Literary lunching in Mildura

As we noted in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, writers festivals are a big deal not only in the big cities but also in regional centres. Mildura, in north-western Victoria, has been running its writers festival since 1994, and it keeps growing year-on-year.

The 2010 Mildura Writers Festival will run from 15-18 July, and last weekend I went up there for a well-attended preview lunch , hosted by long-time festival supporter restaurateur Stefano di Pieri at his Gallery 25 café (the full dinner experience at his world-renowned restaurant will have to wait until next time!).

The guest of honour for the lunch was Dr Jack Hibberd, best-known as the author of the seminal Australian play Dimboola. Over 40 years after its first performance at Melbourne’s La Mama in 1969, Dimboola is arguably Australia’s most-performed play, with 15-20 new productions every year, often in regional and remote communities. But as Stefano said in his introduction, the 70-year-old Hibberd is a ‘jack of all trades: trained as a doctor [he still works two days a week as an allergy specialist], Jack Hibberd is a playwright, poet, translator, wine writer …’ Hibberd was also on the Australia Council’s Literature Board until recently.

playwright, poet and doctor Jack Hibberd on his 70th birthday

After an excellent Stefano’s lunch featuring local produce and Stefano’s own wines, Hibberd spoke about his life and work and the enduring legacy of Dimboola, then read from some of his recent poems, before handing over to his wife, actor and comedian Evelyn Krape, to complete the reading.

Asked to comment on the current state of writing for theatre in Australia (especially considering that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards this year decided that no play was worthy of shortlisting and instead directed the $30,000 prizemoney to developing new works), Hibberd was up-front: ‘I think it’s in a bit of a rut, there’s no philosophy and no history among the current crop of writers: it’s all either realism or farce, and neither done in ways that are particularly interesting, radical or thoughtful.’

A small and intimate festival

The line-up for the 2010 Mildura Writers Festival festival is impressive, with over a dozen guests including Don Watson, Kate Jennings, Les Murray and Peter Goldsworthy. ‘One of the key aspects of Mildura’s writers festival is that we keep it small and intimate,’ said director Helen Healy. Part of the deal for the writers is that they have to agree to stay for all four days – they can’t fly in, do their session and fly out again. ‘Everyone is here for four days and get to know each other so it’s not only readers listening to writers but readers and writers talking and writers talking and listening to each other.’

 See www.artsmildura.com.au for more details.