In “Twists, turns and music: part I”, AWESOME Arts CEO Jenny Simpson told Nina Levy about her past; a childhood cut short by loss, the music that saved her and a career characterised by contrast. Here is the second part of that interview, in which Simpson reflects on what it is that’s special about working at AWESOME Arts.
Ten years since her initial appointment at AWESOME Arts, Jenny Simpson is, if anything, more passionate about her work than ever. So what is it that keeps her interested?
“It’s the challenge,” she responds. “I’ve never got bored. The challenge is constant, of finding enough money to do what we need to do. You’ve got to be clever, passionate, and never give up.
“And then there’s the potential. Artists are amazing. It’s like breathing pure oxygen, sometimes, talking to artists, hearing their ideas. To be a part of a machine that generates oxygen for artists to breathe so they can go out there and change people’s lives is a real privilege. It’s meaningful.
“We did a project last week that profoundly moved me,” she continues. “I’m humbled by the work of the artists, I’m humbled by the creativity of the children. I’m blessed that the funder who provided the money stepped up. When it all comes together and you have a great outcome, you don’t need drugs, it is a drug. Yeah, that’s why I’m still here.”
And what have been Simpson’s favourite AWESOME Festival shows over her decade with the organisation?
“It’s funny because one of my favourites was an abject box office failure. that show was called Echolalia,” she replies. “It was a one-hander by an artist from New Zealand called Jenny McArthur. It’s about the experience of autism. It was a show that brought me tremendous anxiety and sadness, all at once. It also gave me my best moment ever in the Festival, in my whole life in the arts, because that character, to bring herself down when she was escalating, she’d count to eight. And at the end of the show, she bravely steps out into the world – the whole show is about her trying to leave her house – and she finally steps out of her house and you see her waving her hand and you know she’s about to start counting. I was in a room full of children and they started to count to eight with her. They were totally on that journey with her. It was like they were helping her step into the world. That was a profound moment for me in the theatre, to see children and that artist as one in the space.
“Other favourites… Last year we had Barrowland Ballet, Tiger Tale, that was such a highlight to bring that show out. It was beautiful story telling, it was exquisite dancing, it was an amazing set and it was underpinned by this composer sitting in the room, who’d written the score, performing it.
“Another one from Scotland was The Secret Life of Suitcases which is about being busy. It had a really profound effect on a lot of the parents who realised, ‘Oh my god, I’m so busy, I’m not living.’ I think that’s such an important message for those parents to have because busy-ness impacts on everyone and we tend to make a bit of a god of being busy.
“Another show we had last year was a Spanish piece called Amano. It was a really slow, gentle piece of puppetry where they made the puppets out of clay on the stage. I relished the opportunity to sit in the room with about 90 people and for the whole pace of that room to slow down. It’s very special to do that with children, it’s very hard to achieve. A lot of performance for children is about ramping them up and getting quick laughs. For two artists to take children into a space that’s meditative and gentle was just so special. And the ending was really unresolved and left more questions than answers. I love that about Amano as well. So often work for children ties everything up neatly… but that’s just not what life is.
As someone whose own childhood ended so abruptly with the loss of a parent, Simpson speaks from experience. “Losing mum… we don’t all get our happy endings. That idea of supporting conversations about what happens when things are unresolved [is important], of asking how do we go on? Sad things in shows reconnect me with my grief but they also reconnect me with moving past it. I think that’s so important… and for children and adults to know that bad things will happen but you can move past this.”
“That’s another thing about the festival program,” she concludes. “Sometimes it is going to be evocative and at times even a bit provocative because it’s about providing opportunities to have bigger conversations with children. There’s a piece coming into this year’s Festival – the premise is climate change. No way is it controversial, but gosh it will make you think, how do we adapt? What do we do in our everyday lives that is a part of this issue? It’s not about beating people over the heads. It’s about saying, hey here’s a story, or here’s a workshop that is going to gently lead you into a conversation.”
Pictured top: Barrowland Ballet’s ‘Tiger Tale’, performed at the 2016 Awesome International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things. Photo: James Campbell.