Iconic playwright celebrates 20 years of Noosa Alive

Playwright David Williamson and Noosa Alive festival president Andrew Squires. Photo: Rob Maccoll

By Abbey Cannan

As Noosa Alive reignites in its 20th year, renowned playwright David Williamson takes a look back at how it all began as a co-founder of one of the most successful multi-arts festivals in Australia.

Between writing 55 plays, 15 movie scripts, and four television series, David found time along with five local friends in the industry to bring the best of arts to Noosa.

“We thought, Noosa is not just sun, sand and surf. There are a lot of people at Noosa who are really interested in the arts,“ he said.

“We decided that it had to be a multi-arts festival. All of the festivals seemed to be about one thing and we wanted to give people a choice and offer them a bit of everything.

“We got together and threw in a couple thousand bucks each of our own money just to get the festival started.

“We all knew a lot of people in the arts, so we got many incredible performers to Noosa for practically nothing in the first couple of years.“

Rapidly the festival became less amateur and more professional, allowing them to hire a full-time artistic director to curate the program.

But back in 2002, David said they were very much flying by the seat of their pants, as he recalled the day he forgot his own lines on stage.

“Just for novelty effect, I agreed to go back on stage acting in one of my own plays with my wife Kristin, who is a good actor. I’m not so good,“ he laughed.

“Our Deputy Mayor Frank Wilkie was also in the cast. We went to rehearsals and it sold out. Everyone thought, this is fun to see Williamson actually acting in his own play.“

His debut turned into a near disaster during the premiere.

“Opening night, there’s a star-studded audience, as well as my two highly-trained actor sons Rory and Felix. I walk on stage and freeze. My own lines just went totally out of my head. I’m supposed to say something to Frank. I can hear a laugh from the audience. Frank rescued me and off I went and got through it.“

After the show, people crowded Kristin Williamson with congratulations on her incredible performance.

“I’m waiting for all the compliments,“ David said. “Finally a lady came up to me and said ’that was a very nice suit you were wearing’. I wasn’t a star, but at least it was fun.“

Learning from the mistakes of previous failed festivals, David said they founded Noosa Alive with two principles; it must be multi-arts and it must not alienate the local community.

“You’ve got to count for at least 70 per cent of the audience to be local. There has to not just be expensive events but also community events,“ he said.

“Because the town was always on side, we never had any trouble with volunteers. Without volunteers at every event, it would have been impossible to afford to stage.“

The support of the community was what kept the festival alive when they suddenly lost about $150,000 worth of sponsorship in 2012.

“We thought we were finished,“ David said.

“I never want to do it again but I went around the town with a begging bowl to all the local businesses and identities. It was a horrible eight weeks but they saved us.

“We were pulled back from the brink of disaster and that turned out to be a flourishing year. That was the benefit of knowing the community was on side.“

After that, David thought the future was secure for the festival until Covid-19 wiped out the arts industry in 2020.

“It was a disaster,“ he said.

In his 50th year of playwriting, David’s big exit into retirement was interrupted in a way no one expected, taking out his last productions overnight.

“My big finish didn’t turn out to be quite as big as I had hoped,“ he said.

“But everyone suffered in Covid. I’ve had a terrific run over 50 years and decided to go out when people were still coming to the plays in numbers.

“I didn’t want to be wandering around at the age of 99 wondering why no one was in the theatre seeing my play anymore.“

Although he is no longer spending his time playwriting, David is now writing his memoir which will be out before Christmas 2021.

“I’m spilling the beans on all the terrible things I’ve done and the interesting people I’ve met,“ he said.

“I think it should be a fun read, I’m not taking myself too seriously. I’ve certainly gone through a lot in all those 50 years of ups and downs.“

A taste of the memoir comes from a week spent in a rehearsal room in London with Madonna.

“It was quite an experience,“ David said. “She was playing a lead in my play Up For Grabs. She summoned me to London. She’s a tough lady. She wanted the play rewritten and the producer said unless you rewrite it, she’ll walk. So I had to change the whole ending.“

He describes his career as a terrific ride, but a stressful one.

“To have a play a year coming out and knowing that you’re only as good as your last play, and if the audience doesn’t come, you’re in trouble. The opening nights, the critics, the box office returns. It’s stressful. But miraculously the audience has kept coming all those 50 years.“

With a Covid-19 vaccine on the way and stringent control methods, David said Australia has been luckier than most.

“We can get the arts back up and running, including Noosa Alive.“

Noosa Alive Reignite 2021 runs from March 11-13. Purchase tickets at noosaalive.com.au.