see what people are doing, you want to go to the companies that are here and get to know the artists again.”

Many of the ideas Healy has been investigating in her City of Sydney role promise to follow her to Adelaide. Festivals, she said, “have an incredibly important role in how you can reimagine your urban environment” and directing a festival is about “fighting for things to be the best that they can be”.

“Adelaide audiences have an incredibly high standard they expect the festival to meet: and rightly so. The challenge for us is not just to meet that standard, but to create those moments where audiences feel like they’ve been part of a transformative arts experience.”

Armfield said they will bring their “shared sense of great ambition for what the arts can do, the influence that the arts can make into the life of a country and the importance of that ongoing conversation”.

“Particularly at a time when the world is changing so rapidly around us and our own country is changing so rapidly,” he said, “there’s a way in which an arts festival can focus really important questions and identify the challenges of life and make us see life in great and surprising and very beautiful ways.”

David Sefton will launch his final program in late 2015; it is expected Healy and Armfield will launch their first program in late 2016, for the March 2017 festival.


Jane Howard in Adelaide

The GuardianTramp

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