The Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) closed its 59th chapter on a high note, with a 2021 event engaging thousands of Queenslanders with a hybrid program of live and virtual events.

More than 100 writers, thinkers, artists and opinion makers were on board to be heard and seen throughout the festival, which laid a solid foundation for the coming 60th year in 2022.

The event is already on track for a big 60th celebration. Here, we chat with BWF CEO Sarah Runcie as she reflects on the 2021 event and looks to the future.

Therefore. . . How was the Brisbane Writers Festival 2021 ?!
Pretty good all things considered. We had a very difficult year last year and this year we knew we were entering a difficult market with a lot of uncertainties. And with less resources to handle curved balls. With a new date in May, new elements for the festival, and without a massive marketing budget, we knew we were going to get things a little tough this year with ticket sales. Having said that, we still managed to have a number of sold-out events. Lots of great feedback. And in fact, have fun. So, check.

What do you think is the main reason why this festival continues (after more than 50 years) to be such a great love?
BWF is a unique festival. It is the oldest continuous writers’ festival in the country. And it came from the Queensland writing community. I think that is part of the strength of the festival, it has a tradition of focusing on local authors, artists and poets. And in particular, a long tradition of programming from the First Nations with depth and respect. Few writer’s festivals can compete with the BWF for this. But, again, I think it has to do with a vibrant local literary community.

What was the highlight of the 2021 event for you?
It’s like asking who your favorite kid is! There were a lot of events that were really strong moments for me. But, as you requested, I think holding Marion Taylor’s speech in the Queensland Art Gallery Watermall, under Ai Wei Wei’s spectacular sculpture with the wonderful Robert Dessaix was a fitting celebration of the return of the BWF. The tea party with Kate Morton was just wonderful. I even got to sit down and enjoy a moment or two with my daughter! I think Ellen Van Neerven’s First Word speech was just one of the finest speeches at the festival. And as a new part of the festival, I felt so thrilled that Ellen was launching the festival. Other highlights? So many wonderful authors all together. I have had the opportunity to go to the Green Room a few times. I felt flabbergasted every time.

This is the first time that BWF is a hybrid live and virtual event. What was the biggest challenge in doing this?
I think the biggest challenge has been the work crush of a huge online festival before it launches. And, as a festival, we weren’t equipped, literally, to do all the editing and production with our old PCs. Fortunately, I had a tech savvy program manager with the right equipment at home. But it was a lot of work. But online media also have many advantages. Intimate craft discussions, like our author / editor series, have been a commercial success for us. And these discussions work better, I think, online than in an auditorium with a hundred people. I think the experience of this festival has taught me the right place for online and on-site events.

Do you think it was successful?
Yes, most of the time. I think having content online to fuel or supplement onsite events works well. And online also brings audiences we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Regional or interstate hearings, for example.

Brisbane Writers Festival 2021 2

Post-COVID, are there any possibilities to keep the virtual element, or do you think it was just a one-off circumstance?
I think BWF will be a hybrid festival from now on. This year we had over 50% of our festival online. Then it will be less, but we will use the Internet to bring in, almost anyway, authors from overseas who will not be able to travel next year. Having said that, I hope there will be travel bubbles between Australia and New Zealand / Aotearoa.

Focusing on 2022, BWF will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. What can you tell us so early in the room about what’s in store for this ?!
So many things. We will be launching a new part of the festival in which we focus each year on a particular country or region within the Asia / Pacific region. Next year, we’ll be focusing on the absolutely gorgeous writers, poets, and oral artists from Aotearoa and Pasifika. There are so many divine works from this part of the world that we don’t really have exposure to in Australia despite our proximity. It will be a unique opportunity to build a very special program. There will be more live and in-person events next year that will be in non-traditional formats and venues and I can’t wait to present a bigger, more adventurous festival.

Someone wants to attend BWF but just needs one last ‘push’ to buy tickets. To really sell it to them, you say. . .
The party is not over! Our extensive online program is a rich and varied program that is sure to have something of interest. It doesn’t matter what your interest is. And while you’re at it, become a Friend of the Festival!

As CEO, what personally attracts you most about the Brisbane Writers Festival?
The diversity. Brisbane is a diverse city. Being able to present a festival that talks about the city’s unique cultural ecology is what motivates me.

The Brisbane Writers Festival 2021 took place May 7-9.

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