Jane Schon chats to Brisbane Powerhouse’s new artistic director, Kris Stewart, who aims to offer a wonderland of choice to theatregoers – keeping “one foot in New Farm and one in New York”
Jane: How are you settling in to the new job and new city?
Kris: We had some family in Brisbane, so it’s always been a place we’ve thought about relocating to at some stage. Over the last decade, it’s had this incredible rise in cultural facilities and companies, and in the food and wine industries. So it’s become a city with a lot of attraction for people now. We love it.
Do you have any big changes planned for the Powerhouse?
It’s not really about changes, it’s about looking at what’s been successful here and what people love about it. Making sure as broad an audience as possible has a chance to engage with it. There’s a lot of incredibly successful things we do around live music, comedy, contemporary performance, and even film events. Some ways our biggest challenge is on the same string – we’re really diverse for the board audience we appeal to. We are doing something that is really present and contemporary, and that’s what people want to come here for; for the best of Brisbane but also for the best of this moment. We’re never going to be a museum. We’re never going to be a place that does grand opera and ballet. That’s not the point of us. It’s about what’s exciting people right now.
Will you still be drawing from local talent?
Absolutely! One of the things that most interests me is how we can invest in Brisbane and it’s creators. I think there’s a weird thing here – I’d don’t if it’s modesty or even a lack of confidence – the city has changed faster in some ways than maybe some of the people have. There’s kind of a hangover of our past that isn’t really true anymore. I think we can have a lot more individual pride in what we’re making and creating. I think sometimes you need an outsider to come in and say, “That show that’s coming in from Sydney or Melbourne is not any better than what we’re doing here”. Let’s celebrate by taking our city to the world instead of always bringing stuff from elsewhere here. Being able to find really tangible ways we can support people making things in Brisbane is really important to us.
Speaking of interesting work, as you know, there was recently a massive reaction to one of the Queer Film Festival posters depicting two men in a loving embrace, resulting in it being removed from city signs. What did you think of the reaction to this?
I kind of got caught in the middle of it. It’s one of those things where you make a comment and then immediately think, “I just want to start walking backwards out of the room”. This is the first time in the history of the Powerhouse there’s been a situation like this. We obviously disagreed, respectfully, and were disappointed. I think we underestimated how sensitive the image was. But it’s a queer film festival for god sake! We’ve never felt any pressure to modify any of our programming and still don’t. It doesn’t change the programming going forward.
You’ve had a fantastic career in musical theatre – including directing Wicked in Australia. Can we expect any musical theatre influences at the Powerhouse?
Probably. I was chatting to someone the other day and they used the phrase, “pop culture intellectual”. I thought, “You know what? I’d love for that to be on my gravestone”. Because I love pop culture! I make no apologies at all for doing stuff people might want to see. Not everything commercial is good art but quite often all good art is commercial. If things are good in their nature they are speaking to people. That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to roll out boring revivals of musicals of the 50’s, but we are going to look at how contemporary music, dance and theatre merge in together. Because most people now dabble across a lot of stuff. People are interested in dance, they’re interested in fashion, in film. It’s really rare someone says, “I’m actually only interested in 19th century literature” (laughs). We all have really broad tastes. So we want to look at stuff that engages broad audiences and how can we shine a light on who’s really exciting within that.
So anymore directing planned?
I think so. Not necessarily this year. One of the things we’re really trying to do is partner with other venues and institutions in Brisbane. I don’t want to dive straight in because I want to make sure things feel secure. I still feel like a new boy in town. I don’t want to immediately start here, start directing the shows and have people say, “Oh that guy just hired himself to do all of his shows”. But I am excited about opportunities to work closely with the performers here.