First published on 4 Feb 2013. Updated on 14 Feb 2013.
Stunning, overwhelming, manic. Bonjour Avignon! As I step through the Porte de la Republique, the main gate into the old city, grenades of applause fire off around me to coincide with buskers that line the narrow streets. I’m here, amidst the official Festival d’Avignon and Fringe Festival ‘Off’, which take place simultaneously, to begin my programming trip for the Famous Spiegeltent on behalf of Arts Centre Melbourne.
Spiegeltents are one of the few inanimate objects in the English language that take a gendered pronoun. Just like ships, they are girls and each has her own personality. The Famous Spiegeltent from Belgium is one of the oldest and in my opinion, the prettiest of them all. We all talk about her as though she is a person.
The shows I need to see number more than 100. It’s epic but I’m not daunted. Today I’ll start with two shows but first I need to answer some emails, knock back a decent coffee and hunt down David Bates, 'Spiegelmaestro' and owner of the Famous Spiegeltent. I find him sitting with old friends and programmers from all over the world. They give me the lowdown on what to see, what to avoid and who to schmooze. Avignon is magic. Most artists I meet have never even considered coming to Australia. I get the feeling convincing people to come to the other side of the world will be tough. I take the Spiegelmaestro through the plans for the Melbourne site. The ever-popular W-Class Tram bar is returning as a feature. The tram sitting next the Famous Spiegeltent under the Arts Centre Melbourne spire is a winning formula we don’t want to mess with.
Next stop London. I jump on the Tube to find there are no delays and the streets are oddly clean. What the hell is going on? As cheering people line the streets it dawns on me: the Olympics. There goes the torch. I miss it. I’ve got no time for Olympic fever. I’m focused on hunting spiegeltents – I am very nosy and like to see how other people run their programming and what shows they put on. There’s one at the London Wonderground on the Southbank, right beneath the London Eye. I see all the shows programmed there and lock in several meetings. It’s going to be a busy few days.
At every meeting I’m asked if I’ll be in Edinburgh for the festivals in August. It’s clear all the real deal-making will take place in Scotland. An email with a hot programming tip about a show in
Berlin pops into my inbox from the Spiegelmaestro. Perfect timing.
August in Edinburgh is like no place else on earth. Unique is an overused word, but it absolutely applies here. The hundreds of performances taking place every day aren’t even part of one single event. They’re separate, simultaneous jamborees. The International Arts Festival, Festival Fringe, Jazz Festival, Book Festival, Comedy Festival, Film Festival and Television Festival all take place at once against the stunning backdrop of seven hills, the Medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town. It looks like Harry Potter Fairy Princess Land and it feels otherworldly.
There’s nothing like it in Australia. I could compare it to having the AFL Grand Final every day for a month but even that doesn’t cut it. The number of tickets sold here is exceeded only by the Olympic Games and the World Cup, and that’s not counting the free stuff. I make a beeline for the Famous Spiegeltent where she now lights up George Street and she’s magnificent all over again. That’s my girl. She gets around.
I'm in Mitte Berlin; home to German hipsters and the lovely Chameleon Theatre where I’ll see two shows tonight. Tomorrow I’ll follow up that Spiegelmaestro lead and head to the BASE Berlin.
Part training space, part living quarters, part office, the BASE Berlin, founded by director Markus Pabst and performers the Caesar Twins, is a place where artists, directors, choreographers, filmmakers and photographers collaborate. A new show called The Trip with Spanish boylesque contortionist and acrobat David Pereira is in development. As David folds himself effortlessly into a giant mirror ball, I know this is exactly the type of thing I’m looking for.
It's time to start talking turkey. I'm a budget and proposal machine. The team at home are scouting in Melbourne, Sydney and at Darwin Festival. I try to balance their thoughts against what I find here. Together, between the UK and Australia we are looking for acts 24 hours a day.
On one day I walk out of two terrible shows. It’s tough going. Twelve days of non-stop show attendance and my energy is dropping. Problems start emerging in the shows I’m scouting, too. The Trip needs to transport a giant mirror ball and a water bowl from Germany to Australia. The costs of that blow my budget. Back in Melbourne the Classical and Contemporary Music and Kids and Families programming is falling into place. At least the team at home are kicking goals.
I arrive in the Netherlands for De Parade Festival in Amsterdam. It’s a wonderful collection of temporary venues in a park. It’s got an excellent vibe. Two separate people mention The Dark Party to me. They say it’s like Samuel Beckett married the Tokyo Shock Boys and made a silent movie. I like the sound of it. The company is Melbourne-based. Perfect. It’s on the list.
Mark Yeoman, Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival director, provocatively tells me I’ll get arrested if I programme the Freak and the Showgirl in Melbourne. He’s waving a red rag at me and I’m a willing bull. I charge to see Coney Island “freak” Mat Fraser and his showgirl, Julie Atlas Muz. The mix of nudity, eroticism, satirical provocation and political savvy has me at hello.
A few days later the Freak and the Showgirl are confirmed. The Trip is looking good. The budget for Casus is approved and The Dark Party is available. It’s been a good day.
I'm back in Melbourne now and under intense pressure. There are many irons in the fire but nothing is sealed. At this point, it’s not just about what I want to programme. It’s about what’s available and budget and technical considerations. Locally, we don’t think Katie Noonan’s show with circus performance will fit into the space, but we do finally get word back from Berlin. The Trip are in as headliners. Then Katie Noonan and her team confirm they are willing to modify their show to fit the space. We’re on a roll.
By the end of October, the first batch of shows on sale. We’re up and running.
The Freak and the Showgirl suddenly pull out. They’ve had to cancel their whole Aussie tour for personal reasons. Damn, I wonder if Barry Morgan’s available… I’d loved the idea of his new concept, DJ Barry’s Organ Beats Explosion, but we were full to the brim. By mid-December, he’s in. Yippee!
In early January, our stylist hits the factory outlets, markets and op shops to create the Famous Spiegeltent look, heavily inspired by the ’20s and ’30s. A major inspiration is Marlene Dietrich, rumoured to have performed in the Famous. Think classic Hollywood glamour meets vintage carnival. The thought of the Gala opening on February 5, with acts including Ponydance, Imogen Kelly (Queen of Burlesque) and David Pereira from The Trip, is now officially keeping me awake at night. The rehearsal schedule is tight but I’m confident the show will be great. On January 19, the W-Class tram bar will fly in. Once that tram bar is in place we’ll be ready to welcome the old party girl that is the Famous Spiegeltent back to Melbourne.
The Famous Spiegeltent, Arts Centre. Feb 5-Apr 21.