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Darwin Festival

Every year, Darwin Festival appears to magically transform Civic Park into Festival Park overnight – but months of work and hard slog go into the artistic take-over. This year, things will look a little different in Darwin with an exciting new satellite site.

By Tamara Howie

Rumour has it the iconic Darwin Festival Lighthouse was first imagined on a napkin in 2009 by then-artistic director Jo Duffy.

Current production manager, Mat McHugh, was in his first year working with the Festival, and saw the beloved venue in its initial stages.

“Our artistic director at the time drew a sketch on a napkin and gave it to our then-production manager, Anna Reece, and said ‘can we build this?’,” he says.

“So she did.”

It wasn’t an easy task – a huge amount of planning and engineering went into the initial construction.

“It was epic,” McHugh says.

“It was very hard to install that first year – it took us about six days just to dig the holes for the anchors. The production crew bonded strongly that year,” he laughs.

The Lighthouse is now resurrected every year and is just one of the many elements that transform Civic Park in the heart of the city into the bustling Festival Park.

This year, the production crew were thrown an extra challenge after Tropical Cyclone Marcus tore through and felled nine trees in the park.

“It was not a good day,” McHugh says.

“There will be some new elements for both design and practical reasons. We want to pay homage to the trees that we’ve lost in the park.”

Not only will Festival Park look a bit different this year, the return of The Aurora Spiegeltent will see a new satellite site brighten up the Darwin Esplanade – complete with its own bar and food from Little Miss Korea.

But the origins of The Aurora Spiegeltent are surrounded in mystery – for decades, it sat  gathering dust in a storage container, seemingly forgotten. 

Construction of the 24-metre transportable venue began in the early 20th century during the ‘golden era’ of spiegeltents. 

The original owners completed the interior in a classic, dark style, using the finest materials for the dance floors and walls. But when the money stopped coming in, the interior was locked up and abandoned – until the Van Rosmalen family caught wind of it. 

The renowned spiegeltent makers restored and finished it, and named their newest addition The Aurora.

It was finally debuted in 2015 with a show by Strut & Fret Production House who now travel all over the world performing in the iconic venue.

Strut & Fret production manager Alison Neville says it takes a team two days to erect the spectacular structure, including two of the Dutch owners who fly around the world helping with construction.

“It’s a pretty amazing sight – there’s no screws or bolts, each piece slots in or rests on the other pieces,”  she says.

“They go up and down so often so they’ve got a longer life in them if you’re not drilling holes – they’re pretty amazing engineering.”

The Aurora will be home to the show LIMBO, which was created specifically for the spiegeltent. 

Director Scott Maidment says the team is thrilled to finally bring LIMBO to the Top End after a sell-out season of BLANC de BLANC last year.

“It’s great because some of the performers have never been to Australia and none have ever been to the NT,” he says.

The sexy show features an electri-fying mix of sword swallowing, ac-robatics, fire breathing and cabaret. 

“The concept behind LIMBO is being in the place between heaven and hell and imagine there was a party there – what would that be like?” Maidment says.

“It’s very sexy, there are amazing skills and there’s a tonne of fire  sequences – it’s really an on the edge of your seat experience.”

So this August, when you find your-self sitting in The Lighthouse or The Aurora Spiegeltent, take a moment to soak up the history of both of these iconic Festival sites. 

Darwin Festival | Thu 9 – Sun 26 Aug

LIMBO | Thu 9 – Sun 26 Aug | The Aurora Spiegeltent, The Esplanade

Image credits: Top and header by Elise Derwin for Darwin Festival. Bottom image by David Solm.

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