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Bringing a million dreams to life

Posted on : 22 March 2019

This year’s Sydney Royal Easter Show entertainment needs to be seen to be believed. In fact, the entertainment at this year’s Show is so extreme it needs to be seen to even be comprehended. “The motorcycle highwire will be back,” Lynelle Smith, the Show’s entertainment director, tells me, “but we’ll have two beautiful big carousel horses underneath it, and we’ll have the aerialists performing under the horses.” Come again? “We also have last year’s inflatable horses doing a musical ride, but, this time, alongside real stockmen – so it’s a combination of the mystical and the real. ” How on earth…? “ In the main arena we have the world’s largest Globe of Death steel globe,” she continues. “In Australia, we’ve only seen four motorbike riders in it, so I’m putting six in there.” I’m not even going to question that one because of course, she is.

As Lynelle rattles off a list of other firsts, including Clydesdales that can charge your phone; a battle between stilt performers and parkour junkies (an unconfirmed world-first, but surely); and flying dinosaurs, my brain is doing backflips. How is it possible for one person to make all of this happen? Well, in short, it’s not. During her 33-year tenure at the Show, Lynelle has built up a team of behind-the-scenes masterminds and front-of-stage performers who turn these fantastical ideas into reality for 12 nights. Duane Inocencio, the Show’s main arena show caller is one of them. “We call my job the Voice of God because basically, all the signals and cues come from me and there are multiple things I’m paying attention to at the same time,” he explains. Multitasking. Sounds easy enough, who hasn’t scrolled through their phone while watching TV? Such is the ease with which Duane speaks of his role (it’s as if he’s reading out his shopping list) that I’m lulled into thinking ‘How hard could that be?’ But I’m wrong. When you’re scrolling through your phone in front of another screen, you’re not paying attention to either one. Duane is paying attention to everything and he’s doing it all the time. “I’m up in the stand monitoring everyone and giving direction to audio, lighting, sound, stage,” he continues, easy-breezy.

“We try to be one step ahead of the performance to make sure the requirements are met from every perspective, especially safety. We’re also monitoring the weather in real-time so we can make a judgement call if a storm comes over, and we’re making sure the show finishes in time to match the bus and train schedules because otherwise, people won’t be able to get home.” So when you are sitting in the main arena on any Show night, think of Duane and his team of puppet masters (his “eyes and ears on the ground”) who are pulling the invisible strings to make it all happen.

This is Duane’s ninth year at the Show, and last year’s entertainment program was the biggest ever. According to all reports however, this year should be even bigger. “Last year’s theme was The Greatest Easter Show Spectacular, based on The Greatest Showman,” Lynelle explains. “We’re keeping the same theme this year, but expanding on it.” One of the main draws last year was the hot air balloon that saw silk artists dangling from each corner of the basket – how could that possibly be improved upon? “This year we’ll still have the acrobatics going on,” she says, “but they’ll be doing lyra [acrobatics in an aerial hoop]. There will be a hoop on each corner, and a double hoop in the middle and the performers will spin up and down it.” Novice as I am when it comes to physics, stiff as I am when it comes to flexibility, and terrified as I am when it comes to heights, I can’t comprehend any of this. So I call Sean Kavanagh, a hot air balloon manufacturer and pilot at Australia’s only balloon company, Kavanagh Balloons. “First of all, the balloon we designed for the Show is different to a normal balloon,” he explains. This is a good start. “A normal balloon is basically an open bag of fabric filled with cold air that you heat with huge burners. The Easter Show balloon is sealed off at the bottom with a fan inside to pressurise it, which means we can operate in higher winds and makes it a lot more stable.” I’m not sure that stability is high on the list of concerns for an aerial acrobatic artist, but it does dispel my anxiety for the people on the ground beneath the balloon. As the son of hot air balloon experts, there’s never been any question that Sean knows what he’s doing. “My parents have been manufacturing balloons since the ’60s, so I’ve grown up with it,” he says. “I can remember going out to the Show and onto the arena with mum and dad to blow up the balloons.” Sean worked as an aircraft engineer for QANTAS before coming into the family business in 2001, and last year he designed and piloted the Easter Show balloon. During the planning stages Sean dug out his family’s old photo albums. “Interestingly, the balloons themselves haven’t changed that much, but the Show has. Originally they had inflation races where they’d see who could get their balloon to stand up first – and now we’re trying to work out who’s going to hang off the balloon and where we’re going to hang them,” he says with a laugh.

So, how does it all physically come together? That’s where Tiny Good, the main arena head rigger, comes in. As the founder of Showtech Australia – a rigging and staging company – Tiny’s job isn’t simply to set up the physical structure of the show and then leave. No, he’s on the ground each night, headset on, talking to Duane, the performers and the hot air balloon crew. Tiny (a nickname describing his perceived size when he’s rigging at great heights) and his team built the motorcycle high-wire, truss arches and whatever it is that suspends the aerial artists from the balloon’s basket. He takes absurd ideas and works out how to reconcile them with the laws of physics.“Last year’s Show was pretty groundbreaking,” he recalls. “There was a bit of scepticism, especially going into the first few nights, but we proved that we could do a lot of things. It was very theatrical and we came out the other end with everybody saying, ‘Wow that was quite amazing.’ This year we are absolutely building on that and ramping it up a couple of notches. I still get excited to work on live shows like this.” Each person I talk to shares Tiny’s excitement – and the fact that they’re all Show veterans speaks volumes for this year’s arena spectacular. Andrew Howard, a fourth-generation pyrotechnician (aka the fireworks guy) at Howard & Sons, still finds himself watching the fireworks display in awe, even after months of designing and programming the show. “We fire the fireworks from the control room, so we feel very much part of it. You’re performing, in a way, but you’re also in the audience while
your performance is taking place.” 

Andrew explains that his family has been doing fireworks at the Show since the 1920s when his great-great grandfather started the business. Where Andrew’s dad and grandad would run around the arena, flare in hand, lighting the fireworks one-by-one, Andrew and his brother, Christian, now use a computer system to design the show and ignite the fireworks from a distance. “The quality of fireworks these days iquite mesmerising,” he says. “After the Show I’ve heard people talking who have never seen fireworks in real life before. That’s quite an amazing thing. That’s definitely why we do it.”And then there’s the actual Greatest Easter Show performance, partly based on Michael Gracey’s all-star film, The Greatest Showman. The movie, inspired by PT Barnum, the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, is more than appropriate. Alyssa Wilkins, a NIDA graduate and a singer and dancer from a very young age, is the female lead. She’s keeping the details under her hat for the moment, only revealing that her solo performance is a “very, very popular song from the movie”. Place your bets now.

As much as this year is a celebration of the new and of world-firsts, Lynelle explains that there are also tributes to the past: the Clydesdales, for one. “Clydesdales used to walk in a circle, in the bygone years, generating electricity, so we’re going to re-enact that,” she explains. “People can come to see the horses lighting the lamps on The Man From Snowy River-style homesteads. And they can charge their phones!” But the thing Lynelle’s most excited about? Universal Studio’s Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. “We have a fantastic setting in Cathy Freeman Park where people can get right up close to 30-odd animatronic dinosaurs that are walking through the forests. We’ll have a few flying dinosaurs as well.” And, look, if that’s still not enough entertainment for you, it’s also SpongeBob SquarePants’ 20th birthday, and so the street parade will be dedicated to everybody’s favourite sea sponge. “The street parade has gone on steroids,” Lynelle says. She’s joking, but she’s not exaggerating. This year’s Sydney RoyalEaster Show really is something else. I suspect even once you’ve seen it, you still won’t believe it. 

Main Arena entertainment - every
evening from 6.30pm, finishing
with a fireworks finale.

Nickelodeon presents the
SpongeBob SquarePants Circus
Parade - Main Arena Concourse,
Showground Road, Grand Parade,
Riverina Ave, Monaro Street –
11.00am, 1.00m, 4.00pm, 6.00pm.


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