A CULTURAL REVOLUTION
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
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