With festival season upon us, Petra Starke meets the people behind the scenes at Adelaide Festival and Fringe to talk about life on the other side of the city’s biggest annual knees-up.

Aspire magazine centre feature, Feb/March 2016.


The Fringe Performer: Matt Tarrant, Magician

Most people agree the Fringe is a magical place, but for illusionist Matt Tarrant, it’s literally where the magic began.

The perennially popular Adelaide magician has become something of an unofficial face of the Fringe since debuting there five years ago, thanks in part to his legion of loyal fans (almost 90,000 on Twitter and counting) that make his shows some of the most popular of the festival.

But none of that might have happened had it not been for his first trip to the Fringe festival, age six, to see Las Vegas magician Rudy Coby.

“I remember being really nervous to see my first-ever live show, and I just fell in love. Back then, I didn’t really realise you could become a magician; I just thought he was like a wizard, I guess,” Matt says.

“Then when I was 18, I saw another magician at the Fringe. He had a big crowd, he was doing some pretty cool stuff, but I didn’t feel the same feelings I’d felt as a kid. I was like, ‘I want to do what he does, but better’. So that’s how I started.”

Soon after that he mastered his first trick – tying his shoelaces without using his hands – and quickly learned he could pull a crowd. A star was born.

Now Matt’s act includes everything from mentalism and mind control to tricks with cards and, as he showed at last year’s Fringe, even a cardboard cut-out of Harry Styles, all with his signature laid-back, rock-and-roll aesthetic.

“Listen, sometimes magic sucks, sometimes it’s cheesy, I know. But magicians like me are trying to prove that magic no longer has to suck. The stuff that we can do is not the clich├ęd magic that people are used to. There’s no dancing. I don’t have a fake tan. I don’t sing or have beautiful girls on either side. It’s just entertainment and it’s fun and it’s a good night out.”

Matt has two shows at this year’s Fringe. One is what he calls “the final chapter” in his popular Deception series with magic partner Vinh Giang, who is moving to America. Vinh is directing the show, with up-and-coming 17-year-old magician Matt Brandwood taking his place on stage.

The other is his first solo show, Honestly Dishonest, the culmination of years of planning that he hopes will eventually launch his career outside of South Australia.

“There is magic in this show which is just incredible. It’s stuff that I’m still amazed by,” he says. “Everything I do is a trick, obviously, but there’s one piece of magic which I honestly can’t explain. I look at it, and I just don’t get it. And I’m doing it! I can’t wait to see people’s faces.”

And while his solo show might feature all new material, there’s one trick Matt manages to pull off every Fringe: the incredible disappearing man.

“I always lose seven or eight kilos over Fringe, it’s awesome,” he says, laughing. “You see me at the start of Fringe, I have post-Christmas love handles or whatever. But by the end of the Fringe, oh man!”

The Fringe Producer: Peta Spurling-Brown

Fringe show producer Peta Spurling-Brown might have spent most of her 31 years in Adelaide, but every time the Fringe rolls around she becomes a backpacker in her own town.

“My friend, who’s a publicist, we both joke about Fringe being ‘backpack time’ because you just have your whole life in a backpack,” she says, laughing.

“I’ve gotten very good at being dressed for every occasion, because most of the time you’re running around in sensible shoes, boots or sneakers and some kind of playsuit and a backpack. That’s us, running around the city from one end to the other.”

This year, most of that running will be between Victoria Square and Rundle Park, better known during Fringe as the Royal Croquet Club and the Garden of Unearthly Delights, where Peta is producing four shows starring artists from Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

On her roster are Aussie singer/songwriter Jamie MacDowell and beatboxer Tom Thum, American clown Butt Kapinski, Venezuelan calypso comedy DJ Juan Vesuvius, and comedians Damian Callinan and Paul Calleja with their show The Wine Bluffs.

“One day I might be doing marketing, trying to sell my shows, sometimes I’ll be negotiating venue contracts, sometimes I’ll do a little bit of publicity,” she says.

“A typical day is running around scheduling people, making sure that all the boring admin stuff gets done, organising logistics, accommodation and shipping, the budget. The business side of the show.”

Having worked the Fringe for many years as a marketer, publicist and event coordinator, this will be Peta’s first time producing shows for it with her new company Hey Boss, which she launched last year after a stint in Edinburgh.

“Edinburgh is something else. If you think Adelaide Fringe is big, Edinburgh is mind-boggling. But I think Adelaide is a bit spoilt, to be honest. I think we don’t really know what we’ve got. It’s a really special festival that I think Adelaideans get a bit complacent about. They don’t realise they have all this amazing art on their doorstep and that it doesn’t happen everywhere.”

As a Fringe veteran of many years, Peta has certain annual ‘must-dos’ including seeing at least one international circus act, and one “really good theatre piece”.

“You see so much comedy during Fringe, you need something to kind of ground you. It’s not just about entertainment, it’s about art, so I always make sure I get to Holden Street Theatres or the Bakehouse and see something really strong.”

Also on her annual to-do list is a cheeky stop at the Gozeleme stall in the Garden (“That’s one of my go-to stalls...it’s so convenient, it’s not messy to eat on the run”), before a nightly trip to the Fringe Club to mingle with famous people. Or not.

“I get really star-struck over people I think are amazing but who are not at all famous. I come across like this socially awkward person,” she says.

“I absolutely love performance artist Briony Kimming, I met her in the Fringe Club and was a total weirdo, just a total fangirl. Dan Sultan is another one, I think I scared him at the Fringe Club because I was like ‘HI!’ and he just shrunk away from me.

“I’ve definitely had too many of those moments with people that I adore – but that’s just Fringe.”

The Festival Admin: Maggie Oster, Production Administrator 

Alot of things can go wrong during an arts festival. Equipment can break down. Theatre sets can collapse. A bunch of lycra-clad French acrobats with pyrotechnics shooting out of their heads could accidentally burn down Adelaide Oval. But not on Maggie Oster’s watch.

“Oh Groupe F’s opening night show, all those fireworks at Adelaide Oval, in the middle of summer,” she says with a gasp.

“It’s really exciting, and also a little scary, but making sure it’s all safe is part of my job.”

As production administrator for the Adelaide Festival, Maggie works closely with safety officers and risk assessors to ensure every show on the program runs safely and smoothly, both for the audience and the participants. Even when those participants are pigs.

“We had live animals at [Festival bar] Barrio a few years ago – chooks and sheep and I think there were piglets – and that had to be all by the book with animal welfare and everything else,” she says.

“Basically, if a pig decided to get loose and take over the bar, I had to be prepared.”

She’s also responsible for ‘crewing’ the Festival – putting the right people in the right places at the right time, with the right equipment – managing schedules of up to 100 staff working across numerous sites and shows.

“The best thing about my job is loving it,” she says. “It’s a real puzzle, finding the right people to go into the right venue; sometimes it’s really tricky, but I’m really passionate about it."

With a drama teacher mother and a father who starred on national television as one of Fat Cat’s friends, a career in entertainment was seemingly always on the cards for Maggie.

“Some of my earliest memories are of running up and down the aisles of the Arts Theatre and being in studios at Channel 10 or Seven or whatever, so I knew it was always something I wanted to get into.”

Acting never took her fancy (“I just couldn’t stand the bitchy, catty side of it.”), so in 2006 she began working behind the scenes as box office manager for the Adelaide Fringe, later taking on the role of production assistant, “working with lights and things,” as she puts it.

In 2010, she made her move to the Festival, when she got her first real taste of crewing with Circus Oz.

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before: there were women driving around shipping containers in forklifts in bikinis and stuff, just amazing. I thought they were so cool and incredible. That was when I realised this was what I wanted to do, absolutely.”

Her job is pretty much a 24/7 undertaking once the Festival is underway, with her four phones and communication radios constantly buzzing, but Maggie is always determined to see as many shows as possible; Groupe F and dance company Pina Bausch are her two big picks for 2016.

“There’s something about when you’re working that hard, you’re running on adrenalin, so you just go for it. Sleep when you’re dead,” she says with a laugh.

“I don’t really have a survival strategy. Ciggies, Berocca, wine, and sleep when I can. That’s it.”

The Festival Fan: Holly Owen

Listening to Adelaide Festival super-fan Holly Owen talk about how she approaches the Adelaide Festival is a bit like listening to an army general outlining an upcoming military operation.

“I’ll do a first sweep of all the shows I want to see, and that goes into the calendar in the back of the program. Then it goes to a spreadsheet in Excel... and then it will start to go in my phone calendar. I kind of block out big chunks of time for major things I want to see, and then I fill the background with ‘here’s everything else happening that day – choose something’, so if I have a window of time, I’ll use it,” she says.

“I don’t do this for anything else in my life, Festival time is pretty much the only time I get organised.”

As a digital marketing consultant with clients ranging across the arts and NGO sectors, Holly often finds herself dividing her time between Adelaide and New York, but even the bright lights of Broadway can’t tempt her away from Festival season.

“I’ve always scheduled it so I’m back here for Festival time,” she says.

“I feel like it’s absolutely crazy to have the ability to live in Adelaide during February and March and not do it.”

Ask her to name her favourite Festival memories and she sighs. She has “squillions”, she says, listing 2013’s intimate The Smile Off Your Face by Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed and 2014’s Roman Tragedies among her top picks, as well as the opening ceremony from Peter Sellars’ controversial 2002 festival.

“It was a public corroboree that was held in Victoria Square. I lived in the city, so you’d walk across all the squares with different indigenous groups from all over the world. It was awesome,” she says.

Ask her to name her top pick for 2016, and she howls in protest.

“Oh that’s impossible! It’s not even in the spirit of a festival to be asking that question. I can give you my top three and that would be killing me,” she says, listing Pina Bausch’s Nelken (Carnations); Sunn O))) and Magma; monumental; Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Go Down, Moses; and The James Plays... which is way more than three.

“Now you know the stress of trying to see as much as I possibly can,” she says.

Still, the benefits are worth the stress, she says. “After each festival, I look at the shows I’ve seen and where they’re from, and sometimes I do a little ‘ooh, imagine how much it would have cost in flights to go to all of those different countries and see those things’. It’s like taking a trip around the world, but no jetlag!”

The Festival Boss: David Sefton, Artistic Director

It could just be his expert poker face that makes artistic director David Sefton seem surprisingly relaxed on the eve of his last Adelaide Festival. Or it could be because, after five years at the helm, he’s finally put together his dream program.

“I’m actually really pleased that this is my fourth festival because the shape of it feels right to be the festival you go out on. It’s got that combination of really, really big stuff and also a bunch of things that are close to my personal interests,” he says.

“Although... believe me, had the Adelaide Festival turned around and said ‘do three more’ I probably would have said yes!”

As the first director to deliver an Adelaide Festival four times in a row, it seems fitting that David has marked his tenure with a series of other firsts, such as bringing avant-garde musician and composer John Zorn to Australia, and reforming cult Sydney electro band Severed Heads for one last gig in 2013.

That theme continues in this year’s program, with the return of German dance company Pina Bausch for the first time in 16 years, something David admits he has been working on, “literally the entire time I’ve been here,” and a spectacular by French pyrotechnics wizards Groupe F, the largest ticketed event in the 56-year history of the Festival, and the first arts event to be held at Adelaide Oval.

But his artistic vision has not been without controversy. His decision to axe the popular Festival club was met with gasps of disbelief, and his eschewing of traditional musical genres in favour of “pointy-end interesting electronic music” has drawn ire from what he refers to as “the opera crowd”.

Both decisions have helped bring in younger punters, he says; the average age of Festival ticket-holders has decreased by about 20 years.

“Traditionally, the Festival used the club as a way of getting young people in... whereas I was much more about trying to get young people interested in buying tickets to the program itself, rather than just getting them in to drink,” he says.

“I also came in with the view that the music program was going to completely change, that we weren’t going to do opera. I felt that there was opera year-round, and the Festival should be about doing things that aren’t here the rest of the time, and that most markedly was doing things like launching Unsound, treating electronica as an artform with the same artistic disciplines that you’d go at theatre or dance.

“It was fascinating that all the street press and young journalists told me that Unsound would fail because there wasn’t an audience for it, and I’m very happy to have proven them wrong on that one.”

Whether this will continue under the new directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy in 2017 is anyone’s guess, but David is happy with his legacy.

“I feel like, in my brief custodianship of the Festival, that it’s in good shape. I’m proud to be leaving it with a fairly positive identity and feeling in the city,” he says.

“People will go on about Roman Tragedies I predict for years to come. And I imagine The James Plays, and bringing Pina Bausch back. And there will be those who remember going to see Danny Elfman at the Entertainment Centre with 8000 people. There are probably people who think the Neil Finn and Paul Kelly concert was the highlight of my time.

“But in the end I suppose I just want people to remember that the festivals were really good. It’s very simplistic. I just want people to go, ‘Gee, those were good festivals’.”

The Fringe Managers: Kylie Symister And Dillon Malcolm, Bar Managers, 
Garden Of Unearthly Delights

A common sentiment among staff at the Garden of Unearthly Delights is that working there is like being part of a family, but for bar managers Kylie Symister and Dillon Malcolm, that’s literally the case.

After locking eyes over slabs of beer and bottles of bubbly during their first bar shift in 2010, their working friendship soon turned into something more. Skip ahead six festivals and many late nights, and the couple are now preparing to work the Fringe while looking after their first child, 10-month-old daughter Stevie.

“I guess there’ll be a little bit of a change of routine but both of us are really looking forward to it because it’s a bit of a challenge, and it just introduces a new element, which makes the whole thing a bit more exciting,” says Kylie, who runs all of the Garden’s multiple bars, managing up to 160 staff and overseeing everything from rosters to security.

“We have a renewed excitement for it this year, because we’ve seen other people who have young kids that work at the Garden and how amazing it is for them to share what that is with their children,” Dillon says.

“It’s an amazing place to be if you’re a kid.”

Working midday to 5am shifts seven days a week while caring for a baby sounds like a challenge, but Kylie is up for it: she managed last year’s event while eight months pregnant. But even without any babies in tow, keeping the most popular drinking spot of the Fringe pumping out the pints night after night is a gruelling task.

“We chucked on a pedometer one year and worked out we were walking between 25 and 30 kilometres a night, doing laps of the site,” Kylie says.

“It’s a physically demanding job, it takes its toll on you. But one definite benefit of the Garden is you can guarantee you’re going to get into shape. By April you’re always looking good,” Dillon says, laughing.

For a couple who met at the Fringe, fell in love at the Fringe and just about had their first child at the Fringe, you’d think their favourite festival memory might be a romantic one. And it is... sort of.

“One year, when Game of Thrones had become really big, a call came over the staff radio that [actor] Jason Momoa had come on site. And of course everyone was in love with [his character] Khal Drogo at the time so I ran around trying to find him,” Kylie says.

“I ran over to the Fringe bar and found him, and I asked him if he would say something down the radio. So he did a Kahl Drogo war chant back, he spoke Dothraki down the staff radio. Everybody over in the bars in the Garden heard him and just went berserk. It was really awesome.”

Despite their work schedules, Kylie and Dillon always make sure they get out from behind the bar to see some shows. They list comedian Sam Simmons as their favourite (“We always make a point every year of going to see Sam, he’s our thing,” Kylie says), and hope to also catch hit show Velvet after missing it last year.

“For our staff, it’s definitely Sammy J and Randy, that’s the big ticket that everyone wants to see,” Dillon says.

As for some insider knowledge on how to beat the drink queues at the Garden, Dillon has a tip: “Clever people will do a lap of the whole grounds and notice there’s always one bar that’s quieter than the rest. The smart people go exploring.”

The Fringe Fan: Shelley Crooks 

Every year, self-described ‘Fringe nerd’ Shelley Crooks spends weeks pouring over the Fringe program to put together a spreadsheet of the 50-odd shows she plans to see, specially colour-coded for genre, venue and ticket price. So once Mad March rolls around, she doesn’t need a Fringe guide – she IS the Fringe guide.

“My friends use me as their Fringe planner,” she says with a laugh.

“I have friends who don’t even bother picking up the guide, they just ring me and say ‘Shelley, what should I go and see?’. And I tend to grab flyers for my handbag, so when I run into people I can just go ‘Okay, you should go and see this and this and this, and here’s a flyer’. My friends think I’m a bit of a Fringe freak.”

When you book yourself in for that many shows, it’s inevitable you’re going to see some bad ones, but for Shelley that’s all part of the fun.

“I’ve seen stuff that’s so bad, it’s hilarious. But that can be entertaining. Sometimes they’re the best ones, those terrible hours of your life you’ll never get back; it’s always a good part of the Fringe story.”

As a city-dweller, Shelley, who works for SA Health, is never far from the Fringe action, and rides her bicycle to venues all over the city to get the most out of the season.

“I’m lucky if I have a few days home the entire month, and I’m an absolute wreck by the end of Fringe. I’m out every night seeing as much as I can. You’ve got to make the most of it.”

A passionate theatre lover, she is also helping produce a Fringe show of her own, Samuel Beckett’s Roughs for Radio, for which the entire audience will be blindfolded.

”It’s two very short plays that are quite dark and disconcerting. Add to that the blindfold, and the fact that you’ve got no concept of the room, and it’s an amazing theatrical experience.”


First published in Aspire magazine, February/March 2016. CLICK HERE to read the original article.