WA’s first major festival since COVID-19 kicks off this month, and it’s all about the kids. Rosalind Appleby talks to Awesome Festival’s Jenny Simpson.
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The AWESOME Festival have released their 2020 program, confirming the festival will go ahead as planned in the school holidays. The Festival kicks off on 28 September, making it the first major festival to operate in Western Australia since COVID-19.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve had to be OK with uncertainty,” said AWESOME CEO and artistic director Jenny Simpson. “WA has been on a good trajectory in terms of its management of COVID-19 so we’ve said the festival will go ahead. It is really complex and quite challenging, but we’re going ahead.”
This will be the 24th festival since AWESOME launched as an international arts festival for children and their families in 1996.
“AWESOME is about giving younger audiences opportunity to engage with high quality arts and creative experiences,” Simpson explains. “Everything is underpinned by the thought that children deserve the best.”
The program – despite the fluctuating challenges of the pandemic – looks quite outstanding on paper, with a comprehensive range of art forms including performances by two of WA’s flagship performing arts companies.
The Festival opens with the world premiere of the ballet The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, performed at the Perth Cultural Centre, as part of a three-year partnership with the West Australian Ballet. The ballet is based on May Gibbs’ iconic gumnut baby books and WA Ballet have financed and produced the work as a gift to AWESOME Festival so that young audiences can enjoy it free of charge.
“This is a dream come true,” Simpson said. “For many years I’ve been out there saying children deserve the best. But when I started at AWESOME in 2007 I never dreamed that we’d be working with the major companies in this way. I am so pleased that our majors are now looking at young audiences. When Jess Machin called a couple of years ago and said, ‘I’m interested in the WA Ballet performing at AWESOME’, I nearly feel off my chair, but I was saying yes as I fell! If I’m out there saying children deserve the best, well giving them the WA Ballet is giving it in spades!”
By strange coincidence Gibbs wrote The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie during the Spanish Flu pandemic – some of her sketches even have the bush creatures wearing medical masks. The timeless stories will be brought to life by a team of local artists including composer Emma Jayakumar, choreographer Andries Weidemann and set/costume designer Amalia Lambert.
“The production is so beautiful; it is, I would say, ticklish. What I love about these stories is that it really animates the native bushland around us. When I saw these animals and gumnut blossoms come to life [in the rehearsals], I felt like everyone watching it was smiling with their whole body. The costumes are exquisite, the music is beautiful, the set is amazing, everything about it is pure delight.”
The festival closing weekend will feature an opera designed especially for children by the West Australian Opera. The Nightingale is based on a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Anderson and will be performed at His Majesty’s Theatre. The director and designer Matt Ruben James Ward has gathered a team of young opera singers plus Co:3 Australia dancer Zoe Wozniak, the West Australian Young Voices and the WA Youth Orchestra to help tell the story of an Emperor who is enchanted by the singing of a nightingale.
A rich musical theme is woven throughout the festival with a production of Pigeon and Albatross by a new orchestra called Australian Baroque and the return of WAYJO’s Jazz for Juniors concerts. There is even an international musician on the program, Scottish cellist/composer Greg Singlair who will give individually customised Zoom performances including a composition based on the story of the child(ren) in the audience.
Simpson has also capitalised on the skills of local artists with a comprehensive series of workshops (circus, dance, clay, drawing) plus a literature program which is headlined by the launch of James Foley’s new book Chickensaurus. There is also a Whoosh!, a new interactive, multi-sensory adventure from Sensorium Theatre for children with a broad range of access needs, and Valentine, a puppetry theatre work by Rachael Woodward.
And to cap it all off, a marching band!
“What would a festival be without a marching band!” laughed Simpson. “I needed something that makes people go ‘What the heck?’ Whatever is going on, you can’t feel bad if there is a marching band there.
“It’s going to be huge! And I hope a lot of fun for people. I feel like we all deserve something nice now after the last few months. I hope AWESOME delivers that for families this year.”
Pictured top: WA Ballet’s Keigo Muto and Sarah Ross are Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Photo by Frances Andrijich