The official program for the Gay Games Cultural Festival released tomorrow includes an incredible 97 events held over 15 days. With work from 24 countries the festival will take over 65 of Sydney’s prime cultural venues including the whole of the Sydney Opera House.

When Tom Cullen took over from Robyn Archer as Gay Games cultural program director late last year, the organisation was going through a rough patch. The Gay Games seemed to be suffering from the same aura of perceived unease that emanated from the Sydney Olympics in the months prior to its success. While the Olympics were racked with rumours of the misappropriation of bales of cash, the Gay Games’ woes seemed more about a lack of resources. The big questions were (and are): Is this going to work? Will the Americans come (especially post-9/11)? What sort of cultural festival will they hold with seemingly little resources?

The answer to the last question is -“ a vast, diverse and exciting one (which has surprised me as much as anyone). The cultural festival line-up is comparable to any Mardi Gras festival program I’ve ever seen. Cullen has done it by opening his umbrella very wide, with the Gay Games motto of participation, inclusion and personal best applied to his curatorship.

I think the value of the Games has been a very strong force, in people embracing what we’re doing. The artistic community has been very generous, Cullen told Sydney Star Observer.

Generous is right. There are 97 events held over only 15 days, including seven conferences, 24 participating countries and 65 venues. Every venue at the Sydney Opera House, from the Opera Theatre to the foyer art space, is filled with Gay Games cultural events, not to mention events at venues like the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Given that Cullen joined in September of 2001, this is nothing short of remarkable. The big events we’ve known about for some time, such as Bea Arthur’s cabaret show and Opera Australia’s dingo-drama Lindy, but it’s the plethora of small-scale events that create an impressive whole.

A select, but by no means, comprehensive sample, is necessary. Theatre and dance lovers can catch any number of 12 events at the New and Newtown Theatres, including San Francisco’s Pink Ladies And Steak, New York drag king Dred Gerestant (the path of a multi-spirited Haitian-American gender-illusioning WoMan) and hula/modern dance company Hawaii Ho. Paddington Town Hall hosts The Maiden Aunt’s Story, by Performing Older Women’s Circus, and the Bangarra Studio will host Accessible Queer TheatreSports for people with specific needs.

Cabaret and music events include shows by Caroline O’Connor and Todd McKenney, Venezuelan superstar Jesus Enrique Divine, South Carolina’s Skott Freedman and mezzo-soprano Zan McKendree-Wright.

Visual arts exhibitions feature everyone from William Yang, Monica Picachek, Garrie Maguire, Ken Villa, and Andy Davey, and an exhibition of art by contemporary New Zealand lesbian artists as well as sports/men by Ross Watson.

The literature program has 16 events, ranging from play readings to poetry recitals, and international guest Felice Picano will talk about his life and work.
Finally, Cullen’s program has an unfashionable and completely admirable political edge. A Global Rights Conference Program will be held, on everything from Queer Health to Lesbian And Gay Trade Unionists. A major political event is the human rights conference co-hosted by Amnesty International Australia, with guest speakers including Justice Michael Kirby, Rodney Croome and Dr Kerryn Phelps. Over 150 international panels of the AIDS memorial quilt will be unfolded in Sydney for the first time, as well as new visual arts exhibitions Positive Lives and With Or Without You: Re-Visitations Of Art In The Age Of AIDS.

In the miscellaneous basket, H.G. Nelson will host a debate entitled All Artists Are Gay -¦ All Athletes Are Straight, while chef Christine Manfield will host three dinners at Hugo’s Lounge. Eleven events held during the festival are participatory, including Video Your Gay Games and High Flyers: Women’s Circus.

I’m surprised to learn from Cullen that over 60 of the events have been produced or partnered by the Gay Games, in addition to the publicity marketing exchange offered to all events. Certain events, such as a new dance work by Dean Walsh and indigenous cabaret event Blak, Kweer ‘N’ Out There, have been commissioned by Gay Games.

We’ve been very strategic and very conservative in our budgeting and minimising our risks, explains Cullen. We’ve formed partnerships so that there is a sharing and we haven’t taken a lot of big risks.

Having said this, Cullen is by no means distancing himself from the artistic debt the festival owes to other gay and lesbian festivals.

This event has happened because of the incredible creative work and creative history of our previous gay and lesbian festivals, like Mardi Gras, Feast and Midsumma, says Cullen. It’s been very important for me to have representation of work from all of those other festivals.

It’s about inclusion. This is not a new thing, we’re not trying to create something new, adds Cullen.

It’s not entirely new, and has more in common with the curatorship of Mardi Gras festivals of the 90s, programs that embraced the involvement of mainstream organisations from Opera Australia to the Sydney Theatre Company. The broad sweep of events subsequently has two downsides: that the quality may be as diverse as their subject material, and that there are simply way too many shows to see everything.

Neither criticism quells the buzz of Cullen’s achievement. There’s already a feeling of anticipation I’ve not felt since my less jaded past as a twenty-something just-out arts sponge.

My advice is to see everything you possibly can and take chances on visiting performers you’ve never heard of. This may be the last festival of its kind we’ll have in this city for a long time, or it might be a blueprint for how a future Mardi Gras festival can be extensive and inclusive on a limited budget.

 

For information on all events, visit www.sydney2002.org.au. Cultural festival guides hit the streets from this Friday at most venues.

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