Rita Bratovich speaks with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO Albert Kruger about resilience, celebration and putting on a parade during a pandemic.
Last year’s Mardi Gras season concluded with the parade on 1 March, 2020 drawing a crowd of over 200,000 spectators to the footpaths along Oxford Street.
Just weeks later, the entire country was in lockdown.
With a full year until the 2021 Mardi Gras season, organisers could have been forgiven for having believed the whole crisis would be over by now and they could hold their two week-long celebration of queer culture as usual. However, by June 2020 they were already working on a contingency plan, and by September when the full festival staff reconvened to work on the 2021 season, it was apparent that things would be very different.
“It’s been quite a ride to keep everyone motivated because every time a health order changes, we’re back to the drawing board,” says Mardi Gras CEO Albert Kruger, describing the frustrating challenges, many unforeseen.
“Mardi Gras never ever before anticipated cancellation of an event – ever! So our agreements had to be re-looked at with all of our corporate partners,” he tells the Sentinel.
In fact, forty-two agreements, variations and amendments had to be reviewed in the space of six weeks.
The annual Mardi Gras Festival is one of the largest LGBTQI+ festivals in the world and the major fundraiser for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras organisation. Covid-19 has meant omission of popular events from the 2021 program including Sissy Ball, Fair Day, the Pool Party, Kaftan Party and the big one: the post-parade Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Party.
“For a not-for-profit we’re 60 per cent down in revenue in this Covid environment, which is quite a challenge,” says Kruger. “So, we normally have, in the festival period, 12 signature events. And this year, we were able to go ahead with five.”
Not only does this have a financial impact on the organisation, but the reduced opportunity to socialise and enjoy queer culture can have a negative impact on the psyche of LGBTQI+ people who depend on this festival for those things. As such, Kruger says they pulled out all stops to ensure some vital events went ahead.
“One of the pivotal ones for us was Queer Thinking, which is curated panel discussions of topics that are relevant to our community and issues we face. So that was something we strongly felt we needed to do again because it’s an educational component that other people can learn from, and it’s open dialogue and debate which is really important for our community – to understand that there are other people that are experiencing the same issues as they are.”
The comedy evening, Laugh Out Proud, was seen as essential comic relief and also got the go ahead.
Much of the 2021 program is being made available online, making it accessible to many more people than it normally would be. Mardi Gras has also partnered with Facebook to stream satellite Mardi Gras Parade viewing events around the country. Thirty Covid-safe venues will hold their own mini Mardi Gras shows while live broadcasting the parade taking place in the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
The parade has always been the centrepiece of the Mardi Gras Festival and coming up with a Covid-safe version required some major brainstorming.
“The whole skills level of the organisation had to pivot and change into a whole new, once off, never-done-before event in a time when we are already two months behind our normal schedule for an event that we do every year,” explains Kruger.
The 2021 parade may very well rival previous parades. To better adhere to Covid-safe practices, it’s being held inside the SCG with a seated audience; the parade will circle the perimeter of the ground and breakout performances will happen at the centre.
“It’s a once in a lifetime event. It’s never going to happen again, you know – [in] ’22 we’ll be back on Oxford Street,” says Kruger.
“This is going to be a beautiful event … the production is phenomenal – 45 kilometres worth of cabling is going into that stadium to upgrade the sound and lighting.”
It’s been no mean feat.
The team has had to pace how long it takes to walk around the ground, and how long it takes for performers to cut across to the centre for what Kruger calls “that Taylor Square moment”.
Every aspect has had to be plotted in micro detail: lighting, sound, cannon blasts, stage positions, not to mention the endlessly moving target of Covid-safe compliance.
While it was a no-brainer that the traditional post-parade party would not take place, Kruger and the team still wanted to capture that climactic sense of celebration of achievement.
“What we wanted to do with the parade is have a hybrid experience between the party and the parade,” says Kruger.
In an imitation of the midnight show that normally takes place inside the Royal Hall of Industries and features a superstar guest, Mardi Gras has booked international icon Rita Ora to be the grand finale of what promises to be an amazing parade.
“It is just going to be a truly spectacular event on the night, the magic is going to be palpable. Our queer community will be there loud and proud.”
Kruger proudly acknowledges the amount of work and dedication that his team and, in particular, volunteers, have put into making this year’s festival happen. Despite the fact that normal incentives such as discounted tickets could not really be offered this year, 800 volunteers signed up.
“That just is a huge testament to the fact that there is such a large number of individuals that firmly believe that this organisation and this event is so relevant and important for our community, that they all just do it for the love and the passion.”
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will be held at 6pm Saturday, 6 March at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Driver Avenue, Moore Park. For tickets ($15 concession, $20 general, $50 groups of four) and more info about Mardi Gras 2021, visit www.mardigras.org.au.
Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.