Sydney Festival

Sydney Festival is a major arts festival in Australia's largest city, Sydney that runs for three weeks every January, since it was established in 1977. The festival program features in excess of 100 events from local and international artists and includes contemporary and classical music, dance, circus, drama, visual arts and artist talks. The festival attracts approximately 500,000 people to its large-scale free outdoor events and 150,000 to its ticketed events, and contributes more than A$55 million to the economy of New South Wales.[1]

Sydney Festival
Part of the Sydney Festival, Symphony in the Domain, pictured in 2007
GenreMajor arts, theatre, music and cultural festival
BeginsSecond week of January
EndsFinal week of January
Location(s)Greater Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Years active42
Participants931 artists (2011)[1]
Attendance~500,000 to free events (2011)[1]
~153,000 to ticketed events (2011)[1]


The origins of the Sydney Festival are in the Waratah Festival which was established in 1956 by the Sydney Committee and took place from late October to early November, coinciding with the blooming of the NSW emblematic flower the Waratah. It was an important cultural event which included a parade, a popular art competition, beauty contests, exhibitions, performances and the Lord Mayor's reception at the Sydney Town Hall.[2]

Sydney Festival was established by the Sydney Committee, the NSW State Government and the City of Sydney with a view to attracting people into the city centre during the summer holiday month of January. In many ways it is probably still best understood as a celebration of Sydney and what the city has to offer. In the festival's early years, its program offered everything from vintage car rallies, face-painting and kite-flying to bocce, dog obedience trials and Chinese scarf dancing.[3]

For three weeks, the festival offers a program of more than 330 performances and 100 events involving 900 artists from 17 countries,[1] covering dance, theatre, music, visual arts, cross media and forums. In any given year, the program's diversity might include burlesque circus to New York rap to Russian theatre; from contemporary dance to family programs to traditional Indigenous arts practice. The festival uses at least 30 venues including the city's main theatre venues such as Sydney Theatre, Carriageworks, City Recital Hall and venues at Sydney Opera House and in Parramatta, as well as community halls, parks and the city streets themselves.

Sydney Festival presents a number of large-scale free outdoor events including the long-running Concerts in The Domain with, each attracting up to 60,000 people,[1] a decrease from peaks of 80,000 people during earlier years. At its peak, it is estimated that the festival attracted 1.5 million people.[3]

The Festival has a history of presenting Australian premieres and many of Australia's most memorable productions such as Cloudstreet have resulted from Sydney Festival's commitment to nurture local artists. It has brought many of the world's great artists to Sydney for the first time including: Ariane Mnouchkine and Thèâtre du Soleil (Flood Drummers), Robert Wilson (The Black Rider), Robert Lepage (Far Side of the Moon, The Andersen Project, Lipsynch), George Piper Dances, Netherlands Dance Theatre, James Thiérrée (Junebug Symphony, Au Revoir Parapluie), Philip Glass, Ian McKellen (Dance of Death), Batsheva Dance Company, National Theatre of Scotland (Black Watch, Aalst), Christopher Wheeldon Company, All Tomorrow's Parties, Al Green, Katona Jozsef Theatre, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, The National, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom.

A survey of 1,500 attendees conducted during the 2011 festival revealed that patrons mainly live in Greater Sydney (83%), with approximately 11,500 visitors from interstate and overseas attending festival events.[1]

Not without controversy, the festival has faced challenges with profitability in its early years and was subject to a riot at a New Year's Eve concert at Sydney Opera House in 1980, when 68 people were arrested and 150 were taken to hospital; and criticism about the festival's artistic credibility.[3]

Sydney Festival Program

The Festival's inclusive programming, broad range of free events and accessible pricing policies for the ticketed shows means that Sydney Festival is open to all. Within the program there is always a group of shows - all about an hour long - with $35 tickets. Tickets to all performances are available on the day for only $25 at the Tix for Next to Nix booth in Martin Place in the heart of Sydney's CBD.

From 2008-2012, the Festival's free opening event was Festival First Night, attracting approximately 200,000 people into the city centre.[1]

Sydney Festival program highlights include Schaubuhne Berlin's Hamlet, Headlong's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Peter Sellars' Oedipus Rex & Symphony of Psalms, 43 Rajastani musicians in The Manganiyar Seduction, Al Green, Fabulous Beast's Giselle and Rian, John Cale, Grizzly Bear, Grace Jones, Laura Marling, James Thiérrée, Björk, Patrick Watson, Manu Chao, David Byrne, Herrenhausen's fashion opera Semele Walk with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, Sasha Waltz' Dido and Aeneas, Antony; and many more.[4]

Sydney Festival has a strong tradition of creating opportunities for Australian artists, with 23 world premières of new Australian work across the 2013 and 2014 Festivals.

The free program for Sydney Festival includes concerts in The Domain or Parramatta, such as the outdoor concert by Indian superstar AR Rahman (with an audience of 50,000 people) in 2010, and the much-loved annual Ferrython with four Sydney ferries racing around Sydney Harbour.

The Festival's late night venues, both presenting contemporary music, are the Festival Paradiso Bar and Festival Village in Hyde Park with the latter hosting The Famous Spiegeltent, a traditional European wooden dance hall.

As a part of corporate responsibility, the festival has a Reconciliation Action Plan which envisages engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and communities to positively contribute towards closing the gap between Indigenous and other Australians.[5]

Festival Directors

DirectorYears activeCountry of originNotes
Stephen Hall1977  1994AustralianAppointed in November 1975, initially as Executive Director and later as General Manager.[2]
Hall's contract was terminated three days short of his 18th festival after the 1994 festival suffered a loss of about $500,000, the biggest in its history.[3]
Anthony Steel1995  1997Australian
Leo Schofield1998  2001AustralianSchofield's tenure included overlap as artistic director of the arts festival associated with the 2000 Summer Olympics and 2000 Summer Paralympics
Brett Sheehy2002  2005AustralianSheehy went on to be appointed artistic director of the Adelaide Festival from 2006 to 2008, followed by the Melbourne Festival from 2009 to 2012.
Fergus Linehan[6]2006  2009Irish
Lindy Hume[7]2010  2012Australian
Lieven Bertels[8]2013  2016BelgianAfter his successful first Sydney Festival in 2013, Bertels' contract got extended to include the 2016 festival, the 40th anniversary edition.
Wesley Enoch2017  2019AustralianWesley is an Australian playwright and artistic director who has directed six projects for Sydney Festival over the past 15 years: Black Diggers (2014), I am Eora (2012), Nargun and the Stars (2009), The Sapphires (2005), Eora Crossing (2004) and The Sunshine Club (2000). Wesley has been the Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company (2010-15), the Artistic Director of Kooemba Jdarra in Brisbane (1994-97), Ilibijerri in Melbourne (2003-04), Resident Director for Sydney Theatre Company (2000-01), Associate Artistic Director of Belvoir (2006-08), a Trustee of the Sydney Opera House (2003-2011) and a director of the Indigenous section of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. He has worked with almost every major theatre company and festival in the country and toured shows internationally.[9]

See also


  1. "Annual Review". Sydney Festival Limited. 2011. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  2. "Sydney Festival Correspondence Files". City of Sydney Archives. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  3. Verghis, Sharon (8 January 2005). "Arts and soul". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  4. "Features: Sydney Festival". The Daily Telegraph. Australia. 28 December 2009. Retrieved 28 December 2009.
  5. "Corporate Responsibility(sic)". Sydney Festival.
  6. Meacham, Steve (6 January 2007). "Fergus Linehan - the face of Sydney Festival". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  7. Fortescue, Elizabeth; Downie, Stephen (13 June 2008). "Lindy Hume takes Fergus Linehan's job at Sydney Festival". Daily Telegraph. Australia. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  8. "New Director for Sydney Festival 2013 - 15". Sydney Festival. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  9. "Wesley Enoch next sydney festival director". Sydney Festival. 2 June 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  • Sydney Festival – Official Website (News, updates, features, and "Interact" online community Blog).

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