Director's Spotlight - Sarah Runcie of Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF)
Outgoing CEO of Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF)
I have always been moved by the power of story and driven by a curiosity about others. Leading a literary festival encompassed so much of who I am and how I was brought up. My mother taught English Literature at Sydney University, and my father taught Economics at UNSW. Naturally, I opposed my parents’ subject areas and completed a degree in Performance Studies. My professional career has traversed film production and film festivals, government communications, and policy and strategy in publishing, an unlikely combination of skills and experiences that prepared me to helm Brisbane Writers Festival through its 60th anniversary.
How long have you been with the Festival?
2 years and 7 months
How long have you been in your current role?
2 years and 7 months
Career background? Have you been involved in the literary festival scene previously? Or in the book world?
I have worked in the Arts most of my 25 years of professional life. The two industries I have worked in the most are book publishing in a policy and strategy capacity and the film industry in production, fundraising and board capacities. Helming BWF was my first role in the litfest world and it was a brilliant opportunity to bring together my creative, commercial and policy experience.
What do you love about the litfest world?
I love the potential of the literary festival as a supple cultural institution. Literary festivals platform writers and books, which, at their most basic, sells books to readers. But in a cultural sense, the literary festival has story and words. You can legitimately venture into almost anything. There is the standard symposia format but there is also so much else that can be creatively explored: spoken word and performance poetry (with a drum kit and back up dancers), interdisciplinary connections through art, design, drama, music. Everything from libretti to hip hop lyrics, from readings from your favourite authors to discussions that dive into important topics. I am energised by questioning the given, and looking for new approaches.
I also love engaging people with story. It is such a privilege to be able to bring to a reading public ideas and perspectives that they would not otherwise encounter. And herein lies both the magic and huge responsibility of such a cultural institution – its ability to influence individual thought and public dialogue.
The literary festival, as a site of storytelling, has a particular role in drawing from the cultural identity of its place. But it also has a role in feeding into that identity. And, where possible, having the cultural ambition to lead, to point to future worlds.
What would you like to see more of at Festivals?
One of the most important moves in recent years (at least in the Australian scene) has been around greater diversity in not just the writers presented but also the curators that participate in the building of programs. This move has been away from the sole Artistic Director or Festival Director being the alpha and omega of the program to more and more curators engaged to program for particular readerships or genres or topics. This has been driven, to a certain extent, by First Nations agendas for inclusion, agency and primacy. But it has also been driven by a broader dialogue around diversity and inclusion from a multicultural society (as Australia is). For me, embracing a curatorium model is about embedding a diversity of perspectives into the heart of festival programming.
There is a need, especially in re-establishing audiences after nearly three years of pandemic impacts, to diversify audiences as core to sustainability. My proudest statistic from the 2022 BWF was that 35% of our audience were new to BWF. But audiences are still down despite what felt like a frenzy of activity in 2022 in which we all kidded ourselves that we were returning to ‘normal’. The audience engagement picture remains quite fractured and complex. (I am making particular reference to the research by Patternmakers in Australia.)
What sets your Festival apart?
There are several things that set BWF apart – much of which relates to what sets Brisbane apart.
BWF is the oldest, continuous literary festival in Australia. Established in 1962, it reflects a particularly tenacious and vibrant literary scene.
Brisbane, and Southeast Queensland, is home to many significant and distinguished First Nations writers. The festival has had a long tradition in programming Indigenous writers. Building on that legacy with a desire to bring that into the very structure of the festival, the curatorium began to form, a self-determined First Nations voice with creative control in First Nations programming, and a collaborative voice across the whole festival program. This also gave birth to the First Word / Last Word events, in which the festival is opened and closed by an Indigenous author of note, reflecting on the program and emerging topics and discussions.
Queensland is also home to a significant diaspora of Aotearoa and Pasifika communities. In 2022, we initiated a new part of the festival called Country of Focus which is an annual program that highlights the literature of a particular country within the Indo-Pacific frame. The inaugural program brought over 25+ authors and poets from New Zealand, Vanuatu and Fiji.
Brisbane conceives of itself as a gateway city to the ‘Indo-Pac’ and back. The Country of Focus program speaks to that sense of identity as both building on under-represented literatures of our neighbors and under-serviced segments of our domestic audience. It internationalizes the cultural offering of the festival outside of the confines of the English-language market. This year’s program Country of Focus is South Korea. Given the buzz around Korean literature, it will be a very exciting program.
Another element of the Festival program that is unique is because of its Brisbane-ness (Bris-Vegas for those who know). Brisbane as a Storied City is a program we started about the city and its inhabitants – local authors with local stories. It’s a new tradition that I think will endure.
Adjunct to that program we launched last year a geo-locating app that maps Brisbane by story. It’s a community engagement piece that will build enriched user-generated and commissioned content over time. It’s an initiative, in my view, that sits at the heart of BWF’s cultural mission.
A final element of the festival that is also unique is what we call our Cross-Arts program – an examination of the interdisciplinary links of text and narrative to other arts. Last year the program highlighted the connection of visual art and design in a program entitled The Art of The Book. It covered everything from displays of book design to concrete poetry to books by artists to publishing as an art practice. The Cross-Arts program came out of the Brisbane phenomena of an art scene that, as a small community, is also a particularly cross-disciplinary scene. This year BWF is platforming the intersection between games and story, entitled Gaming the Narrative.
All these new traditions are, in a sense, exoskeleton. What I would hope to see is that these program elements become nuanced over time to become part of the DNA of a unique festival – strands that are woven together. Which inevitably leads me to Eric Carle and the perhaps appropriate metaphor of a butterfly (appropriate at least for a tropical Brisbane).
What is your favourite festival memory?
That is hard. I have several highlight memories linked to my favourite events. Our Mother’s High Tea event, started in 2021, has been very popular. It was one of the peculiar pieces of advice that I got, from publishers no less, saying that Mother’s Day events as part of the festival would not work. Despite Mother’s Day being such a big bookselling part of the year. I was told families stay home. Mums won’t come out for a festival event. Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s been our festival’s consistent sell-out event.
I have also loved the Marion Taylor Gala events. Originally formatted as a keynote address in an auditorium, it’s become our most glamourous and prestigious event. One that I hope will build over time as a particularly significant annual event.
But my favourite memory has been working with my staff and coming up with, and getting excited about, events and plans collectively. We definitely had fun. One of my favourite session ideas from last year came out of our office natter about the generational changes in language which then became the Grammar Nerds of the World Untie panel (which if you twitch with that title then you are our target audience!)
Aside from Covid-19, what has been your biggest challenge?
Covid has certainly been our biggest challenge and it’s hard to think about any other impact that somehow wasn’t related. Moving from live events with differing levels of restriction to hybridised programming to wholly online in the space of weeks, days or even hours, was a really significant, and labor-intensive cost that, from my observation, has led to quite a lot of sector-wide burnout. And burnout has been the quiet Arts sector pandemic. We are all used to plugging the holes in Arts budgets with what Australians call hard yakka (hard work) but the last couple of years have been particularly draining.
But in other ways the forced pause on ‘Business as Usual’ has, as trite as it might sound, been an opportunity to rethink even the most basic assumptions and underpinnings of cultural institutions.
One of those ‘forced’ opportunities that arose out of the pandemic was online delivery. BWF had not seriously engaged with online content production and we had to build internal capacity and capability from the ground up. It was pure accident that we had an experienced digital producer on staff. What started as the default ‘because we have to’ mode of delivery became something that had its own value. Out of that experience, the festival developed several year-long online series that delivered, in a way that a conversation in an auditorium can’t, intimate craft discussions. (BWF’s Author/Editor series being an example.)
The challenge that remains is the successful monetising of online content in a crowded market. It’s a challenge that we would not have ventured into without the push, pull and shove of the pandemic context. But it has pointed to potential business models, such as subscription models for our online schools program, Word Play.
Digital or hybrid is here to stay. The opportunity is to treat online delivery as creatively and as entrepreneurially as any other medium or festival element.
If you could have a festival panel featuring any authors dead or alive, who would you have and what would the topic be?
It’s hard to choose one panel or topic. Who wouldn’t want to have Jane Austen on a panel discussion? On any topic. I suspect she would be an absolute hoot. But who to pair her with? Possibly George Elliot, Jean Rhys, and Toni Morrison? And chaired by Caitlin Moran. On agency and ethics as explored through their female protagonists.
Last book that you read and what are you looking forward to next on your reading list?
The last book I read was Bora Chung’s ‘Cursed Bunny’, shortlisted for the International Booker last year. Currently I am reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Collected Short Stories’ (Penguin Edition 1986). I might have my reading somewhat inflected by Chung’s writing but there is a nightmarish quality to some of Fitzgerald’s stories that I had not really appreciated before. As a result, there is an unexpected dialogue between the two authors in my mind.
I am looking forward to starting Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Orwell’s Roses’. I caught Rebecca in interview at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival and she was erudite, generous and fun – my favourite qualities in a writer.
Authors we need to know about from your region/country?
Patrick White and his widely acclaimed novel ‘Voss’ – It remains a milestone of Australian literature and one that encapsulates a deep existential crisis of the European in Australia.
Alexis Wright and her epic ‘Carpentaria’ which speaks to the deep trauma of European invasion.
Evelyn Araluen and her much awarded collection of poetry ‘Drop Bear’ – as a poetic barometer of right now.
Favourite literary quote?
Anything that Dorothy Parker said but I do rather love her poem Bohemia
Any parting comments?
I would like to see literary festivals take a more fulsome role in literary life. Like other arts festivals, literary festivals have a role in supporting emerging writers, bringing in greater diversity of voices, and commissioning work. Too many marvelous thoughts, ideas, discussions and speeches are lost at the end of a festival. I would like to see more of that creatively captured.