• It’s All Story Telling

My recollection of designing for events in Sydney over three decades.

By Ross Wallace

The black stretch limo pulled into the curb and as the door opened, I was swept into the mobile office of the theatrical impresario Cameron Macintosh on his way to select a location for the opening night party of his Sydney production of Les Miserables. This was my entry into the world of event design, in this case, a lavish party to celebrate a successful show opening in Australia and a chance to thank the cast, crew and supporting staff, investors and their guests but also, to show the Australian press what a hit show actually looks like. It was the 80’s, and it was all about excess and style. And a spectacular success starts with a spectacular celebration.

After circling Sydney for several hours looking at relics of our colonial we arrived back at where we started, the Hyde Park Barracks designed by Francis Greenway in 1819.  Over the next ten minutes Mr Macintosh delivered this succinct brief:

“After the performance, the audience will make their way out of the Theatre Royal and up King Street, past St James Church, and as they make their way over the rise I want our guests to see the Les Mis Barricade across the entrance to the Barracks compound, with smoke rising from the 18th century debris used to create the Barricade itself and either side I want Cosettes and tricolor, everywhere! Fresh from the show it must be as astounding as the stage set Ross. Passing through the barricade entrance I want our guests to experience Versailles. The stage here in front of the facade emblazoned in tricolor and topiary and parterre trees of cones and balls with glittering twinkle lights… fountains with rose petals and two giant marquees either side of the main building with beautifully dressed tables… candelabras and flowers… We’re going to have the best caterers in the country, so it has to look fabulously sumptuous Ross”. (I was 25 at the time but I looked 15, I think he had doubts that I would get it together.)

Suddenly Cameron Macintosh and his entourage were gone. The limo drove away, and I was left on the forecourt of the Barracks to consider how that was all going to come together in a couple of weeks. Only Barrie Kosky has delivered such a succinct brief, but that’s another story. I had some homework to do. Having not seen the show, I had no idea what a Cosette was. I’d been feigning knowledge of such things all afternoon. I got to see the show and as anyone who saw the Les Mis will remember, John Napier’s hydraulically manipulated barricade was an amazing showstopper and wow! A hard act to follow on my party budget.

Having worked for Mr Napier before, transposing his incredibly detailed, three times life size garbage dump set for Cats from Sydney’s rather small Theatre Royal to Melbourne’s rather large Her Majesties theatre the year before, I was well acquainted with the detailed style and impact of John’s garbage constructions. This time it was 18th century detritus, and the Opera Australia company came to the rescue with every old bit of Mozartian barrels and carriages and tables and chairs to stack on my wooden barricade structure designed to go up and down in a few hours.

Thanks to Garden artistry on Parramatta Road and The Parterre Tree in Woolahra (which is still there) I was able to build the Versailles Garden with fountains. Sidonie Garland furnished the elegantly dressed tables with full blown pink roses and ivy wrapped around an array of candelabras for which I’d scoured the city, to create a lush decadent dining environment with secluded little areas for guests to enjoy each other’s company or to dance along to Ignatius Jones and Pardon Me Boys live on stage.

The show was a success and so was the party. The guests were all delighted to see the Barricade from the King Street approach and had no idea that inside, beyond the sandstone walls was to be a beautifully decadent, elegant party. The element of surprise is alway the key to telling the story. The revelation scene in the opera, the twist in the plot. Taking people to another place and time through elaborately planned decor and lighting and food. Wheeling it in and wheeling it out again was the lesson I learned on that, my first experience with event planning. I got it all up in time but I’d underestimated the removal of all that built set. I was out of the venue on time but, myself and one other assistant were exhausted from lifting topiary plants in multiple return trips to the suppliers. Unfortunately no photos exist but I received an effusive thank you letter from Mr Macintosh himself.

My next events were parades. As a child of the 60’s, growing up in Brisbane, The Warana Festival was a parade of hilariously elaborate decorated floats which made its way through downtown Brisbane and The Valley. Fabulously kitsch in the most parochial way. Maps of Queensland made of flowers and beauty queens in ginormous frothy frocks seated on thrones of fruit and tinsel sun rays glittering in the burning Queensland midday sun. I always loved these confections of campery and got to do my version of all that for The Myer Christmas Pageant 1992 and then later on a more spectacular scale for the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games 2000. The Myers people gave me carte-blanch to choose whatever subject I liked for my theme which was very generous of them. It was to be called ‘Carnival of Colour’. The Jean-Paul Goude French Bicentennial Pparade through Paris was fresh in my memory and I first pitched a carnival of toys but in the manner of Alexander Calder’s Circus. A scaled-up version of champagne corks and wire sculptures and bits of tin cans painted to look like circus horses and “clowns and elephants and dancing bears and a beautiful lady in pink tights flying high above our heads” to quote Miss Lee. But it wasn’t what they wanted. A more conventional carnival which related to Sydney was their more refined brief. So, what better image of Sydney which has been a perennial since its opening in the 1930s was the clown face of Luna Park under the Harbour Bridge. 

Luna Park was one of my obsessions as a teenager having spent countless hours in the 1970’s riding all the rides and admiring the work of Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston and all those great artists who saved the art deco funfair along with the ‘Friends of Luna Park’ who rallied to save it from demolition after the fire in the ghost train. Luna Park was a survivor story. The Myers clients loved this aesthetic and after a trip to Melbourne where the floats are stored and worked on, I studied the movements of each mechanism and came up with some wildly eccentric and humorous concepts to work in with the movement of each float. When designing for children it’s always good to reflect back to when you yourself were a child and what delighted you and shocked you at the same time. So, I made it all quite surreal but accessible at the same time. It was a loveable freak show in the art deco style of Luna Park.

It was televised and the image of the big Luna Park face coming down George Street with the sun and the moon waving at each other a la Punch and Judy was a hit with the kids because it was a little bit scary but bold and colourful at the same time. Which now leads me into the Icon Parade for the closing ceremony of The Sydney Olympic Games, 8 years later.

The Icon Parade was to be a light-hearted cavalcade of Australia’s Icons. Many concepts had been researched and designed. Celebrities contacted but, in the end, it came down to (for me anyway) the golfer Greg Norman aka The Shark. Good, I thought, sharks are scary and sleek at the same time. Elle Macpherson – Australia’s super model. Great, I thought, cameras flashing, fashion and glamour. Finally Priscilla Queen of the Desert – Australia’s gayest movie. Fabulous, I thought. How totally Sydney! The Sydney Gay Mardi Gras goes Olympic. I’d always thought the Priscilla bus should have been dragged up and this was my chance to do it. I plonked a pink bouffant inflatable wig along with the obligatory silver stiletto shoe with acres of flying silver fabric. Silver became the unifying colour for all three floats and supporting cast and props. Wonderful costumes by Michael Wilkinson enhanced the glamourous pageant atmosphere. The silvery plastic shark and shark fin carts with cartoonish caddies and golfers with shark fins and golf clubs was Scary-larious.

Elle Macpherson rose out of a giant silver SLR camera equipped with phallic-extending-long-lens-runway for her to sashay along whilst surrounded by a sea of smaller silver sequinned cameras and film cans carried by dancers in Elle printed mini dresses like something out of Blow Up – the Antonioni film from the mid 60s. The grand finale was the entrance of the Priscilla bus surrounded by multiple stiletto heel push bike cars driven by every drag queen from Darlinghurst’s gay ghetto was definitely something the Olympics had not seen before. The beauty queens of the Warana Festival Parade had become a sexual political statement of drag queens running amok in a giant stadium. It was a dream come true, not just for me but for the Sydney gay community and the out and proud gays from around the world.

There was a lot of push back of course about the closing ceremony being too gay but, it was the most memorable games and that was the point of the exercise and Mr Samaranch agreed.

Sydney is an Icon, and my next two events were designed to celebrate the harbour and its cultural aspects. The Lord Mayors New Year’s Eve Party is held every year at the Opera House on Bennelong Point on the forecourt facing the harbour and the bridge. The fireworks are famous for celebrating the New Year and kicks off the celebration around the world with the now famous dazzling aerial pyrotechnic display. The 2009-2010 party was to be known as NYEX. Rhoda Roberts, the artistic director of the event is a first nations leader and cultural icon herself. Rhoda thought that it would be great to experience the approach to the party on the Eastern side of the Opera House through a series of illuminated totem poles emulating a tea tree swamp and then entering through into a glamorous environment of dazzling lighting effects and hand symbol – ‘Make Your Mark’ being the illuminated image and theme to be unveiled on the bridge at midnight. The image of the ochre hand stencils is synonymous with ancient aboriginal culture and the tea tree swamp entrance excited me as images to work with. There were several technical issues with pole-like structures on the forecourt because of the strong winds which can blow down the harbour at gale-force. In the end some compromises were made, and the entrance became the glittering tea tree forest walk and inside the marquee I emblazoned the ceiling with green, gold and silver leafy mobiles which shimmered in the breeze. I picked up on the geometric patterns of Harry Seidler’s Blues Point Tower and continued the colour scheme in printed patterns on the illuminated bar and stage designs. The ephemeral image of the ochre spray hands was projected by the multiple varilights on the ground, on the walls and up onto the Opera house itself creating multiple patterns with the multiple handprint symbols. With ‘Make Your Mark’ the theme, Bennelong himself made his mark on the surface of the Utzon shells and on the Bradfield bridge that night.

Now to come full circle in 2012, the first Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour was to stage La Traviata’ on Sydney harbour taking in all the icons I had worked with earlier. The Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and Luna Park glittering in the distance, here I was designing a camelia hedge topiary garden with parterre trees in the botanic gardens on one of the most ambitious events to date to be staged in Sydney. Looking back over its now decade-long history it’s hard to imagine it not being there on the events calendar. In 2012 when nobody knew what Opera on Sydney Harbour was, we had a huge task ahead of us to establish this as an ongoing spectacular event.

The concept was to stage La Traviata, the story of a Parisian courtier who is entangled in a tragic affair with the romantic Alfredo. We are, again in Paris, rich and poor. Poverty and decadence. My job as the site designer was to compliment the La Traviata set design of Brian Thomson and to extend the theme into the multiple restaurants and bars which were either side of a massive outdoor opera theatre.

Thomson’s design was of a giant mirror stage with an enormous glittering chandelier hanging above it. These are the images I ran with for the VIP area. This was an area where people who wanted to pay more could eat at a sit-down table with silver service for a delicious meal beforehand and an exciting interval bar experience in the manner of a glamorous sophisticated club. In this area I divided up the space with printed silver and gold picture frames and mirrors. Some reflected an image and others were left open so that one could see through to other areas of the bar and dining rooms. This was to create the glamorous world of intrigue of the courtesan’s apartments. Gossip of romantic indiscretion and lovesick mutterings as decadent rococo wallpaper.

Meanwhile for those who wanted to take in the fresh air, the food and bar areas were designed to resemble a romantic garden party set in a camelia parterre maze which would blend into the botanic gardens at Lady Macquarie’s chair. Again, the approach was considered. A lot of effort went into covering the wire mesh fences around the site with intricately printed foliage to blend in with the gardens. As you approached the entrance the camelia patterns became more flamboyant and in the style of the Make Your Mark Hands were projected as well as printed on all the available surfaces so that a mesmerising iridescent effect was achieved. The maze-like topiary channelled people to meeting areas where one could buy drinks or order food and illuminated columns were posted in strategic areas to inform the guests where they were and where they needed to be. It took a lot of planning to set these up. Blue lighting into the magnificent fig trees was not only a beautiful colour effect but it kept the fruit bats away. They don’t like the blue light apparently. It had a difficult birth, and the rain is always an issue with this event, but the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is now a fixture on Sydney cultural calendar.

To finish my journey, it’s all about storytelling, a concise brief is always helpful and whether it’s Lyndon Terracini or Rhoda Roberts or Cameron Macintosh, a vision is required to kick start an amazing event. Good planning and experience in dealing with setting up in public spaces but not letting that take away from the fact that we are entertaining an audience with sensual journeys and imaginative atmospheres to delight and enthral those who can participate and for them to go home with a memory of having been somewhere amazing, outside of their normal life, something to treasure forever.

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