In 2009, a recession-generated 'perfect storm' saw poor ticket sales and losses for the biennial Auckland Arts Festival. Yet, as Alan Perrott finds, its director David Malacari is upbeat for 2011 and convinced Auckland is a more important cultural centre than Wellington.
It wasn't the decision to swap law school for a flagging acting career that upset his mum.
"Oh David," she had fretted. "I'm just a bit worried. The theatre ... it's full of drugs and queer people."
"That's one of the great quotes of my life," laughs David Malacari as he prepares for his fourth and final Auckland Arts Festival.
Still, it's now 35 years since his mother's dire warning. Was she right?
"Ha ... quite possibly."
And he should know. He's so far worked as an actor, stagehand, lighting designer, theatre bar tender, ticket tout, writer, critic, producer, location manager, programme manager, general manager and, most latterly, assorted directorships.
He could even add to the list, with some justification, miracle worker. That Auckland's biennial festival endures at all may be his greatest legacy.
Malacari flew into Auckland in 2004 in a last-gasp attempt to keep the '05 event alive. Just as his predecessor and recent mayoral contender Simon Prast, had done in 2003. From the outside, the Auckland Festival appeared to be a luvvie-lead schemozzle notable for financial losses, empty seats, internal bitching and highly public beheadings.
Yet, the show went on. Malacari diplomatically described the period prior to his arrival as "the rocky path" all creative ventures must endure, even as he dampened down expectations for the following festival in 2007. "Keep cool and she'll be right" was his credo.
And so it was. For two whole years.
"2009 was our perfect storm," he says. The festival lights came up just as the economy crashed down around it.
"As you can imagine, that affected everything. We even had a circus on the programme that year and as it turned out, we ended up with two other circuses in town at the same time ... selling tickets to anything was very difficult. But look, that's the environment we have to work in, you just have to get on with it. Right now, I'd have to say there's a far more optimistic feel in the air than back then."
Such stresses had no place in the glamorous world he had imagined as a hormonal teen watching a girls' high school production of Carousel. "Being on stage seemed so cool," says the now-53-year-old father of two. "It was all I wanted to do. Performing live every night is different, a new production. There's something seductive, almost addictive, about it that I love. I started a law degree at university, but I was so busy with dramatic society shows that I totally disengaged from it."
At 19, Malacari joined a tiny Brisbane theatre company. Instead of attending lectures, he auditioned for parts, worked the bar and helped out backstage.
After a rapid apprenticeship covering everything from lighting to reviewing and cabaret to documentary-making, he moved to Adelaide in 1990 to direct the city's festival of arts, a job working as a meta-DJ who selects and blends performances rather than tracks.
"I found quite a career path there," he says modestly. During his 12-year stint he toured festivals to India and England and established a family-friendly performance company that he took to North America and Japan before moving his family to Auckland.
Malacari is far from alone in his jetset work. There wouldn't be too many international flights without a festival director on board heading somewhere exotic to see something bewildering.
He does his best to reduce the apparent glamour, though, saying the festival circuit is work, not a holiday. If he's not running between venues or swapping ideas with other directors, he's sitting in the gloom asking himself if what he's watching is any good.
As he says, he sits through the crap so we don't have to.
And he's seen plenty. In Montreal he could only scratch his head when a performance featuring nude dancers doing an endless series of bellyslides across a soaked stage received a standing ovation. Then there was the German show where the audience was invited to wander among huge piles of flowers strewn throughout an old ironworks. Just as he was enjoying the heady scent, up sprung more nudists, who attacked the flowers and ground their nether regions against unimpressed businessmen to the accompaniment of overdriven guitars.
Malacari's verdict? "A baffling display of indulgence. You might be left thinking you want those two hours of your life back, but there's always a reason to see them. They add to your knowledge of what is happening in the world and your ideas on what you like and dislike, even if you don't quite know how to describe what you've seen. In some ways that is the challenge all festivals try to present, getting people to step out of their comfort zones and experiment with their tastes."
Especially when daring delivers unexpected shivers. During a recent visit to the Bogota Festival, part of his intent was to connect us with what is happening throughout the Pacific rim. A fellow director recommended La Odisea, a retooling of Homer's Odyssey that didn't sound that promising, given it was in Spanish.
"I had so much to get through," Malacari says, "so I thought I'd stay till the interval and then leave. But I just couldn't. Even though I didn't understand a word, it was utterly compelling and had a really lovely feeling about it. I was completely drawn in."
The only problem was getting it here from Bolivia, a nation lacking a port, suitable flights and, at times, friendly neighbours. Just as he began considering smuggling them over the Andes on llamas, a way came clear.
So even the remotest of festivals can be a leg-up to attracting international attention. Eyes are always peeled for a new addition to the circuit and it is with some pride that Malacari mentions the success of Red Leap Theatre's production The Arrival, a piece commissioned especially for AK07. That show not only attracted plaudits here it went on to feature at festivals in Hong Kong, Sydney and even local rival Wellington.
"The biggest thing for us," says Red Leap producer Lauren Hughes, "was that [the festival commission] gave us the opportunity to create something on a scale we could never have afforded and then provided a huge platform to present it on.
"That made an enormous difference for us and became a great collaborative experience. We really appreciated the amount of risk several individuals took."
It helped, says Hughes, that Mala-cari's reign had delivered a new stability to the festival and she is hopeful the regime change after he leaves will be a smooth one.
Which may be when he gets his dues. Long-term festival trustee Victoria Carter says, "I would like to think this festival will see him getting the accolades he deserves. I think it's only now becoming clear what he was seeking to achieve. It's been a softly-softly approach each time of inviting the audience to be a little braver, which eventually means all our local artists can broaden their base and challenge themselves to create works there may well be an audience for now."
Malacari says six years and four festivals is enough. It's time for the event and his career to get a reboot. If he could leave just one thing behind, it might well be an answer to one aggravating question.
"I get it all the time: 'why does Auckland need a festival? Wellington has one already.' Well, Auckland is now an important cultural centre, as much if not more so than Wellington. There is so much happening here and the festival is a rare chance to throw a spotlight on it.
"Our job is to present that stuff for Aucklanders. Who cares what they're doing in Wellington? It doesn't matter to us at all."
The Auckland Festival is on from March 2-20, 2011.