Our Arts Editor headed to Gold Coast's Bleach* Festival last week, and quickly found herself a part of the action.
I am standing centrestage in the Spiegeltent Gold Coast, and I should not be. My heart is racing, and I’ve resolved to just stare straight ahead, grinning, dumbfounded.
Thirty seconds earlier a man, dressed in a pair of high heels and budgie smugglers, had fallen on me, taken a cheeky swig of my wine, and hauled me to my feet. “No, please,” I said. “It’s nothing dangerous,” he replied in a French accent, giving me a reassuring smile.
And that’s how I wound up there, Thursday night, during Limbo Unhinged, chin jutting forward in a gesture of pseudo-confidence, as a group of scantily clad men, bearing the words ‘Sexy’ and ‘Hot’ on their backs, paraded around me, flirting with the crowd. One leaned in and whispered to me, his arm around my shoulders: “Don’t move. You’re doing great.”
Later, in The Star Casino’s bathroom, another guest turns to me with a look of recognition: “You run up with sexy boys?” she says. I laugh and nod.
That feeling, that heart racing, fluttering feeling, is the best way I can think to describe the experience of Bleach* Festival. Whether watching some of the world’s best circus performers breathe fire or swallow six swords (that’s just Heather Holliday), or sitting in a car looking out at one of the fields at Mudgeeraba Showgrounds, as a horror movie – but theatre! – unfolds in front of me in Throttle on Friday night, it’s the feeling of adrenalin, bated breath, that most sticks out. That, and the horrific feeling of only just now realising that there’s a man in a motorcycle helmet standing outside my car window with a torch.
"People cry out from their cars at different times, almost like a slasher film symphony."
After the show, the cast and crew of The Farm, the collective behind Throttle, talk about hearing people cry out from their cars at different times, almost like a slasher film symphony, as they first notice someone is standing within arms reach. It’s artfully put together, impeccably timed, our radio tuned to the action we see play out 50 metres away. It’s sinister, it’s shocking, it’s affecting. It's bold, encompassing everything Bleach* sets out to be.
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And alongside that feeling of discomfort, of works that confront, there’s also an edge of empowerment, excitement, joy, and foremost, possibility, to the festival. Under the curatorship of Artistic Director Louise Bezzina – who after this year is moving on to head up Brisbane Festival next year – Bleach* celebrates women’s achievements, their talents.
There’s The Soldier’s Wife, a collaboration between a group of celebrated singer-songwriters, as they attempt to immortalise the stories not just of Australia’s war lost, but the families, the wives, they left behind. It’s a moving sight on Anzac Day, when four women – Roz Pappalardo, Jackie Marshall, Deb Suckling and Kristy Apps – armed with a couple acoustic guitars, pay tribute to those women as the public holiday goes on around them, people gathered on picnic rugs in front of the stage with their dogs, or stopping to watch on their way down into the surf. The Soldier’s Wife, as a performance, is a testament to what women can endure.
It’s a theme picked up the next day in Table Talk, a collaborative event featuring female Australian arts leaders like Cathy Hunt, Lindy Hume, Libby Harward, Danielle Caruana aka Mama Kin, Bezzina herself, and incoming Bleach* Artistic Director, Rosie Dennis. They gather together to talk openly with their audience – or are they too participants? – in a kind of open panel forum discussion, about the struggles facing women in the arts industry. The resilience of women is a subject returned to repeatedly, but with an unmistakable sense of hope for the future – that one day we won’t even need to talk about ‘having it all’ or ‘difficult women’ anymore.
Strong women artists lead the Bleach* On Burleigh live music program over the weekend – from Mama Kin to Kira Puru to Montaigne, all women producing some of the most exciting pop and blues and roots music in Australia today. And they’re playing on a stage perched on the beach, the sound of the waves lapping at the shore like a backing track. The music program at the beach is free, which seems fitting – it keeps the festival accessible, a part of the community.
I catch snippets of that community when I’m riding in Ubers – from the airport, or out to the Showgrounds, in the Gold Coast’s hinterlands. On my way in, a middle-aged man tells me about winning $4000 playing Two-Up at the casino, years ago, about his exact technique, the joy in his victory. A woman tells me her greatest fantasy is to run away to Iceland, to luxuriate in the hot springs. A younger Kiwi man recommends clubs in Broadbeach, all while pushing me to come back, to take the time to climb Tamborine Mountain, less than an hour away from the centre of the city.
There’s nothing exclusionary about Bleach* – it brings arts incidentally into the lives of people living on the Gold Coast, with free performances happening all across the city. It’s part of the spirit of the festival, its relaxed, convivial atmosphere, that people can bring their children to take in all of the spectacle and to participate themselves, whether sinking a tin of Burleigh Mid-Tide beer at the beach bar at sunset, chowing down on a range of cuisines, thanks to The Collective, or slinging mud, literally, at The Cleaners.
Kids are lined back metres to see Shock Therapy Productions’ Sam Foster and Hayden Jones respond to the mud being thrown at what was once an immaculate, white room. The pair shout at the invisible forces attempting to derail them, waving their mops in their air, or painting peace and anarchy symbols on the walls, either a plea or a sign they might finally be ready to give up.
Taken all together – the adrenalin and the excitement and the endurance – Bleach* Festival gives us a sense that we’re all a part of something greater.