Jemma Birrell

Jemma Birrell

Bachelor of Arts (Communication) (Hons) (2003)

Artistic Director, Sydney Writers’ Festival

UTS Alumni Award for Excellence 2014 - Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences

A unique opportunity to bring her love of literature to the Australian public was a powerful enticement for Jemma Birrell to come home.

Birrell spent seven years in Paris at world famous bookshop Shakespeare and Company, where she built an enviable public program as their first ever events director. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of philosopher to the people, Alain de Botton and second generation author, Martin Amis, before landing the job of her dreams as Artistic Director for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It was an opportunity that she just couldn’t imagine refusing.

“The writing community in Australia is so rich – creatively it’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.”

“The Festival brings together some of the most interesting people from Australia and around the world,” says Birrell. “The writing community here is so rich – creatively it’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.”

Now in her second year in the role, Birrell’s fresh vision and unique programming has taken the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival to new heights, breaking all records for ticketing, book sales, audience numbers and geographic reach. With 450 writers and 350 events across 60 venues, her program fused literature with music, TV writing, performance, politics and social issues to attract and inspire a more diverse audience than ever before.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Hons) in 2003, Birrell started out in Australian publishing before heading to Paris. Whilst with Shakespeare and Company she developed a world-renowned literary program presenting leading authors, thinkers and musicians, and co-directed three editions of FestivalandCo, a biennial literary festival set in a park opposite Notre Dame. All the while Birrell kept assessing books for possible publication by French houses.

With such remarkable experience already under her belt and Birrell’s gift for compelling programming that mixes intellectual rigour with mass appeal, it seems her story is just beginning. “I’m currently planning the program for the next Sydney Writers’ Festival, trying to tempt some of the most stimulating people from around the world to come and take part,” she says. And after that, it seems anything’s possible.


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