In 2009 Chrissy Sharp, then general manager of London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, became the centre’s first director and was succeeded by her deputy, Michael Williams, who stepped down this year after running the centre for 10 years.
Llewellyn, whose memoir Diving into Glass, about her father’s polio and her own experience with multiple sclerosis, was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, is trying to finish a novel before she starts at the centre next month. But that experience, she says, adds to the 360-degree lens she offers.
“I’ve written, I’ve worked in publishing, I’ve done festivals and I have worked in book sales so I think that’s an interesting combination and I’m looking forward to engaging with the publishing sector but also other cultural organisations.”
The world is a very different place from 12 years ago, but some things have not changed: there is a crisis. Then it was the GFC, now it’s the pandemic. But Llewellyn is unfazed: “Of course in this environment there are a lot of challenges, but I see challenges as opportunities. I think there are many, many wonderful things we can do, that I am excited to do.”
Llewellyn says she has previously joined cultural organisations, built on aspects and also taken them in new directions. She cites her work as the producer of the centenary program at New York Public Library as an example.
“How we work online with audiences is going to be very important in this new era. I would also like to see us work in rural and regional areas. I’m all about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to take part in arts and culture and particularly literature,” she says. “For me, that’s a big driver. The more we can spread the love across this great state the better off we are. That is a challenge: how do you take programs to regional and rural areas and make it viable?”
During lockdown, she launched Together-Remotely, a series of online conversations with authors such as Colum McCann, Polly Samson, Andrew Sean Greer and Luke Davies.
She sees the role of robust conversation as shining light into dark places. “We have to ask difficult questions and be prepared to have really rigorous, and honest debates. It’s important that we don’t just reflect back our own opinions, that we engage with difficult topics, and engage with the people we don’t necessarily agree with because otherwise we are just talking to ourselves.”
So how does this year’s model differ from the Caro Llewellyn of 2008? Greater international curating experience has broadened her vision and understanding of what the Wheeler Centre needs to do and how it needs to talk to different people. And, she says, she has more senior experience in management.
From the point of programming – central to her role – she has a contact book many festival directors would kill for. She gets surprised sometimes when she goes into a bookshop.
“I look around the shelves and I think, ‘I know that person, I know that person, I could ring that person, that person’s in my phone’. That’s been an incredible privilege and an incredible luxury: to have met all those people and to have the opportunity to engage them in Australia,” she says. “We’re a long way away, but that’s the wonderful thing about online. We can bring people but you don’t necessarily have to put them on an aeroplane. We can have a zero carbon footprint but still amazing people – and that’s good for everybody.”
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald