Staring at the four-metre-tall unicorn being built for this year’s Mardi Gras, frustration sets in two days out from the parade.
He moves adequately, his mien is fierce, but something is missing…
“Splash some glitta’ on it,” the workshop manager suggests in her thick South London accent.
A streak of glitter here, a splatter of glitter there; you can never have too much glitter when creating floats, costumes, sets or props for one of the most iconic events in the Sydney calendar. Bowie, aptly named as a symbolic reincarnation of the legendary musician, now appears as a luminescent Stardust equipped to soar up Oxford Street on March 5.
The workshop sound system churns out beats as if from an underground London nightclub in the 1990s. The workshop personnel, eight professional artists, often have a boogie. The atmosphere though festive, involves extreme vigour and determination, the occasional tear, an inevitable sign of blood, and a highly professional designer sensibility born of years of experience. Sweat fused with glitter on a 40-degree day in the Alexandria warehouse makes the job a memorable experience. When glitter appears in your faeces, you know you are ingesting your work at full capacity.
A regular day in the workshop involves set tasks allocated to individuals according to skill. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras includes many events – the Parade, the Party, Fair Day, Laneway and numerous independent happenings around the city; the workshop gives creative life to them all.
Everyone is working on different things. Leah, the head of costume is in the process of threading clothesline wire through sequined fabric to make ten twirling water fairy ensembles. Aesha is sanding her beautiful oars meticulously. Andy is constructing the facade of a bank for ANZ (GAYNZ included), and the SBS-flavoured rainbow satellite remains Simon’s bane.
Our resident moody Irishman, Ciaran, has a heart of gold and the skills of a supreme carpenter. His task today is to construct a three-dimensional timber diamond for the Star City float. It’s mammoth and, like most things, will be covered in glitter.
Ciaran doesn’t do glitter: “I’d rather die than get my hands dirty amongst that evil.”
Toby is finishing 40 marching drums, to support the parade’s Final Float – an equine hero which has been my design and construction baby with Aesha. We smell horrible at the conclusion of each day. I make sure to douse myself in an entire can of Impulse before stepping into the newsroom, my other life – as a journalist at Macleay College.
Volunteers are the bedrock of Mardi Gras. Aside from the hours upon hours of labour they contribute, their innocent enthusiasm and involvement in the creative process represent the essential message of community spirit. It is the ingredient to a successful festival. This year, the workshop arranged weekend sewing bees to encourage the community to be part of the action – from cutting out 300 metres of bunting for Fair day to yarn bombing shopping trolleys, wheelchairs and scooters.
“I have been volunteering with Mardi Gras since 1981,” Ecuadorian-born Edie says, as he finishes the last seam on a 20-metre patchwork banner for the Roller Derby crew. “We even won an award in 2002 for our bumblebee float.”
Edie shows me his collection of photos from these days past: “Everyone back then were volunteers. We got together and created beauty while still trying to get acceptance.”
My contribution to the Mardi Gras arts department began eight years ago. As a volunteer costume assistant I was understandably given the shitty jobs. As a novice in design, under the guidance of flamboyant costume designer Matthew Aberline, the simple thrill of participating and working with celebrities such as Cyndi Lauper, Olivia Newton John, Sasha Baron Cohen and Tina Arena encouraged the learning process.
Now, with years of experience behind me working for the groundbreaking puppet company Erth Visual & Physical Inc, I oversee much of the design for Mardi Gras.
The celebration captivates the nation and unites hundreds of thousands from around the world in a dazzling explosion of pride over the month of February. Born from a history of struggle for recognition and dignity for gay people it is now one of the highlights of NSW’s tourism calendar. The Parade celebrates modern society’s broad acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGTBQI) community.
All that glitz and glamour does not, sadly, guarantee a financially viable operation. The board suffered a net financial loss of $336,057 last year and lost $575,000 loss in 2010 because bad planning saw the parade and party held on separate weekends. Such external issues can have a severe knock-on effect that puts the pinch on the workshop.
Workshop manager Liz Carter, who began as a workshop volunteer 15 years ago, feels the pinch. Despite her passion she employs subtle English understatement in saying that having to cope on a shoe string budget and needing things to be 100 per cent “can be challenging”.
She remains hopeful the Mardi Gras association can recover from previous loses and generate a surplus to finance future events rather than relying on corporate sponsorship.
“I would like to see the workshop have a full-time facility … for 12 months a year… I believe it could hire out some of the many great things – props, costumes, sets and trailers we have to offer,” she says. “I think it would work really really well, and gainfully employ a lot of Sydney’s artists.”
While the board, administration, concept drivers and choreographers all receive ample recognition, those hundreds of people beavering away, unseen, behind the scenes – the makers, volunteers and workshop manager – get very little. Their reward is in seeing their finished creations take to the street and entertain thousands around the world.
Amid the 176 floats joining the parade this year, you will see the usual suspects – drummers, drag queens, pom-poms and feathers, lesbians on roller skates and those bikes – as well as a few surprises. Keep an eye out for the Trojan unicorn, First Nations float, servicemen, and a hint of politicking about that hot topic marriage equality.
The deeper message may be lost in the fanfare, but it is important to remember LGTBQI issues extend beyond one night. For many, Mardi Gras is a coming together of beauty, friendship, acceptance and, of course, love.
This year’s theme, Momentum, represents the continuing drive to push forward with the humanitarian issues that matter.
It is the unwavering self-expression of this community that keeps drawing me in year after year. – Matina Moutzouris