By ERWIN CHLANDA
“I want to get the festival up to a national level where it is considered on par with the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane festivals, not in terms of scale but of content and programming.”
That is the mission, as she describes it, of Mary-Jane Reynolds, the manager of the Alice Desert Festival, hoping it will some day stage “spectacular, breathtaking” events.
She echoes similar sentiments expressed last year by general manager of Red Hot Arts, Craig Mathewson, at the 2013 festival program launch. He also had a hand in producing for the festival Dance Jam After Dark, that sensational extravaganza staged in half a dozen Todd Mall locations.
In the meantime the Mbantua Festival produced outstanding work and entertainment, but collapsed into financial mayhem.
At this year’s launch, last week, Arts Minister Matt Conlan said that during his frequent travels overseas, as the Minister for Tourism, he often hears the Festival mentioned. He did not say where, by whom, in what context and what was said.
Mr Conlan’s two portfolios are contributing $180,000 (arts) and $10,000 (tourism), the latter being “one fifth of our tiny marketing budget, conditional on attracting interstate visitors,” says Mrs Reynolds. In all it’s clearly nowhere near matching the event’s ambitions and potential.
Mbantua received $1.3m from the Federal Government – yet still owes lots of money around town.
“Our budget does not allow us to pull in acts and events of that size,” says Mrs Reynolds, referring to crowd magnets such as the Jessica Mauboy concert in the Mbantua festival, “in terms of production, the huge stages they had.”
Another new obstacle to “large public, big scale events” is that the Town Council’s refusal to permit the use of sporting ovals for concerts.
The seemingly logical combination of white and black art and entertainment in what – after all – is called the Alice Desert Festival has not become a reality. Even the Bush Bands Bash “is a separate event these days,” says Mrs Reynolds, staged on the weekend before the festival.
The new committee has applied a half locals, half imports policy in selecting the acts for its 14th annual event. She says the choice will reflect the cosmopolitan and interstate “mixture of influences” of the town.
During the expressions of interest period from March 21 to May 2, some 80 applicants from all over Australia put up their hands for a gig. Every one of the few local Aboriginal applicants were engaged.
The local Dusty Feet Dance Collective, which performed Dance Jam After Dark, proposed to stage My Desert is Delicious, already performed as a work in development last month. As it included interstate and Top End performers and directors, and because of financial and other considerations, Dusty Feet “were not selected” but members are likely to take part in other events, such as the 24 Hour Dance Marathon, says Mrs Reynolds.
She has a background in events management in Victoria (2006 to 2012), and “travelled in Darwin and Queensland – homeschooling my kids and baking at a cattle station”. She arrived in town last year, worked for the 2013 festival and in February this year was appointed Festival and Events manager for Red Hot Arts which runs the festival.
Her contract extends to next year’s event as well – providing some continuity of staff, not a strong point of the festival in the past.
“I have not lobbied the government for more money in this role. I started in February this year and we already had our funding for the next two years. Maybe that’s a role for me to take on with the board,” she says.
“To attract overseas interest we would need to go out into the desert and attract Aboriginal content. I’m not sure that’s the role for the Alice Desert Festival.”
What is its role?
“It is trying to be for everyone, break that idea that the festival is for hippies, make all people feel invited. It is to present engaging programming from local and visiting artists, to engage the local audience, while at the same time bringing in tourism,” says Mrs Reynolds.
Could that be done without significant Aboriginal participation?
“Certainly a goal for me has been to increase Aboriginal participation, and we have done it this year, compared to last year’s programming.
“Last year we had Ninja Circus [young gymnastic performers from Mutitjulu, back this year], Catherine Satour and Rhubee Neale and a few groups in the parade. This year having the [two] bands is a bit of an increase, plus Jacinta Price and Stewart Gaykamangu [from Arnhemland, now living in Amata in the Pitlands].
Non-local performers get a small slice of the budget, around $15,000. “Many have cut their price to come to Alice Springs,” says Mrs Reynolds. “I negotiated with everyone.”
Who comes from out-of-town to watch?
“A lot of grey nomads do. I hear from people, not a huge number of people, one or two every fortnight would contact me directly to ask about the festival.”
The “mix” will be evident right from the start on September 10 when after the parade – usually a colourful affair – locals such as Jacinta Price will perform alongside Darwin’s Brown Cherry and the Ninja Circus whose “flips and tricks” made quite an impression last year.
Other live performances are the adults-only Tropicana (Queensland, NT, NSW); the battle of the bands called Mix Tape (mostly NT); Music in Churches (Victoria, Germany, Alice & Top End); The Package (by local artist Katlend Griffin); Street Theatre at the Night Markets (interstate and the local Ninjas again); Martini Tango (Victoria) “under the stars” at the Double Tree by Hilton); and Comedy @ the Club (USA and Melbourne).
The crowd at the Festival launch last week got a glimpse of The Package, a one hour hybrid show “combining puppetry, animation and mask”. A woman in a rubber mask making her look very old, walking with difficulty, not uttering a single word, is given a cardboard box containing a garment to which she has an adverse reaction. She puts the garment back in the box and throws it on the floor. Not a bundle of laughs, to be sure.
“The Package has some funny moments, just not featured in the preview at launch. It has a mood journey from contemplative, joyous, mournful, sensual – just as one’s life journey would,” suggests Mrs Reynolds.
Quite a bit of the festival will be on the screen, puppet stage or as a static display: Ozploitation (Australian movies selected by film buff and KaféGonzo barista Cameron Buckley); Objects As Art (put together by the Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and Centralian Senior College art students); Swamp Juice (Canada, a puppet show for kids and “unaccompanied adults”), and Cinema by the River (Red Dog).
Mrs Reynolds says the Tiki Bar, admission free, will be set up in the Youth Centre adjacent to Anzac Oval. It will be the hub for information, meals, drinks and some shows.
PHOTO: Katlend Griffin and Robbie Hoad in The Package.