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September 29, 2015

OzAsia Festival

With his first program for OzAsia, festival director Joseph Mitchell aims high – taking on Australian identity, regional integration and the future of live performance.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Main image: M.O.V.E Theatre's Dear John

“There’s a whole lot of other things that you can mistakenly call a festival when they might just be a series of events,” says Joseph Mitchell, the director of OzAsia Festival.


OzAsia takes place from September 24 – October 4.

“I’m trying to set up an environment where it’s very accessible for people to go and see three or four shows and then they can think about what those shows say collectively – I was really big on making sure we were creating a festival in that way.”

In his first year curating the festival, Joseph has condensed OzAsia from last year’s running length of two-and-a-half weeks to ten days, and is putting emphasis on the Night Noodle Markets as a festival hub full of food and free performance to fill the gaps between shows.

By creating an immersive festival experience he hopes to give audience members insight into some of the thinking that shaped his program.

Joseph’s first consideration was the sheer strength of art coming out of Asia, and its lack of representation in Australia.

OzAsia Festival director Joseph Mitchell

OzAsia Festival director Joseph Mitchell

“I feel like Australia is a bit behind the eight ball in understanding how crucially important Asian arts are,” he says.

“What’s interesting is that as contemporary Asia finds its feet it’s drawing on a combination of international influences, international collaborations and sometimes hundreds of thousands of years of tradition. These artists are drawing on so many different sources that they’re actually leading the way in where contemporary performance is going.

“We want to get away from any idea of Asia as exotic and really just refer to this program as a leading contemporary arts program – it just so happens that most of the art comes from Asia.”

Joseph says that bringing in these boundary-blurring works not only helps Australians embrace art from the region as a part of our own identity, but also instructs the future of performance works in our country.

“It’s arts festivals’ responsibility to subtly initiate and influence the direction of performing arts,” he says.

“And clearly the strength of TV and film has narrative drama sewn up and audiences now are really seeking more out of live performance and the destruction of that fourth wall is more important than ever.”

Indonesia's Teater Garasi will bring its show The Streets to OzAsia

Indonesia’s Teater Garasi will bring its show The Streets to OzAsia

Accordingly, shows with non-text or non-narrative structures that capitalise on the “live” part of performance – including Miss Revolutionary Idol Beserker, Superposition, Dear John and The Streets – form a large and important part of this year’s program.

The other standout theme running through the festival is a focus on Indonesia – a country that seems to be almost eternally the target of Australia’s political ire. 

As he puts the rapidly evolving country into the spotlight, Joseph is clear that he is not making a political comment, but rather creating a festival that operates on a human-to-human and artist-to-audience level.

“From an arts programming point of view, politics and those relationships aren’t relevant,” says Joseph. “Australia hasn’t really engaged with contemporary Indonesia in the performing arts.

“Indonesia has been hugely successful at marketing itself as a holiday destination and lots of Australians go there to switch off – when you’re in that mode you want to look at traditional music and temples and that kind of stuff so when we engage with Indonesia we engage with its traditional side and we haven’t really tapped into the contemporary arts aesthetic in that country.”

With this move and the others he has made to bring a strong new direction to the festival, Joseph has used his first year to guarantee OzAsia continues being relevant – not just for what it has to say about Australian-Asian relations but also for its ability to compete as an international standard festival experience.

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