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McCullagh's Last Hurrah

16 Nov 2023

Auckland Arts Festival's Artistic Director on delivering her final programme before departing - the highlights, the frustrations and the work still to be done.

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Shona McCullagh. Photo: Supplied.

With the release of the 2024 Auckland Arts Festival (AAF) programme this week, it signalled the beginning of Shona McCullagh's swansong as Artistic Director. 

She told The Big Idea "I am feeling ridiculously positive that we can get through a first festival in six years with no massive curve balls! Even 2023 was impacted by the cyclone and floods just a few weeks before we opened. 

"My last hurrah is bittersweet, as the pandemic roller-coaster was quite the ride with the ol’ triplicate workload! However straddling the COVID bucking bronco with exceptional people here in NZ and globally was inspiring and uplifting, and seeing our new leaders emerging with such confidence is truly exciting to me. 

"I’m always thrilled about the shows we know will lift people up, and we have some stunning events I’m really proud to champion."  

Teamwork makes the dream work

A matter of days after the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts (ANZFA) revealed its loaded line-up, AAF unleashed more than 60 events comprising over 200 individual experiences to take place across Tāmaki Makaurau in March.

In fact, the two headline festivals share a number of shows and collaborations - working in harmony rather than bitter competition - along with working together with the likes of Auckland Theatre Company, WOMAD, Te Rēhia and the Dust Palace.

Touch Compass' Aiga. Photo: Supplied.

McCullagh explains "Partnership is absolutely vital to all of what we do. We work in concert with a consortium of individual artists, arts companies, other festivals, venues and international cultural agencies in addition to our central and local government. These also include Rebel Alliance, WOMADELAIDE, Adelaide Festival, Chamber Music NZ, NZSO, Touch Compass, Auckland Live, Culture Ireland, the French Embassy, Q Theatre, Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi…the list goes on. 

"We are all greater than the sum of our parts and AAF’s work is to amplify and showcase the voices of others and ensure that the funding we receive is as productive as it can possibly be."

Headliners and highlights

Among the many local new works supported, McCullagh highlights "The Festival has provided commissioning support for Touch Compass’s new work Aiga, telling the story of founding member Lusi Faiva’s challenging journey through a life of disability and disconnection from her birth family, to finding her artist whānau. We’ve featured work by disabled artists in every Festival since ‘21 and this reflects our growing awareness and interest as a society of what richness lies in their stories."

One of the highlights of the hectic position is McCullagh gets to sample the wares before they hit Auckland's stage - and there are a couple of highlights she's already circled.

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Diptych. Photo: Andrea Avezzu - Courtesy of La Biennale.

"(Award-winning Belgian dance-theatre innovators) Peeping Tom’s Diptych is a stand-out. I was already a massive fan of the company and these two works are just unbelievable. It’s full of genius trickery…a door opens, closes and reopens to reveal a completely different set background. I love the way the creators Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartierinterweave mystery narratives with magical theatre craft. 

"The clincher for me was that Lauren Langlois, who was one of only 8 dancers selected after the company auditioned hundreds of dancers from all over the world, trained at the NZ School of Dance. And she’s utterly brilliant. It’s one of those shows that you have to see.

Hobson St Theatre's Not King Lear. Photo: Supplied.

"I am also excited to see Not King Lear come to life. It’s an open-stage first development we have commissioned with Hobson St Theatre, a very special company of actors with lived experience of homelessness. UK theatre giant Adrian Jackson is coming out to direct - Adrian’s own company, Cardboard Citizens is now a global movement, blazing a trail in the field of arts for social justice, inspiring positive change. This is a timely work for Auckland."

McCullagh also notes the desire to emulate the city's reputation as a cultural melting pot - with Māori, Sāmoan, Tongan Alaskan and Australian indigenous creatives represented alongside performers from Ukraine, Africa, France, Belgium, Britain, Austria, Taiwan, Ireland, Scotland and South Korea.

As well as bringing the world to Tāmaki, McCullagh has revelled in bringing local stories to the forefront - like the wholly NZ Artist Festival in ’21 - and pushing them internationally.

"I was thrilled to commission and premiere The Savage Coloniser Show and for the impact of it to still be resonating.  A Festival should disturb the comfortable, so job done. To see that work go on to national and international success is so rewarding, as it has been to see the staged readings of several works be taken into Auckland Theatre Company’s full programme repertoire, such as Dawn Raids, Scenes from a Yellow Peril and now A Mixtape for Maladies.

"Another of my key goals - to increase the programming of NZ work internationally, with Australia a key focus - has really taken off. One of the unseen roles of a Festival Director is to champion local work with your international colleagues, and I’ve loved that part of my job. Locally, nationally and internationally, we are a tribe of festival directors who love artists and audiences and we exchange intel constantly. I will really miss that." 

Not done yet

Boy. Photo: Supplied.

With the programme milestone out of the way, the hard work starts now.

McCullagh details "By the time the Festival opens next March our immediate staff will have grown to more than 150 people - and then once all the artists arrive and the specialist production crews who come on to help deliver the various events join in, it’ll grow significantly larger again. 

"Our 2023 Festival had around 700 artists and crew participating, so it’s a very big operation.

"Globally, we are seeing shifts in audience trends but we have huge trust in the power that live performance has for our audiences. Nothing beats the pure magic of it. 

"For us, as long as we are investing in presenting great work for young people – of which there is an absolute abundance in the ’24 programme – we are switching the addictive lightbulb on to a thirst for real humans performing in real life. We have a huge programme of free events too….and these are always super well attended. Access for everyone is the kaupapa."