The Gold Coast as an arts hub? It’s true. Aus­tralia’s top beach hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion has moved on and grown up, writes An­drew Kidd Fraser

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

As he stood on a sand­bar in the mid­dle of the night while the wa­ters rose around him, Gavin Web­ber pon­dered whether he might be­come the first per­former in his­tory to be taken by a shark while on stage. The stage Web­ber has oc­cu­pied for the past 25 years while pur­su­ing his art as a dancer around the world has gen­er­ally been at the front of a theatre, not a sand­bar at the point where Cur­rumbin Creek on Queens­land’s Gold Coast meets the ocean. And he gen­er­ally doesn’t per­form af­ter mid­night.

Web­ber found him­self on the sand­bar as part of Tide, a per­for­mance with Josh Thomp­son, for 48 hours last year as part of the Bleach Fes­ti­val on the Gold Coast. An open-air of­fice com­plete with desk, fil­ing cab­i­net and vene­tian blind had been con­structed on the sand, and the two per­form­ers im­pro­vised a se­ries of acts in the “of­fice” while peo­ple ei­ther swam or ca­noed out into the mouth of the creek, or watched from shore. The per­form­ers stayed on the sand­bar for two nights af­ter the sun went down.

“Be­fore we went out there we asked the life­savers, and the lo­cals, ‘ Ever seen a shark here?’ They all said no, but we never asked the next ques­tion: ‘ Ever been out there in the wa­ter at 3am?’ ” says Web­ber. “Both (Josh and I) had a very real fear. We slept on the ta­ble but the legs of the ta­ble were un­der­wa­ter at night.”

The use of the Gold Coast’s nat­u­ral at­trac­tions is a hall­mark of the Bleach Fes­ti­val, now in its sixth year and an es­tab­lished arts fes­ti­val in a place that his­tor­i­cally has not been as­so­ci­ated with such ven­tures. It will run from March 31 to April 12, with 20 venues across the coast, host­ing a va­ri­ety of mu­sic, dance, theatre, cabaret, cir­cus and in­stal­la­tion events on beaches and in parks, shop­ping cen­tres and old coun­try halls in the hin­ter­land.

But where Bleach will re­ally come into its own is next year, when it will be timed to co­in­cide with the Com­mon­wealth Games. As Games host, the Gold Coast will sud­denly be in the com­pany of sub­stan­tial ci­ties such as Ed­in­burgh, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Auck­land. It’s all in the name of progress for a city long re­garded by the rest of Aus­tralia as a sunkissed play­ground.

The Gold Coast isn’t what it used to be. The way Bleach has grown and pros­pered as an arts fes­ti­val re­flects the changes in the city, and in Queens­land, dur­ing the past few decades. It is now Aus­tralia’s big­gest me­trop­o­lis out­side a cap­i­tal city, with a pop­u­la­tion of 625,000. The Gold Coast was founded on good times and hol­i­days, but tourism — while still im­por­tant — is no longer the coast’s big­gest em­ployer, hav­ing re­lin­quished that ti­tle to the health­care and ed­u­ca­tion in­dus­tries.

With that sig­nif­i­cant so­ci­etal shift has come an ap­petite for cul­ture. Arts fes­ti­vals have a ready mar­ket here. Yet the coast’s long suit is its phys­i­cal environment, es­pe­cially the beach. What Bleach has done is taken that environment and built on it.

In some ways it’s a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. The fes­ti­val’s roots are in the surf­ing com­mu­nity, as it grew out of pro­fes­sional surf­ing com­pe­ti­tion the Quik­sil­ver Pro, which has been run­ning un­der that name since 2000 but which harks back to the rat­bag surf cul­ture of the 1970s. These days the Quik­sil­ver Pro is big busi­ness, at­tract­ing about 25,000 vis­i­tors to the Gold Coast in early March each year as the first com­pe­ti­tion on the in­ter­na­tional surf tour.

Back in 2012, Louise Bezzina, a young arts ad­min­is­tra­tor who was liv­ing on the Gold Coast but work­ing in Bris­bane, was asked to cre­ate a ba­sic arts fes­ti­val to of­fer some­thing hap­pen­ing on land when there wasn’t any­thing hap­pen­ing in the wa­ter.

It went well. The high­light of that 2012 fes­ti­val was a play, The Surfer and the Mermaid, based on a chil­dren’s book writ­ten by lo­cal writer and jour­nal­ist Tim Baker, which was per­formed in the Surf­ing Mu­seum at Cur­rumbin. It elicited such a good re­sponse that it was taken to Syd­ney, where it played at the Bondi Pav­il­ion. “It was all done on a shoe­string, but it was a mo­ment in time. It wasn’t bril­liant theatre, but we em­ployed lo­cal artists, lo­cal de­sign­ers, lo­cal pho­tog­ra­phers. It planted a seed — that we all have sto­ries to tell,” says Bezzina, who has grown with the fes­ti­val and has been its only artis­tic di­rec­tor.

That first Bleach fes­ti­val in 2012 was very much an add-on to the Quik­sil­ver Pro. But Tom Tate was elected Mayor of the Gold Coast soon af­ter­wards, and he was taken by the idea of us­ing an arts fes­ti­val to change the image of the city.

Tate wasn’t the only one. The Gold Coast was still suf­fer­ing the hang­over of the late-20th­cen­tury “white-shoe bri­gade”, a group of fasttalk­ing, fast-deal­ing “colour­ful char­ac­ters” with

Bleach Fes­ti­val artis­tic di­rec­tor Louise Bezzina; Gavin Web­ber per­forms Tidee last year, be­low

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