Since 2012 theatre makers Rachel Chant and Phil Spencer have run the Bondi Feast festival at the Bondi Pavilion.
Here they reflect on the trials and delights of a working relationship forged over six years of “wrangling, wheeling, dealing [and] begging”.
“Working with Phil is a lot of him talking, me typing, him washing up my leftover cups of tea, and me laughing at his sometimes terrible, mostly excellent jokes.
When I mention to people that we run the festival together, multiple times people have responded with, ‘He’s so funny. And smart. And funny. Isn’t he funny?’
I like to say no, and that half his jokes are actually mine.
The day that Phil Spencer became a part of my life was the same day Bondi Feast did. I rocked up to the Bondi Pavilion, knocking on his office door asking to intern on the festival. That was in 2012. Six years and six festivals later, here we are.
What began as a festival run on the sweat, tears and beers of volunteers and indie theatre producers (also volunteers) is now becoming a stalwart of the fringe circuit.
Since we became a Waverley Council event in 2017, we’ve been able to grow in ways that simply weren’t possible before and now we’re working on building the calibre and reputation of the festival in order to make it as appealing for international artists as it is for locals.
The festival’s roots are in indie theatre, and that will always be a part of the festival, but now we’re reaching out to include indie circus, stand-up, cabaret and fringe favourites.
The role of Festival Director is one full-time job split in two, which is actually a great way to think of the way Phil and I work together. While we have similar tastes in a lot of areas, our strengths and opinions tend to branch out in different directions.
In part, I think Phil and I work well together because over the past five years we’ve become really good at arguing with one another. When one of us thinks something really belongs in the program, or that we need to do something a certain way, we’re not afraid to fight for it. Balancing that is that we’ve also become really good at trusting one another – although sometimes with the caveat of ‘good or bad, this one’s on you’.
Last night, as I was going to bed, I got a text from Phil that said, ‘I’m really looking forward to the week ahead. I love our job. Let’s do this.’
I didn’t reply because I checked it in the morning and was running late to pick him up, but when he jumped in my car on Parramatta Road to head into the office, we hi-fived like a buddy-cop team from the 90s, full of smiles.
We love this festival, and (almost) every part of making it happen. And working on it together is a freakin’ delight.”
“Putting Bondi Feast together involves artistic chops and a whole lot of wrangling, wheeling, dealing, begging, borrowing, extended borrowing (commonly known as stealing) and asking ourselves the question, ‘it’s good, but will it get people to the beach in the dead of winter?’.
The aforementioned working environment is, at best quietly hectic, and at worst absolute pandemonium. Simply put, you can’t throw a Feast on your own. And luckily, for six years, I haven’t had to.
I feel pretty lucky to have been working with Rachel as co-director for over five years now. She is one of the most grounded, driven, level-headed and unassumingly ambitious humans I have come across in the arts (she’s also from Armidale, which she’ll tell anyone who will listen. She bloody loves Armidale).
Since its conception one particularly cold July, the festival has grown from a loosey-goosey indie theatre celebration driven by love and much unpaid labour to a fully supported and curated 10-day festival that attracts award-winning acts from around the country.
But the creative ethos for running this project is still exactly the same as it was when we started it. Rachel and I are both artists and at the core, we are striving to curate a festival program and create an artistic environment that we ourselves would want to have our own work showcased in.
The passion for running Bondi Feast spurns from a genuine belief that great theatre, alternative comedy and innovative performance works are not created in a vacuum and don’t just arrive out of nowhere.
It is the job of programmers, venues and producers to create flexible structures that respond to the diverse range of works being created by artists in this nation and marry that with a robust and downright attractive offer for audiences.
Rachel and I have very different tastes in theatre and often find ourselves fighting to keep things in (or out) of the program. I think the trick with co-running a festival with Rachel is that we disagree (quite often really).
Rachel regularly shoots down my terrible ideas (and statistically speaking probably a brilliant one every now and then, too) and regularly uses the phrase ‘Phil, that is literally what I just said, you’ve just said it a little bit louder.’
The main thing Rachel and I do have in common is we still thoroughly enjoy being audience members. Which seems simple enough but actually that’s the trick. We both adore going to see shows around town and at fringe festivals. Between us we will have seen north of 300 shows in Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne this year alone. Trust me, you don’t watch that many shows unless you absolutely still have the love.
I think I speak for the both of us (and anyway, I’m saying it louder than she is) when I say that we are delighted by the work of our contemporaries and continually surprised and inspired by what ideas performance makers cook up for audiences – and that’s what drives Bondi Feast after all these year, a mixture of curiosity and an appetite for the new. That and a genuine fear of being cold in winter.’