New Zealand Festival artistic director Shelagh Magadza bows out

by Sharon Stephenson / 23 February, 2018
Photography by Nicola Edmonds

Shelagh Magadza has more than 40 acts lined up for the 2018 New Zealand Festival in Wellington.

It will be a bittersweet moment for New Zealand Festival artistic director Shelagh Magadza when Wellington’s biennial arts fest bursts into life on February 23 – and her six-year stint starts winding up. She talks to Sharon Stephenson.

They may not have called her crazy to her face, but plenty thought Shelagh Magadza’s marbles had rolled away when she invited Russian director Dmitry Krymov to bring his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the 2016 New Zealand Festival.

Magadza, the festival’s artistic director, first saw the unconventional telling of Shakespeare’s comedy – which toggles between puppetry, political humour and a Jack Russell dog – in Edinburgh three years ago.

“It was performed in Russian, with a lot of dry humour, and because it was so far removed from the original work, the audience had to follow on a revised text,” she says.

Magadza knew it was a risky move, but stuck to her artistic guns. And it ended up being a major hit.

The key, she believes, is providing as broad a programme as possible. “While audiences need to feel safe, there’s also scope in the festival for acts that challenge and broaden tastes, which is also what I’m looking for.” 

We’re chatting in Magadza’s cramped Wellington office, a whitewashed space collaged with posters, DVDs and books. Every so often, her eyes drift to the rubbish-strewn car park next door, as if that will help line up her thoughts.

I’d been told she likes to talk – and talk the 46-year-old does, spending a warm Friday morning untangling herself from almost two decades of memories at New Zealand’s largest arts festival. For the past six years, Magadza has been artistic director, responsible for setting the festival’s direction and selecting the 40 or so acts – theatre, music, dance, visual arts, circus and literary – that fill venues across Wellington in February and March of every second year. During alternate years, Magadza curates the Wellington Jazz Festival, luring artists such as Cassandra Wilson and Bill Frisell to the capital.

This year’s New Zealand Festival will be her last – artistic directors have a shelf life of six years – and as she flicks through the programme, Magadza gets so excited I worry she may forget to breathe.

“We start every festival with a big bang and this year is our most ambitious yet. A Waka Odyssey is inspired by the explorer Kupe’s arrival in Aotearoa and celebrates our shared voyaging history by welcoming a fleet of traditional canoes as they arrive in Wellington from the [Pacific] Islands.”

Magadza admits it’s a “big shift” to take the opening night event out of a theatre but believes the spectacle – with its massed choir, 1000-strong haka and a musical score by Trinity Roots’ Warren Maxwell – will inspire with its messages of journey, home and a search for belonging.

She’s also excited about Vietnamese circus show A O Lang Pho, which she discovered via the kind of random circumstances that seem to happen to her a lot. A few years ago, she received a letter from someone who’d seen the show in Saigon. “I was slightly sceptical, but when I finally saw the show in Perth I was blown away,” she says of the production, which combines Vietnamese culture and imagery with circus skills.

“Unfortunately, I’ve lost the letter, so I don’t know who to thank for putting me on to this incredible experience.”

Magadza is on more than just nodding terms with airports; she travels to see most, if not all, the acts she programmes (this time around, there’s only one performance she hasn’t seen live).

“Of course, we get DVDs and online links to performances, but there’s nothing like seeing a live performance. Not only do you get more of a sense of the vision behind the production, you also get to experience the audience’s reaction, which is an important part of any event.”

As a single mother of a six-year-old son, Langa (which means “light of the sun” in Zulu), scheduling all that travel can be tricky. A good friend looks after her son while she’s away but if she can swing it, Langa travels with her.

“He’s had birthday parties in Parisian hotels, flown around the world numerous times, and been on the stage at London’s Globe Theatre – where, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him play a harpsichord under a sign which read ‘Under no circumstances should this harpsichord be touched’! Fortunately the Globe staff were lovely about it and didn’t throw us out.”

Even in Wellington’s anything-goes Cuba Quarter, Magadza cuts a striking figure. Today, her sea of curly charcoal hair is scraped into a ponytail but for many years it splayed down her back in tight plaits. She favours primary colours and bold patterns that she has the chutzpah to carry off.

Magadza: “While audiences need to feel safe, there’s also scope in the festival for acts that challenge and broaden tastes, which is also what I’m looking for.”

She was born in Auckland on November 13, 1971, the daughter of a Zimbabwean father and Kiwi mother. Her parents met in the 70s at Auckland University, where her late mother was studying music and her father was on a Commonwealth scholarship to complete a biology degree.

Despite the civil war in her father’s home country, the family, including Magadza’s younger sister Tendai, flitted back and forth between Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Auckland. They also spent a year in Sweden for her father’s job; he has since worked for the IPCC, an intergovernmental panel on climate change.

A mixed-race family was hardly common in Harare back then, but Magadza admits she was largely shielded from the conflict and racial disharmony. “We knew what was going on and we didn’t travel outside the cities where the fighting was worse. But because of my father’s job, we lived on a university campus and universities tend to be full of liberals.”

Barred from public school because of the colour of her skin, Magadza instead attended a rare mixed-race Catholic school, where she thrived. Home, too, was happy, with no TV but lots of books and music. “We did ballet and repertory theatre, and learned the importance of creative expression and the way artists can help you see the world anew.”

Yet she didn’t imagine the arts was something she could parlay into a career. Instead, Magadza fell into administrative work to fund her travels. After a few years in the UK, she came to New Zealand. A couple of weeks after arriving, she was offered two jobs: one full time at the IRD and the other a four-month contract with the New Zealand Festival. “I was going to take the tax job because that seemed more sensible, but my flatmates told me I was nuts.”

So Magadza spent four months making tea and exploring her passion for the arts. Afterwards, she went to Victoria University to study politics, law and international relations, working at the festival in between, and having stints at arts festivals in Harare and Edinburgh. She worked her way up to deputy director under Carla van Zon’s leadership at the New Zealand Festival before she was shoulder-tapped by the director of the Perth International Arts Festival, the longest-running arts festival in the southern hemisphere. She was there for nine years, the last four as artistic director.

Her wins were many, including landing Benjamin Britten and Sonic Youth, as well as an installation by British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley in a remote salt lake 300km from Perth. That required Magadza to negotiate the use of Aboriginal land and persuade the residents of a tiny town to have their bodies 3D-scanned for Gormley’s 51 sculptures. It tickles her that the installation, which was supposed to exist only for the duration of the 2003 festival, is still in place.

There have been even bigger wins in New Zealand, including the notoriously “hard to get” Pina Bausch dance company from Germany, which played to packed audiences here in 2016; Te Pō, a play by Carl Bland that also made its debut at the 2016 festival and which Magadza describes as “profound”; as well as illuminated installations in Wellington’s green spaces, For the Birds and Power Plant, the latter attracting 22,000 during the 2014 festival.

Magadza isn’t given to name-dropping, but press her and she’ll mention some of the artists she’s had the privilege to work with, from Talking Heads’ David Byrne to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis.

On Marsalis: “Wynton is an incredibly generous man who truly believes jazz is a vehicle to connect with people. There was an incredible moment during the 2016 festival when Wynton met a dying woman, one of Wellington’s best trumpet teachers, who had arrived at the concert by ambulance. Wynton and his band played ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ for her in the green room and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Magadza knows that attendance and revenue figures have climbed under her watch but isn’t quite sure of the numbers; she later emails to say around 566,000 people attended the 2014 and 2016 festivals, fattening Wellington’s coffers to the tune of $175 million. She’s even prouder of the 695 performances, including 13 world premieres, that she helped make happen.

But it hasn’t all been soft centres in Magadza’s box of chocolates: budget constraints mean she’s had to turn down acts she would love to have featured. “Having to look an artist in the eye and tell them we can’t include them is a horrible thing.”

She’s not sure what comes after this; at the moment, it’s an exercise in planning she’s not yet ready to commit to. “All I want to do when my contract ends in June is to sleep for a few months! I’m really not sure what I’ll do after that.

“I’ve never had a plan for my life and I still don’t. It’s always been a case of happenstance. I’d love to do more travel, but I have to figure out how to do that with a child.”

The New Zealand Festival runs from February 23 to March 18 in Wellington.


This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.


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