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11 Things You Need to See and Do at Sydney Festival 2020

From a superorganism of 50 bodies moving as one to a camp cowboy crooner, these are the boundary-pushing and thoroughly entertaining shows you should see at next year’s festival.
By Joe Rivers
October 30, 2019

11 Things You Need to See and Do at Sydney Festival 2020

From a superorganism of 50 bodies moving as one to a camp cowboy crooner, these are the boundary-pushing and thoroughly entertaining shows you should see at next year’s festival.
By Joe Rivers
October 30, 2019


in partnership with

From a superorganism of 50 bodies moving as one to a camp cowboy crooner, these are the boundary-pushing and thoroughly entertaining shows you should see at next year’s festival.

So you've got your hot little hands on the Sydney Festival 2020 program and you're experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, from do-I-need-sleep-in-January? to #overwhelmed. There's so much good stuff to choose from — including more than 70 new and diverse events — so where do you start? What you need is a friendly hand on your shoulder to point you in the direction of this year's festival highlights. Good news, we've done the hard yards to bring you a list of the 11 events you should circle with a highlighter and spend your hard-earned cash on to ensure you don't experience festival FOMO come January 8–26.

  • 11
    Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined

    Reg Livermore’s one-man cabaret show, Betty Blokk-Buster Follies, certainly caused a stir when it debuted at the Balmain Bijou in 1975. In fact, The Sydney Morning Herald wouldn’t even send a critic to review the performance, though The National Times went so far as to say it was “the greatest thing since Rice Bubbles.” The reception for the last night of its original Sydney run was so overwhelming that Livermore said he “wished [he’d] been in the audience himself.” Now, in a world premiere with former Home and Away actor Josh Quong Tart, the character of Betty is back to shock, provoke, amuse and, most of all, entertain. Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined will run throughout Sydney Festival in the Spiegeltent.

    Image: Daniel Linnet. 

  • 10
    Joan Didion's The White Album

    No, not The Beatles record, but instead Joan Didion’s seminal essay on 1960s American counterculture, taking in everything from the Black Panther movement to the Manson Family and a coterie of key LA musical figures. Award-winning director Lars Jan has adapted Didion’s piece for theatre, building a performance where Mia Barron delivers the text as a number of stories of the time unfold around her. Joan Didion’s The White Album has been touring American theatres and is an Australian exclusive for Sydney Festival. The performance features 25 audience members on stage acting as witnesses to the juxtaposing social upheaval of the 60s with our present day injustices. It promises to be a treat; as the first line of the essay says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

  • 9
    I'm a Phoenix, Bitch

    Now that title’s got your attention, let’s talk. The year 2015 was a tough 365 days for artist Bryony Kimmings — she broke up with her fiancé, experienced post-natal depression and her son was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy. Most people wouldn’t go on to create a musical theatre piece based on those events, but then most people aren’t Bryony Kimmings. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch earned rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival earlier in the year and was called “an exhilarating ride” by The Guardian. Guaranteed to inspire as much as entertain, Kimmings shows us all how we can triumph over adversity.

    Image: Christa Holka.

  • 8
    Two Crews

    It’s always fascinating to see what happens when two seemingly disparate cultures collide, and that’s exactly what director Nick Powers is looking to explore with Two Crews, his show that brings together a pair of very different hip-hop dance groups. France’s Lady Rocks are known for their sharpness and combative approach whereas Sydney’s own Riddim Nation take a more fluid approach to the discipline of hip hop. Powers has had the opportunity to work with the crews collectively and individually, an approach he’ll replicate with the audience, first allowing them to see each crew in isolation before bringing everyone together for an exciting and intimate experience.

    Image: Timothee Lejolivet.

  • 7

    If one dancer can convey a range of emotions with movement, then how about two? Four? Ten? Twenty? Choreographer Stephanie Lake’s latest dance work invites the audience to consider a superorganism of 50 bodies, all moving together as one. However, not always in perfect synchronicity. This way, we get to experience both the beauty and the ugliness of collectivism — very much an allegory for the times in which we live. Both chaotic and beautiful, Colossus provides an immersive experience that’s sure to stay with you long after the final, lone dancer has left the stage.

    Image: Mark Gambino.

  • 6
    Orville Peck

    Before heading to Tassie to wow the crowds at Mona Foma, Canadian cowboy crooner Orville Peck will be at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent to inject a much-needed dose of camp into country music. Peck is something of an enigma, he only started performing earlier this year and the disguise he wears at all times (think the Lone Ranger’s mask, with but with a fabulous fringe) means his identity has thus far remained a secret, though, obviously, rumours abound. He self produced his debut album, Pony, which was nominated for the Polaris Prize, Canada’s most prestigious musical honour. It’s 100 percent Nashville; zero percent bashful.

  • 5
    Double Delicious

    Far more than simply sustenance, food is about bringing people together, creating an experience and sharing something of yourself. Preparing a meal is an act of love, and it’s this attitude that a handful of revered cooks will be bringing to Carriageworks for Double Delicious. There’s a story behind every dish, and the storytellers, which include writer Benjamin Law and chef Heather Jeong, will be spinning a yarn while slicing and sautéing to tell you what food means to them, both personally and in terms of its cultural significance. It’ll be an experience that promises to be equal servings mouth-watering and mind-altering.

    Image: Courtney Stewart.

  • 4
    Triple Threat

    There have been countless retellings of the New Testament across all forms of art, but it’s unlikely any of them have been classified as “trashstep-dubpunk” before. Triple Threat is an outrageously transgressive show that’s said to be as side-splitting as it is sacrilegious. It’s sexually explicit, it’s unapologetically trashy and it’s uproariously absurd, so probably not the kind of thing you want to take your steadfastly church-going friend to see. Or maybe they’ll love it. It’s been hugely popular in London and arrives in Australia for the first time in January. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you. Spoiler alert: over 18s only.

    Image: The Other Richard. 

  • 3
    The Mermaid

    Performance artist Hanna Cormick is asking who gets to make art and why. Cormick has genetic disorders that mean she uses a wheelchair, brace and respirator — she cannot breathe normal air. In this show, she repurposes those medical devices to imagine herself as a mermaid, unable to breathe the air that we take for granted. It’s a show that challenges our approach to sharing and consuming resources but it’s also an act of defiance; Cormick risks seizures and allergic reactions whenever she performs in public. The show also comes with a warning for other people with airborne sensitivities and trigger warnings for medical references. It takes place at the Coal Loader and it’s one of the most affordable shows to catch during the Festival.

    Image: Shelly Higgs.

  • 2
    She Conjured the Clouds

    The world premiere of Justene Williams’ multi-sensory experience is an imagination-fuelled kaleidoscope sure to delight attendees of all ages. Williams is known for her ambitious pieces — her 2014 work, Santa Was a Psychopomp, involved constructing a giant snow dome from a range of materials — but She Conjured the Clouds might be her most daring project yet. It’s a tactile, interactive installation, where you can eat parts of the scenery, be part of a fairytale and play within the world she’s created. There’s a focus on inclusivity too, with the performance accessible to those from the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

    Image: Justene Williams.

  • 1
    Bran Nue Dae

    A landmark in Aboriginal musical theatre, Bran Nue Dae won awards and fans across the country during its original tour in the 1990s. A winner of a Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, the beloved musical is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its debut with a run at Riverside Theatre, allowing audiences old and new the opportunity to spend time with Willie as he makes his way home from mission school. A coming of age story set in 1960s WA that’s choc-full of musical numbers, Bran Nue Dae is likely to delight audiences today just as much as it did three decades ago.

    Image: Ben Symons.


Sydney Festival 2020 runs from January 8–26. Explore the full program and book your tickets in advance to avoid missing out. 

Top image: Daniel Linnet. 

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