SYDNEY ROYAL EASTER SHOW
Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park
Until April 15, from 9.30am
$26/$20.50/$16.50 (includes public transport to and from the show)
Bookings 9266 4800 or CityRail ticket offices
More information: http://www.eastershow.com.au The Saddle Club Arena Show runs until April 12
It's a week before the Sydney Royal Easter Show opens, and Saddle Club stars Keenan MacWilliam, Lara Marshall and Sophie Bennett are bouncing around the Schmidt Arena at Sydney Olympic Park like the teenagers they are, in jodhpurs, nail polish and hard hats. A black horse trained to run without a rider is looping the arena. It's a rehearsal for The Saddle Club Arena Show, which will play in the SuperDome as part of the Easter Show.
Top theatrical producer and director Dennis Watkins, who was the director of the Mardi Gras Festival in 1996, sits in the top corner of the bleachers under a big straw hat, taking notes. He's the arena director of the show. A representative from Shock Records is hovering about: his company is releasing the soundtrack.
This is no small-budget production. This is television meets the agricultural parade, and the animals are no longer sacred.
Welcome to the new Easter Show.
The Saddle Club Arena Show is the first of a series of aggressive marketing plans to be rolled out by the new general manager of events and marketing at the Easter Show, John Aitken.
His conversation is steeped in marketing speak; he uses words such as "topical" and "pop culture", and talks about the Easter Show "product", which he believes it's time to market hard.
"We have to utilise areas and entertainment to interpret agriculture to the public - The Saddle Club is an example," says Aitken as a grey horse trots around the arena below.
It was Aitken's idea to bring the TV program to the show, and he was the one to approach the producers.
"We've purchased it as a product; we've bought the brand off the shelf," he says. "But it's not going to be at the expense of agriculture."
He sees his jobs as interpreting a closed-off judging system to the masses.
"Dairy products, alpacas, fruit - we do it all," says Aitken. "The judging information is important to the group involved, but the public doesn't know about it.
"We're making it topical. We look to what's happening on TV, radio, in popular culture, to the media. Why shouldn't the presentation of an animal class have a theatrical element?"
And his master plan?
Total Olympic Park domination. Aitken says the show brings in about a million people a year. He hopes to raise that figure by 50 per cent to 1.5 million visitors a year by the end of a decade. He also wants the show, which takes up two-thirds of the major venues, to cover as much of the Olympic Park precinct as possible.
Including the hockey fields?
"I wouldn't discount anything at this point," says Aitken.
Animals are also selling the show on television. Aitken has created two characters, Shaun the sheep and Gav the goat, who judge people on the TV ads for the show.
Aitken is in the midst of building on the popular best-in-show dog competition - he wants to bring in obedience schools, police dogs, sponsorship by dog-product manufacturers and corporate boxes to create a dog spectacular. He also hopes to bring Australia's best chefs to the show in coming years, to work with the fresh produce.
"Why aren't the best restaurateurs here?" says Aitken. "Why aren't they using our own products? We have the best arts and cultural directors here to use, and the best chefs."
Tinny music blares out of the speakers, and the girls are calling out their lines. The rehearsal begins in earnest and all eyes are on the performance.
Across the precinct, in the pavilion choked with Woolworths banners, it's business as it has been for the past century. It feels and smells like the old Easter Show. The men and women, surrounded by plywood, glue, hanks of wool and pumpkins the size of beanbags, are setting up the show's oldest competition, the District Exhibits.
Competition remains fierce among the five districts from NSW and South-East Queensland, which make enormous pictures using the produce of their district. Out the back, old men are drinking tea and eating biscuits around a table, men and women in shorts wander around carrying wool, and pumpkins, fruit, and grain are scattered around.
The Saddle Clubbers command a fee and bring their production crew with them, but the District Exhibits people take time off work and create the exhibits for nothing.
Northern District designer Alan Smith, 31, a state forester from Forbes, is surprised when it's put to him that things don't change much in District Exhibits. This year, the Northern District is putting together a Japanese garden, and the district has made a good start, with a red bridge, trees, and the background completed.
"It has changed," says Smith. "We're going a bit more abstract in designs, a bit more way out. We've used more lighting effects and movement in the last few years.
"It's definitely changing."