Brett Sheehy is probably the most passionate arts lover I have ever met – and also the most humble.

After dropping out of Law three times over six years – apparently it wasn't 'in the blood' like the rest of his family – he made a living through gardening and office cleaning whilst writing reviews for Sydney street paper On the Street. His love of English literature and dramatic texts at the University of Queensland led to his interest in drama and reviewing and, after successfully applying for the role of 'gofer' at the Sydney Theatre Company, Brett climbed the ranks – first as Artistic Associate, then Literary Manager, and finally Deputy General Manager. When Anthony Steel, then Director of the Sydney Festival called, Brett couldn't say no. Brett spent ten years at the Sydney festival and was Deputy Director for six. He then spent four years at the Adelaide Festival and this is his third Melbourne Festival.

The Melbourne Festival started 1986 as one of three Spoleto Festivals around the world. Originally titled the Spoleto Festival of Three Worlds it became the Spoleto International Festival and then the International Spoleto Festival Melbourne. After about seven or eight name changes Brett joined the festival when it was still called the Melbourne International Arts Festival "which is such a mouthful, and after having directed the Sydney Festival and the Adelaide Festival I said 'Let's just be the Melbourne Festival.'" The festival has always been "a multi-artform [celebration] with free and ticketed events, indoor and outdoor, across as many art forms as the director is passionate about" – luckily for us Brett's passion spreads far and wide. Brett is a huge visual art fan so expect to see that influencing this year's program. The Festival's program is very Director-dependent and directorships are therefore limited to 2-4 years to make sure the feel of the Festival stays fresh.

Brett takes on the role of Artistic Director at the Melbourne Theatre Company after next year's Festival, replacing outgoing Artistic Director Simon Phillips with an interim year in between.

So what's in this year's festival for theatre people? Brett favours "things that couldn't happen if it wasn't for the Festival" – and there's a few of them in this year's theatre program. Rhinoceros In Love is being co-presented with OzAsia Festival in Adelaide and also Brisbane festival and "this is the first ever contemporary drama that has toured outside mainland China in history."

"We've been asking for this diet of traditional Chinese operas, ballet, acrobats, plate spinning, dragons and red lanterns, but I knew that in a country of 1.3 billion people that also, in the art form of theatre, there had to be incredibly exciting, contemporary 21st-century work happening – I'd just never seen it. So as a guest of the Chinese government I went up to Beijing last November with a delegation of six other presenters from around Australia and we said 'We want to see contemporary work' and they [were so surprised because] the West has never showed an interest in contemporary Chinese drama. [Rhinoceros In Love] is actually a big commercial hit in China – it plays to packed houses every night, particularly young audiences mainly between 20 and 30, maybe 20 and 35. It's got a fantastic cast of young people on stage. It's an incredibly contemporary production – it's a love story, it's tragi-comic – [and] it has fabulous dramatic moments all the way through. It has a soundtrack of everything from traditional Chinese music to a Western, pop vernacular… It's China today, it's the China of the 21st century that we talk about every day in business, in finance, in everything. This is the first time ever that the West – and we're lucky that Australia is the country that gets it – sees where contemporary drama is at in China."

Brett is also particularly excited about Thomas Ostermeier's interpretation of Hedda Gabler: "For me one of the three great theatre houses in Europe is the Schaubühne in Berlin and the Artistic Director there, and also the Director of this production, Thomas Ostermeier – what he does, especially with classic texts, is that he puts them through the 21st-century lens and remakes them, not in a kind of mash up, but reconfigures them thematically for the 21st century." Ostermeier's work never been seen in Melbourne before and Brett is desperate for Melbourne audiences to see this production.

"Nothing can duplicate the live experience [of theatre] – where we come together… It can never die. So I have no fear of screen culture, I have no fear of recording culture because, finally, it's in our DNA that we have to come together as members of a tribe and tell stories to each other."

Brett becomes physically excited when he talks about "doing something that's never been done before and will never be done in the world again. That's not easily done but you can do it more easily with music than anything else." The Festival's finale concert, titled Notes From the Hard Road and Beyond, focuses on this year's themes of protest, revolution, and redemption. The Black Arm Band, Joss Stone, Rickie Lee Jones, Mavis Staples, Emmanuel Jal, Paul Dempsey, and Archie Roach will present a combined concert that's thematically linked: "You can only do that once. This is a once in a lifetime moment of those artists collaborating on something which is really an exploration of protest music from the '60s right through to the 21st century."

The risk involved with every festival is massive with many world premieres of local, Australian works that Brett believes have the capacity to be presented on International stage, but "creating something from scratch that doesn't exist and will never exist again? That's kind of special for me."

"Did I come from a performance background? The answer is a monumental no because I would just never have the courage. And I suppose that's why this job has been so magical to me – because I'm not an artist I still have that thing where I kind of deify artists and they are special and 'shaman-esque' and they do something I could never ever dream of doing. And because of that that's what's made me just love this job so much."

Brett specifically loves working and creating art in Melbourne as "there is such a defined precinct [here] – in about half a square kilometre there are forty professional venues to present dance, visual art, theatre, etc. and that's unheard of anywhere else in the country." The concept of angels and demons (on left) will define the Festival's boundaries from outside the Town Hall right down to ACCA and the Malthouse.

Next year's festival is about 70% there: "30% not for want of work, it's what I'm editing down." Being Brett's final Melbourne Festival "it will be what I know and love – work across every art form, anchored in the 21st century. Any classical work will only be there because it's been through a filter or a lens of an incredibly contemporary vision." Coincidentally the Festival is shaping up to feature all of the headlining acts over Brett's years of Artistic Direction: "There will be a little bit of 'greatest hits' happening, if that makes sense."

The Melbourne Festival runs October 6-22 with full details at www.melbournefestival.com.au.

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