Features/Kids/What to SEE/Multi-arts

Making the holidays Awesome

5 September 2023

From nylon zoos to the Moon, magical weedy seadragons to audio magicians, this year’s Awesome Festival promises to be, well, awesome. Julie Hosking gets the lowdown.

One of the stars of the 2023 Awesome Festival is an 87-year-old artist from Vancouver who festival director Jenny Simpson says she would like to be when she grows up.

Evelyn Roth sews giant inflatable animals that morph into storytelling hubs, inviting children into the belly of each creature for a truly immersive show. I mean, how often do you get to learn about an animal from inside that animal?

Welcome to the Nylon Zoo, where dress-ups and dances are par for the course, and smiles are as wide as Roth’s incredible creations.

“She’s a rock star in Vancouver, though she lives in Adelaide now,” Simpson says. “I saw one of her inflatable animals at Fairbridge about 10 years ago and thought ‘wow’ – and that was just one. She’s bringing 10 native Australian animals over for Awesome, including a great white shark, a dung beatle and crucifix frog.”

Like so much about Awesome (International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things), Nylon Zoo screams fun. But with meaning. And purpose. And so much value.

It’s just one of many free offerings at the festival, which kicks off with a breakout hub at Kelmscott Hall on 23-24 September, before moving to Yagan Square Amphitheatre and Perth Cultural Centre until 30 September.

Dr AudiYO, aka Holly Austin, takes audiences on a giant adventure, all via beat box. Video supplied

The move is part of Simpson’s dream to decentralise the festival so that more people, particularly in the regions, get to experience some Awesome-ness. While the creative thinker’s plan is to build a program from within the Armadale community, involving local artists and families, the free hub is the first step in working out what they can do together.  “So the first date is kind of top down to connect with the community and see what they would like,” she says.

The two-day opener will include Noongar Storytime, Woody’s Bush Cabaret, Super Secret short story comic strips with WA author James Foley, and a performance of one of Simpson’s favourite attractions, Dr AudiYO’s Giant Adventure.

Creator Holly Austin, who just starred in the TV series Deadloch, has been on Simpson’s bucket list for three years. “She had this beautiful play called Ruby’s Wish, which we presented in Studio Underground and Dr AudiYO was a character in that – a doctor who cheered sick Ruby up with all these funny voices and sound effects,” she says.

When Austin said she was going to develop Dr AudiYO into his own show, Simpson couldn’t quite see how it would come together. But when she did, at DreamBIG in Adelaide, she was blown away. “It’s really rare that I come out of a show and go ‘that’s non-negotiable, we have to have it’. The word that just kept coming to me was mindblowing,” she says.

“I didn’t know that somebody could create a set, multiple characters and props with their voice and I’m a singer! I swear when I watched this show I could see the doors open and the room she was in and yet she was standing on an empty stage. It was just unbelievable. I looked across at the audience and they were all just sitting there with their jaws open. I was like ‘I want that for a Perth audience’ because I don’t think anyone has seen anything like it.”

Simpson recommends this one for slightly older children – “anyone actually from eight to 110” – because it has a narrative that requires a better attention span than most younger audiences.

‘Claire Della and the Moon’ is a gentle tale with a deeper message. Video supplied

In a gentler vein, but for a similar age group, is Claire Della and the Moon.

“A lot of the time when people make theatre for children they want to make it really silly and slapstick – and there is a place for that – or they want to make it really deep and whack you in the head with a message,” Simpson says.

Claire Della and the Moon does neither. “I love the show because it’s a really, really gentle and nuanced way of connecting with children who feel like they might not belong,” she says.

“Claire Della is a young girl who is having monumental stand-up fights with her mother. And she just feels that no one understands her. She retreats to the Moon, her own imagination, where she encounters a stunning puppet, and she has all these adventures, and it’s about her finding her way home.”

Simpson says audiences can simply enjoy the beauty of the puppet show or delve into the greater themes. “Jamie Hornsby has written the score for this and he’s a phenomenally talented actor, playwright, photographer, and composer.”

Grug, the adorable Australian character first published in 1979, also makes his return to the festival, this time to search for a rainbow. “We had Grug in 2012 and everyone loved it; Grug and the Rainbow is a newer show. Windmill Theatre has such great production values, their work is always just beautiful – it’s enchanting the way they present their shows,” Simpson says.

And she’s clearly bewitched. “They’ve been in Awesome pretty much every year and I sometimes think I’m not going to program Windmill, I should give someone else a go, and then I’m like ‘how can I not’,” she says with a laugh. “It’s got great intergenerational appeal because Grug has been around for such a long time.”

An even older story, Little Red Riding Hood is getting a modern makeover for this year’s Awesome ballet, another partnership with WAAPA. The clever combination of Andries Weidemann and Emma Jayakumar, who delivered last year’s The Lost Little Llama, return with dance and music – not to mention story – bound to amuse and enchant in equal measure.

A comic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood is Awesome’s latest ballet. Photo: Bradbury Photography

“Andries has a very cheeky sense of humour and he has created the narrative of this to be very, very funny,” Simpson says, playing a snippet that proves her word. “And Emma is very much about getting the music to tell the story – it’s a character-based score. The characters are telling the story through dance as well but it’s an entry level way of understanding how music and dance tell stories.”

Children are also invited to a workshop after the show so they can learn about the different characters, as well as some of their movements, and how movement tells the story. “There are two shows a day in the Perth Cultural Centre and the site fills up with tutus – it’s just lovely,” Simpson says.

As part of the WAAPA partnership, the dancers are either third year students or new graduates, to help create pathways for up-and-coming artists. Always thinking ahead, Simpson is hoping they can take their work further afield – she’s already pitching Little Red Riding Hood and The Lost Little Llama to regional centres as a double bill.

She’s also thrilled to be bringing a regional creation to the festival. The Magical Weedy Seadragon, a delightful story of the power of kindness, was created by Great Southern’s Breaksea with the local community. Simpson is such a fan of their work she signed it sight unseen (though she did catch the Albany premiere). 

There is also Space Music, a trip to the stars with planetary geologist Antony Brian and Australian Baroque; Family Portrait, an interactive visual feast showcasing a mother’s love; Sea of Light, an interactive journey with a UV torch; and the return of Sensorium’s Wonderbox. And that’s just some of the highlights.

A highlight for budget-stretched families is how little the shows cost, with more than 50 percent free. “It’s about delivering value,” Simpson says. “The average amount of time people spend at our event is 2.8 days, which is huge. So they’ll come to Little Red Riding Hood and then see the circus hub, and the making music or textile hub, and the storytelling hub. And each one of those hubs has a professional artist there from 10am to 3pm every day facilitating stuff.”

Breaksea is bringing The Magical Weedy Seadragon from the Great Southern. Photo supplied

Now in her 16th year at the helm of Awesome, Simpson positively beams as she shares the story of a family who spent four days in the circus hub last year or the Mandurah family who spent three days in the story hub. She can’t speak highly enough of the artists running these magical places.

“They’re the quiet achievers of the festival because people might come in for a show and they’ll love it but it’s the scaffolding around that makes it all so special,” she says. “It’s actually really high value, reallly low cost and easy amenities. You can be as lazy as you like or spend all day and exhaust the kids if you want!”

Awesome also throws out a big welcome mat to all and sundry, working on accessibility and ensuring they have the right support for neurodiverse children and their families. Simpson says it’s about designing a festival that everyone can access, rather than trying to retrofit.

“We’ve got an accessibility guide that has a focus on neurodiversity so parents can rank experiences according to their child’s positive and negative triggers – so, for example, ‘that show’s got flashing lights but it’s about robots and my child loves robots more than they hate flashing lights so I’m going to take them’,” Simpson says. “We also have quiet places throughout the festival that are in the guide if people need to go and de-escalate.”

Staff are also always there as a second pair of hands, with the guide actively encouraging parents with additional needs to seek their assistance. “Our response, 100 percent of the time, is ‘how can I help you’ – whether it’s getting into the venue five minutes before everyone else, or sitting in a particular spot, whatever it takes for every child to experience Awesome.”

How awesome is that.

AWESOME is at Kelmscott Hall on 23-24 September, before moving to Yagan Square Amphitheatre, 25-30 September and Perth Cultural Centre, 26-30 September.

Pictured top: Nylon Zoo boasts a cast of magical creatures that turn into storytelling and theatrical hubs. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

Past Articles

  • Spring into the school holidays

    From Awesome activities to magical nannies, there are so many marvellous ways to have a jolly holiday, writes Julie Hosking.

  • In the eye of the storm

    Breaksea’s poignant story of the search for light in the darkest hours ignites the senses. Julie Hosking rides the waves of emotion.

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