This year Jenny Simpson is celebrating a decade at the helm of AWESOME Arts, an organisation dedicated to making incredible arts experiences for WA’s children. Nina Levy caught up with Simpson for a chat about childhood, career paths and what makes a great festival show.
With a splash of colour in her hair and a ready laugh, Jenny Simpson brightens any room. Gregarious, hilarious, and passionate about the arts, it’s hard to imagine a person better suited to the role of chief executive officer of of WA’s AWESOME Arts. The organisation presents the AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, an annual feast of theatre, dance, music, film and activities designed for children aged 0-12 years and their families, and the Creative Challenge, a year-round program bringing arts experiences to children in regional and remote WA. Like Simpson, AWESOME is recognisable for its colour, joyfulness and engagement with the Perth community.
Simpson’s love of the arts began early in life. Born in Bowral, NSW, she had an idyllic rural childhood. “I grew up running around the paddocks,” she reminisces. “It was a lovely childhood. My family was very musical. I grew up with lots of bonfires, playing music, having musicians come and stay. My parents were involved in running a musical festival. I used to be on the door, ripping tickets. I performed in the festival too. I used to sing – I still sing.
“Community was big for us as well,” she adds. “One of the things that I did as a child and do to this today is performing in nursing homes. Mum would play the accordion and we’d put on a show. I learned a great deal of respect for older people.”
Simpson’s happy childhood was shattered, however, when she was 15. “My mum died. That was a shock. She was young and I was young. My world fell apart.” Looking back, Simpson believes that music played a crucial role in helping her through the difficult years that followed. “I had a very troubled teenage life,” she reflects. “My father wasn’t a particularly teenage-girl friendly father. I found myself playing my guitar and singing in my bedroom, for hours at a time. That’s what got me through.”
After finishing school and completing a degree in history, psychology and English literature, and Simpson’s early career took a turn that may come as a surprise to those who know her now. “I was all set to head to Latrobe to do a graduate diploma in secondary education,” she says. “I withdrew the night before. The prospect of standing in front of children and presuming to know more than they did terrified me. I ended up being a commodity trader in Melbourne. I drove a red car, I had shoulder pads, I did deals,” she dead pans. “At the same time I played in bands.”
Simpson’s day-job saw her visit WA, precipitating her first move West in 1995. “I loved the place, I loved the vibe of Fremantle at that time. Some of the best musicians and artists I knew were from WA,” she recalls. “I figured there was something in the water and I probably needed to drink more of that water.”
Although Simpson remained engaged with music, becoming the co-conductor of the One Voice choir in Fremantle, by day she was still working in the corporate world, this time at Schweppes. “Gee, I was really good at selling soft drinks,” she exclaims with a grin. “And then I was coming up to 30 – I think a lot of women, when they get to a certain age, start to re-evaluate what they’re here for – and it hit me like a bolt from the blue that maybe being really good at selling soft drinks was not going to be something I was going to be proud of at end of my days. Coming from that background of believing in community and doing good things like my parents used to do, I had a bit of a crisis about that.
“I’d always had this interest in finding audiences for good artists. In my spare time I used to tour people, for fun. So when I was having this existential crisis about what to do with my life and I saw a job for touring manager at Country Arts WA come up, I thought. ‘Touring! I do that!’”
In spite of the fact that she was the self-described “wild card” in the interview process, Simpson got the job and she never looked back. From Country Arts she went on to direct the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Then Arts Queensland needed an interim director at Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre, where she was offered the position of director… but Simpson’s heart belonged to WA. “Fremantle was calling me home,” she remembers. “I felt it in my gut. Even though I wasn’t born here this place had imprinted on to me. The light here is different, the landscape is different. I regard it as home, I just feel it in my bones.”
Simpson didn’t have a job lined up but after a short stint at Kulcha Multicultural Arts, she landed the position of general manager at AWESOME. Initially, she recalls, she wasn’t that excited about the role. “For the first couple of years I felt a bit detached. I was the general manager then, so someone else was curating the program… And then I started to see the impact of what we were doing on children. I started to realise that actually this is the future and we’re getting in at ground level and making a better community. The sense of purpose started to burn in me.”
Simpson believes that AWESOME’s role goes well beyond exposing children to the arts. “I’ve realised that if you have something inside you that’s creative, that actually becomes a spring from which you can draw when the external world gets tough,” she explains. “It becomes about having an internal locus of control, as they say in therapy. It’s not letting the world control you, but having something strong inside you.
“I feel what we do, at AWESOME, is about giving children that inner courage through having creative energy. I want kids to be in their rooms, drawing, they can make a film on an iPad, they can dance, whatever… but I want them to have something they’re passionate about, that helps them engage with others and create networks, friendships. I think that supports problem solving, communication and development.
I think every human being needs that… especially children.”
This is part I of Nina Levy’s interview with Jenny Simpson. Read part II here.