Programming Magic with Emily Sexton

Emily Sexton – curator, producer and festival director – will be joining EWF for our inagural Emerging Programmers Masterclass. With her expertise and insight, we’re so excited to have her involved. We talked with her about making magic happen onstage, how the element of surprise is integral to any great event, and why we need literary arts programming.

You’re on the panel A Crowded Landscape talking about this at the Emerging Programmers Masterclass, but can you tell us already: are there too many literary festivals?
No, I don’t think so. Firstly because many literary festivals are specific to particular communities and to that end they serve different audiences – the Willy Lit Fest, or the Bendigo Writers Festival, or EWF itself. The local and dedicated nature of these gatherings is important, and allows for an intimacy between readers and writers that is incredibly special. That’s from an audience perspective. Writers, exhausted by the extent of marketing they must do and public conversations to be had, may disagree and I can understand that. It’s absolutely beholden upon programmers to ensure that writers are looked after in these contexts: paid, matched with appropriate and well-briefed facilitators, hosted in a way that is inspiring and meaningful, on topics that are considered and relevant.
But on a wider scale, the literary festival is a form by which we communicate to an audience, and gather together like-minded people. What we do with that form is entirely up to us. It is vital that programmers consider deeply the context in which we live, play, read and work. Who will come to the Festival? Why is it urgent? How is it different to what has come before; what will make it a special moment in which people’s sense of intellectual adventure is deepened and made more expansive? How will the writers be supported to develop new relationships and extend their practice?
People like to experience things as part of a group; it’s a special, intimate experience that will never go out of fashion and technology is only serving to replicate or enhance. Reading and writing are largely solitary experiences – so too are podcasts – so it makes a lot of sense that we come together to analyse and debate their worth. I will always believe we are better together than we are on our own.

What is the best thing about being a programmer?
I like my job because the remit is as eclectic as possible. There’s literally nothing we’re not interested in, and while the large-scale experiences are so exciting it is just as satisfying to find that dedicated niche of readers for whom that one author means the world. I love the electricity when people are finally able to see their heroes in the flesh, and have them elucidate the ideas that hereto forth existed only in their reading minds. My mind goes to Miranda July, Anita Sarkeesian or Kate Tempest; Roxane Gay or Tony Windsor or Lawrence Krauss; Cheryl Strayed and Meghan Daum; Richard Flanagan or Hanya Yanagihara, or Robert Dessiax or Kate Grenville or Tony Birch. When I think of each of those writers I can picture the audience and the kinds of questions that were posed to each, and it’s a very special way of considering how the world works. I love talking to publishers about their authors and why they’re excited about a book. I especially love analysing it all with my Wheeler Centre colleagues, and scheming about new ways we could inspire the conversation.
You’re asking me these questions as I conclude six months of maternity leave, so you’re catching me at a particularly job-loving moment!

What is the value of literary and arts programming for our cultural landscape?
At its best, literary and arts programming can offer a way of looking at the world that is more informed, more rich and of greater heart. We build a greater fitness in those untouchable, strange and loving parts of our selves that are very hard to be articulate about; we are more empathetic to people we don’t know, we are greater lovers, we are wiser and weirder and worth more. That’s for people who participate – whether on stage or in the auditorium. For writers more specifically I hope literary and arts events become a context in which they can develop their art form; where new ideas can rub up against each other and where unexpected creative offers take place.

As a programmer, when the creation you’re working on eventually happens and then is over, do you ever feel sad that you can’t recreate or relive them?
To be honest, no. That’s part of its magic, it’s why we want to be there in person, together. The greater challenge is that when you’re presenting events every night of the week, it’s insurmountably difficult to not feel some hard-core FOMO. That’s where our Digital team’s exceptional podcast skills come in.

What makes a great event?
Smart, passionate and entertaining – with a large dollop of surprise. You need to hold on lightly in this job. Create a framework that’s reliable but ensure there’s a rogue element that may not work. Now… without being patronising, when you’re starting out that rogue element that may not work could be your own skill level. Which is totally fine! You just want to ensure all the other bits are sound, and all that takes is hard work. Alternatively, maybe that risk factor is including new voices or perspectives that aren’t accustomed to regular public forums, or a different format. Without question any programmer worth their salt is always considering the diversity of representation – for the sole reason that it makes for a better conversation.

Sometimes the world of events programming can look daunting, with so many skilled and talented arts professionals and limited professional opportunities. Do you have advice for aspiring programmers on how to get into the industry, or make their own events?
I think your environment is often the biggest factor in creating success. Talent or study are just the beginning. Self-esteem is also a huge part of it – do you believe that you deserve to be part of the industry? That you’d make a great contribution? If so, then there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be participating in any kind of opportunity on offer. Festivals, forums, clubs, reading groups, masterclasses, starting new journals, book launches, just being in the audience. Your community will be your greatest asset; ‘who you know’ really does count. That doesn’t mean that it is an exclusive club – I actually think Melbourne is very welcoming of newcomers – but it does mean that participation, reciprocity, generosity and investment in your arts community is vital. And actually fun!

Emily Sexton is a curator, producer and festival director from Melbourne. She is currently Head of Programming for the Wheeler Centre. Highlights of her current role include the programming and presentation of international guests such as Miranda July, David Suzuki, Ira Glass, Rob Delaney, Hanya Yanagihara, Cheryl Strayed and Meghan Daum, alongside Australia’s favourite writers including Richard Flanagan, Anita Heiss, Maxine Benenba Clarke and Graeme Simsion.

Prior to her role with the Wheeler Centre, Emily was the Artistic Director of Next Wave (2010-14), Artistic Director of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust’s 20th Anniversary (2013) and Creative Producer for Melbourne Fringe (2008-10). For this work Emily was awarded a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship (2014-15). She currently sits on the board of Arena Theatre Company, and regularly acts in an advisory capacity for state, federal and private funding bodies.

You can see Emily on the Crowded Landscape panel at the Emerging Programmers Masterclass on June 20.

You could attend Emerging Programmers as well as the rest of the festival with a Golden Ticket. The Golden Ticket is your passport to EWF 2016, including entry to The National Writers’ Conference, an invitation to the Artist Party, VIP seating at all performance and panel and events*, and selected access to masterclasses and workshops. The Golden Ticket is valid for the duration of the festival.

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