Shelagh's journey from tea lady to festival boss

Shelagh Magadza, artistic director of the New Zealand Festival.
Shelagh Magadza, artistic director of the New Zealand Festival.

Shelagh Magadza's career has been driven by chance. It's taken her from being the tea lady of the New Zealand Festival to its new artistic director, writes Diana Dekker.

Shelagh Magadza took a job at the New Zealand Festival 20 years ago on a whim. She could just as easily have ended up poring over tax returns for a job. Instead, she found herself making the tea, collecting performers from the airport and sourcing nappies and children's car seats. It was the start of a brilliant career that has seen her elevated to the top of the festival game.

She hasn't been in Wellington's festival office quite all that time. She returns to us after heading the Perth International Arts Festival as artistic director.

"Perth was just another whim," she says.

That particular whim saw her oversee, over four festivals, a satisfying growth in turnover – AU$10 million to nearly AU$14.5 million – and an increase in paying audiences of 77,000, or more than 60 per cent.

She went to Perth as associate director. "I saw an ad on the internet and applied from here. I thought I'd do nine months, that it was another contract I'd do. I was quite a backpacker in those days. Perth was in a very optimistic frame of mind. There were a few things we did to position ourselves as the event of the year."

Four years as director she says, "is probably a sensible thing. You learn every single day and the cycle is punishing".

It was a cycle more punishing, perhaps, because towards the end she had her son, Langa, and is a single mother.

Langa is at the stage where he treats his tricycle like a racing car and Magadza fears for his safety if he's not wearing a helmet. "He thinks he's 16 but he's only 2.

"Somehow it all works out. I think it's one of those things where you jump and trust. He's been amazing. For the first year of his life he was the best-travelled baby in the world."

Jumping and trusting, taking a chance, or acting on a whim, are family traits.

Magadza's New Zealand mother, who has since died, met her Zimbabwean father when both were students at Auckland University in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The young wife and mother, with the spirit and sense of adventure she was to pass on to her daughter, returned with him to a home country riven by war and an ugly racial divide.

Magadza's father had completed, on a scholarship, a PhD in biology in Auckland and her mother studied music and literature. "In Zimbabwe, my father was almost the first generation that went to secondary school."

He remains, she says, eternally grateful for his education and has been involved with researching climate change at an international level. He still teaches at the University of Zimbabwe – "from core biology to environmental stuff".

Harare in the 1970s, when he first took up a post at the university, was hardly a haven for a mixed-race relationship.

Magadza and her sister were largely insulated from conflict outside Harare "but it was impossible not to know what was going on". Family members were caught up in the fighting through conscription, there were sanctions and shortages "and you didn't travel out of the city unless in a convoy".

But from the ages of 5 to 18 she went cheerfully to a rare non-denominational, mixed-race school run by strict Dominican nuns in the centre of Harare.

"Harare was a beautiful environment, really lovely. It was a very lucky childhood when I think about it."

There was no television in the Magadza household – "the television was government rubbish" – but always art, music and writing. "I didn't think of it as a profession."

Around 1990, when she was nearly 20, she returned to New Zealand on her own – "a teenager who doesn't know the consequences".

"I'd saved up money and worked and been to England and travelled to the States and I guess I came here because it was Mum's home.

"Two weeks after I arrived in New Zealand, I got two job offers on the same day, one working eight to six at the tax department and the other a four-month contract at the festival office. I was going to take the tax job but my flatmates said 'You're crazy', and I could still go to university. It just happened."

At Victoria University she studied politics, mastered in international relations and graduated in 1994. Working for the festival became a two-year cycle. "In my off-time I studied and travelled. It was quite an itinerant eight years. And I went to Zimbabwe for long patches."

At the festival office she graduated from tea lady to nappy-buyer to logistics organiser. In her last year, 2002, she was deputy-director and produced new New Zealand shows – The Underwater Melon Man, The World's Wife, Ranterstantrum and Island.

Then, on a whim, she was off to Perth for what turned out to be a nine-year stint.

She has, she says, a "generalist" background in the arts. "I've done a lot of learning on the job. There are two ways into this role: being a practising artist or up through the management route where you know a little about a lot, which makes you a generalist. I've done heaps of travel and spent a lot of my own money seeing as much as I could."

She has, she says, a "ferocious" appetite for the performing arts.

In New Zealand, a powerful reaction that connected her to her earliest idealism came from hearing a Georgian group singing in Georgian as they responded to a powhiri. "That reinforced for me that it does in the end tie up with what I studied, ways of relating across the world."

Magadza says 20 years of festival experience "has changed my life for the better – all the things I've seen. I want to pass that on to as many people as I can.

"The internet age has had a huge influence. It's very much about trying to open as many doors for as many people as I can, creating roads into the festival for the broadest audience without losing the core of bringing contemporary arts to Wellington."

For the iPhone generation she envisages appeal in Subtlemobs where each "performer" wears an MP3 player "and things happen". Appealing to them too: Ursula Martinez and her experience of internet infamy, and the runaway hit of this year's Auckland Fringe festival, Black Faggot. "I hope for a young generation those sorts of issues and quality will bring them in."

Magadza is happy to play favourites with what she has included in the festival. "I fall in love every day," she says. She didn't see love coming with the Russian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Edinburgh Festival. It wasn't on her list of must-sees.

"It was a discovery, my favourite thing."

The production was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival and features six-metre-high puppets, acrobats, singers, and a local Jack Russell terrier. The stars are The Mechanicals, the players-within-a-play.

"You forget it's a Russian adaptation. The script is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's their re-imaging of it and putting the mechanics at the middle of it."

She's only seen images of Needles and Opium, from Robert Lepage, creator of earlier festival favourites The Dragons' Trilogy and the eight-hour-long The Seven Streams of the River Ota.

"He's extraordinary. There are few theatre-makers in the world creating theatre in the totality of their vision." His involvement in every aspect of a production "makes it less theatre. It gives a cinematic fluidity. This was the piece which made him famous in the 1990s and then it was put away, I don't know why, and it's been pulled out of the bottom drawer, a fresh new version. The images of it are beautiful. The Lepage is a festival must."

Another pick: Bach Collegium Japan, which will perform the St John Passion and Lutheran Masses. And from the dance selection – "Deca Dance from Israel. I saw them in Edinburgh last year, in a different show and they were stunning. They're extraordinary."

She's heard the modern opera Ainadamar on CD. Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov's work – to be staged by the NZSO and New Zealand Opera's Chapman Tripp chorus – "brings a latin influence".

Then there are singers like Neko Case and Charles Bradley – "a phenomenon, a guy who had hard luck all his life and was discovered in his 50s as a James Brown impersonator and was given a record deal. And the Tiger Lillies, so naughty, so very, very naughty, who create The Rime of the Ancient Mariner journey through the world and encounter frenzied, demented incidents."

It's obvious, as Magadza flicks backwards and forwards through the festival catalogue, that she is working her way through the entire repertoire. Every show appeals to her.

She sees the free and inclusive opening powhiri and The Big Bang "as about trying to engender a sense of ownership of the festival, the way the city functions around it. It's about a sense of pulling in a city and offering to the world. We have greats amongst ourselves."

Of course, she says, there are other acts she would like to have brought to Wellington. "Even in Perth there would be 10 other things you would like to have done. You get greedy in this job."

She's clearly attempted a spread of work, something for older people whose usual cultural haunt is the Michael Fowler Centre to hear classical music, through to teenage electronic obsessives who may never have been to the theatre. She likes to think there's not a sharp divide.

"Age is sometimes a silly thing. Some people have been coming loyally to the festival for 20 years but some older people might be more open to new things than some younger people.

"An elderly man came up to me in Perth and said: 'I'd like more of two things in your festival, more Shakespeare and more nudity.' I think I should phone him up to come over.

"I feel really privileged and honoured to come back to New Zealand in this role. There's a tremendous team of people. I want to offer this with the best heart to everyone."

The New Zealand Festival is on next year from February 21 to March 16. Tickets go on sale on Thursday.

The Dominion Post