Wendy Were, Director, Sydney Writers Festival
How did you become Director of the Sydney Writers Festival?
Well, I’m an academic by background and used to teach at university teaching literature and then at one stage in my career I had a choice between doing a PhD in literature or becoming a certified practising accountant. And it was a difficult choice but I chose the PhD and then with my background in financial management as well as the artistic side someone approached me and asked if I would direct a festival elsewhere in Australia and I did that for three years. Returned to academic life but found that the festival was too much of a pull for me.
What does the job involve and what are the special qualities you need for the position?
Organisation is one of the biggest roles in this game because you’ve got up to 450 individuals, very human people,writersso you’re not dealing with artistic works or with films or anything like that but human beings. So, you need to be incredibly organised and very relationship focused as well. So, you want the writers to be happy and comfortable with their sessions, you need to consult with them, you need to make sure you’re listening to what they want to do. And then once you do that you actually achieve a wonderful event because the writers are actually enthused by their sessions rather than feeling like they’re being treated as performing seals. It’s this strange thing because writing is such a solitary act, so to actually perform the work or to talk about the work doesn’t necessarily come naturally to everyone.
What are your hopes for the festival while you are Director?
Sydney is such a wonderful festival and it started ten years ago as quite a small event but has been growing rapidly for the last ten years. It’s now the third biggest writers festival in the world and we had 87 000 people at our event last year which is really quite extraordinary considering that Sydney has perhaps had a reputation overseas as a festival or as a city which is more interested in the beach than in books. But the festival is definitive proof that that’s not the case. So, the expansion of the festival needs to continue because we can’t actually satisfy the number of people who wish to attend the event. Sometimes at the wharf we’ll have a session which has 400 seats in it and a thousand people will show up. So, one of my jobs is managing growth, making sure that we have the spaces that as many people as possible can hear our events. And one of my favourite festivals is the New YorkerFestival where events do take place all over the city. So, I love the idea of a festival overtaking the city, not just, hubs important but it’s also important to have it across the CBD and regionally as well so as many people as possible feel like the festival’s a part of their life too.
It must be a real challenge to organise a festival across so many venues. What are the ‘must have’s’, the essentials that you need in a venue and what are the ‘add ons’, the additional features that you look for in particular venues?
It’s a tricky thing because speaking events ideally should be in theatres. If you’re a purist you don’t want the background noise and you want it to be as much as a staged event as possible. In the past a lot of author talks have happened in venues that aren’t actually suited for a speaking event and writers often feel quite surprised when they’re actually put on stage in a proper theatre. In terms of placement, Sydney’s main hub down at the wharf is absolutely stunning on a finger wharf underneath the Harbour Bridge. The international guests swoon every time they see it. So, that kind of drop dead destination is fantastic overall. And then inside the venues you need to make them as conducive as possible to a talking event which means there’s little background noise and trying to dress it as well, I think. If you make a venue look like it’s a theatre for writers’ events that’s important too. But in terms of venues we look at them for a number of reasons, whether it’s geographical placement. We used Paddington Town Hall last year which was a foray into the eastern suburbs of Sydney which was important to us because a lot of our audience come from there but we don’t stage many events there. And we do a lot of site reconnaissance particularly in the regional areas to make sure the venues that we use are suitable for speaking events and that they have the infrastructure.
How do volunteers contribute to the festival and what rewards do you think they get?
We have a team of at least 200 volunteers every year and they play a critical role. Without them the festival wouldn’t be able to exist. We often have up to 12 events taking place simultaneously and all of those events need front of house people, ushers, we need people manning the information booths, we need people, the favourite job the one that they, all the volunteers hanker for is the ‘green room’ position where you sit in the green room and lead the writers to events that is one of the most starry roles and we have them as runners. We often use volunteers for our disabled audience who require assistance and each year the volunteers keep coming back which is fantastic, they love being part of the festival, they love feeling like they’re involved in it. And in terms of rewards apart from the good feeling that they get from participating in the festival, we do things like provide them with a volunteer survival kit which includes discounted tickets to the festival’s books, movie tickets and whatever else we can rustle together to make it worth their while. We won an award in 2007 for, there’s a National Australia Bank Volunteers Award, and we won that for the Arts and Cultural Centre for the way that we look after and take care of our volunteers.
How do you evaluate the outcomes of the festival each year and how do you plan and manage for improvement?
We’re always working to improve and we do audience surveys, so we ask the audiences to provide their feedback on what their experience was. And that range is not just from the kind of the quality of the event the people who we brought to Sydney but also their experience of the venue, whether it was a comfortable place to be, whether they enjoyed spending time at the wharf. We also conduct surveys amongst the writers as well and ask them for their feedback which is often valuable. When you have over 350 events there’s no way that you can be at every single one of them and see how they all played out. So, we often get really valuable assistance from the writers. There’s, the two main things that we focus on are our audience and on the writers themselves. So, we want to make sure that the audience have the best possible experience at the festival that they come away inspired, interested hopefully you know looking forward to the next year and the writers. If the writers are happy and if the writers are enthused by their sessions then they too have a much better experience. And they love meeting the other writers as well. As much as it is for readers the opportunity to get 300 writers together and have them to be able to interact with one another and network there’s been some lasting friendships that I’ve seen develop through writers’ festivals and really positive professional collaborations too.
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