An oversized paper-mache puppet, dressed in pink polka dots, is moving around the church-like heights of an Alexandra industrial unit. It’s not something you see everyday. The puppet, cuts a colourful dash against grey concrete and metal scaffolding. Outside in the parking lot, nine people step through choreographed movements.
On March 7, cavalcade after colourful cavalcade of marchers, flag bearers, puppets, performers and dancers will bring Oxford Street to life in the 37th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.
But at the moment, final touches are being made in the workshop space set aside by Mardi Gras for teams working on the parade entries.
Amnesty International has partnered with the Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust (CRMT), a group that continues the legacy of trailblazing trans icon (and Australia’s first Maori drag performer), Carmen Rupe. They are creating a float that expresses gender fluidity, using body-part swapping puppets and more than 200 marchers.
The float is also part of an overall push for changes to NSW gender identity laws. “Our float concept is the trans symbol merging with Amnesty’s iconic human-rights-candle symbol and a beacon to communicate for bodily autonomy”, explains CRMT director Kelly Glanney. “This is all part of a campaign to change NSW’s discrimination act and the gender identity laws under births, deaths and marriages, so that all transgender people are seen as equal under the law."
The artists making the floats are no strangers to political statements writ large, either. Charmaine Tung and Ester Karuso-Thurn take a moment out from rehearsing with their three oversized puppets to reflect on last year’s Amnesty creation: the giant Putin puppet – a response to Russia’s anti-gay laws. “It was really interesting,” says Tung. “We were booed by the whole Mardi Gras audience, but in a really fun way. We did our job – the puppet elicited the intended response and so we were invited back again.”
Design graduates Tung and Karuso-Thurn came to the project through the latter’s work with ARTillery Sydney, an arts activism wing of Amnesty. They’re not puppet-makers by trade and so used an instruction book to build their vision of Putin. “We looked up ‘giant pageant puppet’ and there was a step-by-step of someone who made one in the States of an American politician,” Karuso-Thurn says. “We had to change the shaping for the face, and the expression was us, but the nuts and bolts came from following the instructions – it was almost like a puppet recipe.”
“This one has also been more complicated because there isn’t any instructor book for how to make gender-fluid puppets with moving parts. So we had to work it all out from scratch,” says Karuso-Thurn. “Three people do each puppet. One person’s a set of legs, another person’s a torso and the other person’s a head. And so they all march together and then at points in the parade they’ll swap heads, torsos, hands or legs."
These puppets – and their coordinated puppeteers – will lead a 200-strong marching band, taking their place behind the float’s centerpiece beacon, which itself is led by trans activist celebrities Calpernia Addams and Paige Elliot Phoenix on a chopper trike. “The whole thing is a meditation on gender fluidity,” says Glanney. “From the moving, morphing, pink-and-blue-lights on the beacon, to the puppets switching genders. Hopefully it will communicate a very positive message.”
The Mardi Gras Parade will take place on March 7 from 7.45pm on Oxford and Flinders Streets in Darlinghurst.