Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch kicks off 2021 with a Festival that proudly celebrates Australian-made goodness

Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch. Courtesy Sydney Festival.

Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch. Courtesy Sydney Festival.

In his fifth and final year as Sydney Festival Director we spoke to Wesley Enoch about his 2021 program, which embraces First Nation’s perspectives and shines a light on Australian-made talent, and ask him what we lessons we can learn and take into the future when planning arts and cultural events during COVID-19.

You’ve been Sydney Festival Director since 2017 – providing critical art and cultural performances with a strong Indigenous focus. In one sentence what has it been like to lead one of Australia’s leading Festivals?

Every day at every turn you face every challenge you are ever likely to face in the arts but for every moment you think you are never ever going to make it there are always the moments when you experience the feeling that you will never ever feel this good again.

In the last five years you’ve really worked hard to help Sydney embrace Australian and International First Nations’ work. What has it been like to take audiences on that journey with you?

When I started some said that First Nations’ work was risky and hard to sell but in 2021 we are seeing shows from BANGARRA, William Barton and Sunshine Super Girl be our highest selling shows. Audiences have come on the journey and Sydney Festival has helped cement the idea that First Nations work need not be thought of as ‘worthy’ or like ‘taking your medicine’. I’ve seen people embrace the sense that Australia’s First Nations are contributing in very nuanced ways to how we see out city and country. It’s rewarding to see First Nations perspectives being celebrated in the arts but also in conversations about landcare and bushfires, astronomy and architecture. the world is really changing.

In your fifth year the Festival takes place at a time when COVID-19 has impacted the performing arts sector. Focusing on the positive, what opportunities have you seen?

COVID has asked a lot of artists and at Sydney Festival it has demanded we put our values first and foremost. It was relatively easy to go Australian Made in 2021 not just because borders were shut but back in March 2020, we were thinking Australian Artists needed us to step up and to demonstrate our support. In January 2020 we had 45 new works and commissions and despite all the restrictions and having fewer shows for Sydney Festival 2021 we still have 39 new works and commissions. We are saving so much on international freight and flights that we can pour more of our budget into local talent and expanding the program.

Your final festival is also marking the first all-Australian Festival. What does that mean for Australia’s arts and culture economy and for audiences?

Artists have been hardest hit as the first to close and almost the last to reopen. As Sydney Festival will be one of the first large scale cultural events in 2021, we are excited to be funnelling over $6m directly into the hands of artists, venues and companies to deliver Sydney Festival 2021. It feels optimistic to say it but the arts are about a recovery narrative where we are inviting people to engage again with your city, civic ideas and the social activities in a safe and secure way. There are some things we should learn from and keep doing into the future like live-streaming and digital technologies but there is also an important role for gathering and sharing an experience. It helps build a bond within a community.

Set against the spectacular backdrop of summer evenings on the harbour, audiences can join some of Australia’s best artists at the Headland, as they perform on Sydney Festival’s brand-new, pop-up stage at Barangaroo Reserve. You’ve said the Headland’s is a gift to the city – what do you have to say to audiences on why they should come along?

The Headland was conceived as a gift to Sydney and an open invitation to see some of the best artists of this country performing in this beautiful outdoor setting. When we were talking to people, they said they would feel more comfortable outdoors during Sydney Festival. This all-weather venue will play host to Bangarra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Katie Noonan, Christine Anu, Paul Mac, Paul Capsis and iOta and 38-piece acrobatic troupe Gravity and Other Myths with their Circus spectacular The Pulse. This is a venue for the whole family to share time together in the open air in one of Sydney’s icon parks.

We know it’s hard to pick between your children, but can you tell our audiences your favourite must see works at the 2021 Sydney Festival?


  • Groundswell – a free installation of a 6m disc filled with 100,000 ball bearings that roll around like thunder as you walk all over the disc. Check it out at Customs House.
  • Sunshine Super Girl – a brand new work about the life of Evonne Goolagong where we build a tennis court in Sydney Town Hall and serve up an ace.
  • H.M.S Pinafore – the Gilbert and Sullivan classic reinterpreted by the amazing director Kate Gaul. Check out this cast the sing, dance and play all the instruments at Parramatta Riverside.

Sydney Festival 2021

6 – 26 January 2021
Explore events

Image: Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch. Courtesy Sydney Festival.