Behind all the glamour and glitz of Sydney’s annual gay and lesbian mardi gras, there’s a substantial amount of hard work and planning, as the festival’s CEO Terese Casu tells Jacqueline Blondell
It might be surprising to know that bits of the Sydney Harbour Bridge haven’t been painted for 30 years. It’s actually an urban myth that when the famous ‘Coathanger’ has had its annual fresh lick of paint, it’s time to start all over again. But there is one Sydney institution that involves constant preparation and maintenance, and that’s Mardi Gras.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras may play host to myriad local, interstate and international visitors for just two weeks each February and March, but the event, which turns 40 next year, is no mere party-planning exercise. It’s an operation that involves year-long painstaking organisation, risk management, project management and the co-operation of local and state government, emergency services, the community and sponsor companies.
No wonder they need to start again as soon as they finish.
“Unfortunately it never stops,” admits Mardi Gras CEO Terese Casu. “We’ve come out of this season and pretty much I go into planning on the executive level straight away.”
This is particularly the case if Casu wants to make programming changes that need board approval, which may be likely with the big ‘4-0’ looming in 2018. Every concept needs to be ready for discussion with the board for budget approval by June of the previous year.
This year, under the 2017 theme of Equality, 12,200 people marched in the parade. For the 500,000 spectators who watched the 184 floats pass them by, this was an event with colour and spectacle, and for many it provided a message of understanding and justice for all. But it all belies the tight organisation that sits below the glittery surface.
The parade is only part of the event, which also comprises Fair Day, a vast community affair catering for 80,000, and the Queer Thinking program, where key speakers from around the globe are brought to Sydney to bring specific issues in the LGBI community to light. The organisation also commissions a number of works for the festival and an additional 80 additional independent events will sit under the Festival umbrella.
In order to choose which independent applicants to bring into the fold, the organisation runs its curatorial eye over their programs, which range from the visual arts, to music and sport, looking for a diversity balance. It might be strange to think Mardi Gras and sport have a connection, but Casu says that’s not the case. Biking groups and kayakers abound and in 2017 both national football codes took centre stage.
“This year we had a queer-thinking group around LGBTQI sporting heroes. We talked about some of the things that have been happening with the AFL and the NRL, how they’re supporting the LGBTQI young players,” Casu reveals.
The event’s genesis initially resides with a group of 12 full-time staffers headed by Casu, a perennial Mardi Gras participant, but in her first year as CEO. An additional 10 casuals are taken on throughout the year. It might be a small team but the stakeholders are many and varied and there’s a political path to navigate for this CEO who seems ideally suited for the role. She’s been a performer, run companies and is a former director of arts organisations at the Australia Council.
“I’ve gone in and out of every corner of culture and arts,” says Casu, who believes continuing relevancy as well as respect for the past is one of the greatest challenges for Mardi Gras. As the needs of the community and public awareness evolve so must the organisation continue to reinvent itself.
“We’re a non-profit cultural organisation, and we need to be nimble and flexible and operate on a business level. But we are membership-based and some of those members have been with us for 40 years. We don’t just need [to appeal to] one or two demographics. If you look across our LGBTQI demographics, each one of those priorities in those communities are different.”
Each group in the LGBTIQ contingent has its own agenda and needs and Mardi Gras’ mission is to cater for all of them. The 2017 theme of Equality is a case in point, notes Casu. “One just thinks that all of our community are involved with marriage equality [but] it’s actually not relevant in much of our community. They’ll support people’s rights across the board, but they wouldn’t necessarily put one priority aside to focus on marriage equality. For people like the transgender community and intersex community, that simply isn’t where they would be putting their resources and their priorities when there are so many other things involved and at stake for them.”
It’s a tricky path to tread and Casu notes that although marriage equality was part of theme, it embraced many other issues involving injustices for people from all walks of life. So did the community buy it?
“Our community is not backward in coming forward with what they think. So, they’re always a good litmus test for us. But this year was incredibly successful because community really came back on board in a very, very supportive way. We made sure that we were listening again. If we’re not listening to the community and we’re just putting on a festival, then we’re like any other festival. We’re not that. We are here to make sure we have a leadership role, but we’re also a platform for community. I think once we get that bit right, that helps us meet our vision.”
Once the theme is chosen, the team goes into creative mode. “I work very closely with our creative director, Greg Clarke, and we’ll look at the creative that will then sit under that year’s theme and what imagery and graphics will support it. Then we look at the programming quite carefully but making sure the programming is also supporting the theme.”
The float makers and the corporates involved adopted the idea of equality and built into their creative concepts accordingly. The theme was also spelt out loud and clear in three-metre high letters, at each event from Fair Day to the parade.
Holden, ANZ and AirBnB were some of the sponsors marched past the crowds this year. Corporate partnerships have been an enduring part of the landscape. In the past, Mardi Gras has outsourced its partnerships and sponsorship development but now it’s strictly in-house affair. “Now is the time where those corporates want much more involvement with the creative. They want much further and deeper engagement with Mardi Gras,” Casu notes.
Government is another important stakeholder in the event and the team has to balance the sometimes co-existing and sometimes conflicting needs of state and local government, namely City of Sydney and Destination NSW. “While they may not be in conflict with each other, their priorities can be quite different, so meeting those diverse priorities is a management control that we need to navigate each year,” Casu says.
One of those priorities is attracting international visitors to NSW. “The City of Sydney is focused on the CBD, both on quantitative and qualitative benefits, whereas Destination NSW is looking at the international visitors.” A key KPI is to attract some 28,000 international visitors to the state. Casu and her team work with touring agents around the world and also with the tourist vessels that pull into the Sydney port., bringing thousands into the city.
Casu and her team may have many have to serve many masters, but she says, “it’s about making sure all those voices have a weighted participation in every year of what Mardi Gras does on the limited resources we have”.
Before the main event . . . 24-hour countdown
Sewing on sequins, fluffing floats and final rehearsals all play a part in last-minute Mardi Gras preparations for participants, but for those behind the scenes it’s all about risk management.
It’s a fact of life that while love and understanding might be at the heart of the annual Mardi Gras, such is its success that organisers have to prepare for darker forces that might be at work, like for example, a truck ploughing through the crowds, or a bomb under a vehicle.
“Most of that 24-hour countdown is about public safety,”say CEO Terese Casu.
“We have many meetings with police in relation to control and risk and what we call target hardening. This is something that Mardi Gras has been increasingly dealing with over a number of years, but we are now at a pinnacle point where the potential of mass death is now something that we have to put into all our mitigation strategies.”
Bomb-sniffing dogs are at the ready, and at the parties, drug-detecting pooches are present. An eagle eye is kept on the weather. Possible disruption from public transport and roadworks are scrutinised, as are public way-finding avenues in and out of the events and updates passed on to event venues.
Last but not least, the 1200-strong volunteer brigade, many of whom are first-aid staff, receive their final briefings.
Casu says increasing threats change the way the event is managed and police involvement is stepping up accordingly “Even though we’ve done a lot of [risk management] work beforehand, in the last 24 hours, we look at what has happened in the previous 48 hours and [recheck] that our [crowd] barriers are working, and that there is no access anywhere in our parade where a truck could drive into a crowd.”