HomeArticlesArts & CultureNew Bleach* boss rolls up her sleeves
Tectonic Bleach* Festival

Tectonic, Bleach* at Burleigh. Image credit: Scott Belzner

New Bleach* boss rolls up her sleeves

Tim Baker | November 2019

Bleach* the Gold Coast Festival has a new director and a new winter time slot, so what can we expect from our favourite arts festival in 2020?

Ever since it unfurled a wave of colour and creativity across our beaches, parks, performance spaces and unlikely pop-up activations, Bleach* the Gold Coast Festival has boldly re-defined the city’s arts and culture scene.

And now a new era dawns for the Gold Coast’s signature arts festival.

From the outset, Bleach* was the baby of founding director Louise Bezzina and her tireless ability to recruit others in her sense of purpose and mission, to do whatever it took with limited resources and a truckload of passion to deliver a world-class festival.

So, after eight years of successful festivals, how daunting is it to try and fill Louise’s formidable shoes, now that she has moved on to the role as director of the Brisbane Festival?

Newly appointed Bleach* Director Rosie Dennis appears entirely unintimidated by the prospect, coming as she does with a sparkling CV of innovate public arts projects and a long and heartfelt association with the Gold Coast.

“It’s pretty exciting, the festival itself is really exciting,” says Rosie. “Playing to place and playing to a site is something I really love to do and has been a part of my artistic practice for a long time. Professionally it’s very exciting because I’m doing something I love in a place I know and I’m loving re-discovering.”

Rosie grew up on the Tweed Coast halfway between Murwillumbah and Pottsville but much of her adolescent adventures were played out on the Gold Coast. After 20 years in Sydney, the last six as director and CEO of Urban Theatre Projects in Western Sydney, she’s excited to be back on the Gold Coast and grateful for the legacy her predecessor has left her to build upon.

“It’s a really great opportunity. I’m just rolling up my sleeves and getting on with the job. I’m fairly pragmatic,” says Rosie. “I think Louise did a really extraordinary job getting the festival to where it is.  I’m a caretaker, I’m a custodian. I take that pretty seriously and how I’m looking after it. I can only bring myself to it. Louise and I catch up.  She’s very fond of the festival and I think always will be. You’ll never undo that she was the founding director of the festival.”

Rosie’s already finding real advantages in being in a younger, smaller city than Sydney, where cultural hierarchies are less entrenched and a spirit of innovation comes naturally.

“The team are great. I’m really enjoying working with my board and the wider arts community,” Rosie says. “Here you can go straight to the decision maker, make your case and things can move quickly. People are prepared to listen.”

Rosie has been a regular visitor to the Gold Coast in the years since she left and is relishing being back in her old stomping ground. “I’m living next door to the house I grew up in,” she marvels. “I had the last 20 years in Sydney doing my apprenticeship. I’ve been coming back up fairly frequently. I think it was about four years ago, I remember thinking, what’s going on? There’s an amazing sourdough bakery here in Burleigh. I remember texting my sister and going, it’s changing.”

For most of its life, Bleach* was focused on the milestone of the Commonwealth Games in 2018, growing the cultural capacity of the Coast to showcase local arts and culture in this once in a generation moment. With that mission spectacularly accomplished, what can we expect now from Bleach* under its new director?

For starters, it’s shifting its dates, from April to August, to take advantage of the Coast’s glorious, more predictable late Winter weather and a trend internationally of arts festivals moving to winter time slots.

“In 2020 we’re focusing the festival on key areas in the city. We’re having a bigger impact at Burleigh, bringing the bar on the beach back, activating more spaces around Burleigh. People will discover works in other parts of Burleigh,” says Rosie.

“There’s going to be another hub in Chevron Island for three days, for an exciting experience of that place with bigger visual arts commissions for that site specifically. We want to shift people’s perspectives on how they see the Coast. There’s really fabulous countryside and hinterland and we will invite audiences to see some of the countryside. There’s lots of investment in new work … People come to Bleach* to feel like they’re having an experience they don’t get anywhere else. It will be a very contemporary, place-based festival, with new stories and new work. We’re not big but we’ve got ambitions to grow. We aim to make work that feels sophisticated on a pretty modest budget.”

Rosie’s last role was based in the multi-cultural heartland of western Sydney which might seem a world away from the surf and beaches of the Gold Coast. But, Rosie says the role of the arts in creating a sense of place and building community is similarly essential in both settings.

“It’s about how community is built and how people gather,” she says. “Being western Sydney, you’re working with really diverse social and cultural demographics. That was one of the best things about that job, being invited into homes and temples and working out what do we need to do collectively. Cultural institutions, we absolutely need them but there’s a whole lot of people who aren’t quite sure what their relationship is to the arts. If you had recently arrived in Australia, you might not think a cultural institution is for you, so doing work in public spaces is important.”

While, on the surface, the Gold Coast might not seem as multi-cultural a community as western Sydney, Rosie is keen to engage with all sections of our society. She points out the Gold Coast’s annual Greek Festival is one of the largest cultural events on the coast.

“We want to be working with people who are just moving into the Gold Coast, people who may have come from somewhere pretty dangerous and make them feel safe. It’s about having those cultural conversation, going around and listening to people. It feels like a pretty exciting time to be in the arts.”

She also recognises the challenge of winning over new, young audiences who might be more accustomed to music festivals than arts festivals. “The traditional festival model, there’s still an audience for it, but is it speaking to a younger generation?” she poses.

“Festival number one, I’m trying to open it up as much as possible, a number of works are all about participation. The conversations I have with other directors is definitely around participation and engagement, and we already do that so we’re already on trend. The role of a festival in contemporary society is to be far more local and we’re already there. The heartbeat of the festival is local.”

One of Bleach*’s stated goals at the outset was to change perceptions of the Gold Coast. As someone who’s moving back after 20 years away, Rosie’s in a good position to judge if this is working.

“I think it’s changing. I think in the arts industry it’s definitely changing, with the fine work Bleach* and HOTA and The Farm are producing,” she says. “For people to come in and go, I didn’t expect to have that experience on the Coast. It’s about meeting new people and if we’ve only met you once we want to meet you again.”

And how will Rosie judge the response to her first Bleach* Festival?

“I’ll rate it by whether people are coming out and having a good time. I’d really love Chevron to be something pretty special, if that gets packed out.  We just need to do the work, make sure people know it’s on, that they come to have a good time and we look after them. People love it, it’s got a lot of goodwill, people really want it to be successful. I just hope they come out and play next year. Success will be if we’re not just talking to ourselves.”

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