The new director of Fremantle Arts Centre, Anna Reece, takes Nina Levy inside her career and her former role at Perth Festival, revealing why she thinks this year’s home-grown Festival was a hit, and her vision as the next leader of a much-loved WA arts institution.
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Fremantle Arts Centre’s new director Anna Reece describes herself as deeply connected to the port city.
“Fremantle, and that river, and that part of the beach is my home,” she says.
Her career to date, however, has seen her spend much of her adult life away from that home. She left Fremantle for Sydney in 2003, to complete a Bachelor of Technical Production at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), picking up the role of production co-ordinator at Sydney Festival on graduation. In 2009 she moved to Darwin to become Darwin Festival’s operations manager and then general manager in 2011. It was only in 2014 that an opportunity to work with Perth Festival brought her back to WA.
Reece missed her home town in the 11 years she lived away, a sentiment shared by her Brisbane-based sister. “We’d come back home every year, for 10 days over summer,” she remembers. “And there’d always be a moment where we’d be standing at Leighton Beach, with our arms wrapped around each other, looking at the sun setting. And we’d say to each other, ‘Why don’t we live here?’”
But Reece knew the answer to that question. Since that first move, to study at NIDA, she has been drawn to career opportunities rather than places. It’s an attitude that dates back to her childhood. “My dad was a historian and a journo – we grew up in Dublin and spent a lot of time in Malaysia. My parents gave me a sense that home is home… it doesn’t mean that you have to be there all the time.
That approach has given Reece the freedom to follow her gut, gravitating towards the things that she loves which, she says, tend to be roles that contribute to “big picture thinking”. Pushing against fear is also a big motivator. “I was terrified of being the production manager of Darwin Festival,” she confides. “And then I was terrified about applying to be the general manager of Darwin Festival… but for some reason I did it.”
Reece had just left Darwin Festival to take an extended break in Cambodia, when she received a phone call from the artistic director of Perth Festival, Jonathan Holloway. He was asking if she would take the role of executive producer for The Giants, a massive free event by street theatre company Royal de Luxe in which giant puppets would stroll the main streets of Perth.
In spite having just signed the lease on an apartment in Phnom Penh, Reece was thrilled. “I was really career driven and wanting to challenge myself, and up to that point I’d not seen an opportunity in Perth where I could do that … And then here was this amazing opportunity to come back home to WA to work.”
The Giants role was short-term but an opportunity to work with in-coming Festival director Wendy Martin, as head of programming, kept Reece in Perth. “I deeply connected with who Wendy was and what she wanted to do,” explains Reece.
That alignment with Martin’s values was important. First as head of programming and then as executive producer of Perth Festival, Reece worked closely with the artistic director (AD) of the Festival.
“Part of that role is about distilling the vision of the artistic director, challenging it, provoking it, augmenting it, supporting it,” she elaborates. “It involves hearing what the AD wants to achieve, pulling out the really fundamental parts of that vision and making sure that they’re applied across all areas of the program.
“That can mean tension… and it can often mean a very persistent discussion about why. Why that work? Why that artist? It was my responsibility … to help the AD explain to the organisation why that work is so relevant and important, and how it connects to this place and the rest of the festival.”
The 2021 Festival presented a new challenge. Normally the Festival program involves a mix of local, interstate and international artists; in 2019, for example, close to half the artists involved in the Festival were from outside WA. With WA borders closed for most of 2020, however, the decision was made to present a Festival made up almost exclusively of work from local artists and companies.
Though that was a big decision it was also an easy decision, says Reece. As anyone who engaged with Martin’s Festivals will know, connecting with Perth and telling its stories became an increasingly strong focus over the four years of her tenure and the current AD, Iain Grandage, is continuing to expand that commitment.
Reece believes the team could not have been better placed to deliver a homegrown Festival.
And she’s thrilled with the results, which, she says, are a reflection of the state of the arts in WA. “There’s these tectonic plates that are shifting in the WA arts community right now, and there’s all of this new work that’s bubbling up. When we were curating the Festival program it wasn’t a matter of going, ‘We really need to fill the gaps.’ It was a matter of choosing.
“We’ve had such rigorous critical conversations about work, too, in a way that I don’t feel that we’ve been brave enough to have in the past … I think there’s been tension and momentum, where everyone’s been … striving to be the greatest and the most powerful that they can possibly be in the art that they make.
“The artists in this year’s program have challenged what this Festival can and should be. The Festival artistic team has been grappling with that: what are the new foundations that have been set in place now, for the future of the Festival?”
But Reece will be laying her own new foundations. After working in festivals for over 15 years, she’ll be starting a new chapter, as director of Fremantle Arts Centre (FAC).
“Directing FAC is this opportunity to deliver on everything I believe, in a place that I’m from, and in a place that has my heart,” she reflects.
“I’m looking forward to working with the team, and with the City of Fremantle, on what the FAC’s statement to the world is, and what our invitation to the world is, and making sure that is then celebrated inside those walls and outside those walls.
“I am from Fremantle, and I know how deeply embedded FAC is in the heart of people from Fremantle. But … I’m very passionate about FAC being a place that is a cutting-edge contemporary, multidisciplinary arts centre, as well as a place for its community. And I believe, fundamentally, that those two things go hand in hand.”
Pictured top is Anna Reece. Photo: Cam Campbell
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