Hard graft for perfect setting

Technical Director of Womad Michael Keat takes a breather in the midst of putting the site together.
Technical Director of Womad Michael Keat takes a breather in the midst of putting the site together.

It's a rare moment in the week before Womad - Michael Keat is sitting down. And he's enjoying the brief respite as Brooklands Park and the TSB Bowl is transformed into a World of Music Arts and Dance.

The technical director of Womad New Zealand reckons he works about 22 hours a day in the eight days before the annual


On site at Womad are:

150 flags

600 metres of temporary fencing

22 portacoms

55 toilet pans

85 retailers

eight marquees

eight stages

two cashflow machines

five chiller containers for beverages and food

seven generators

international festival.

However, Keat is well-known for his po-faced sense of humour, so he could be teasing the garden writer. Or not.

"This is not my only job," he says. "I run my own business as well, but Womad is my great love - I don't do it for the money."

Just know that he organises a huge festival, one that runs like clockwork, and he does it with incredible focus, energy, an easy grin and a host of cheeky throw- away lines for his workers.

In the distance, two team members are working on giant bamboo poles that lie on the ground like an orderly game of pickup sticks. These will fly the 150 flags that flutter in flocks of flashing colour all over the park.

When asked how he helps prepare this massive garden for the annual festival, Keat thinks backwards: "I'm trying not to destroy the garden for the biggest festival," says the technical director of Womad New Zealand.

"The important thing for me is why Womad is here - it's because it's a beautiful garden and that's what sets it apart from a lot of other Womads around the world."

His job is to set up a festival that enhances the landscape, hides all the amenities such as water, sewerage and electrical lines and make sure nothing gets damaged.

He says they have to choose their days carefully because they don't want the trucks to destroy the park's perfect lawns.

Fences have been put up to protect some of the flower beds, while those out in the open are now sprouting signs, asking for people to stay off them. These were first used two years ago and worked well.

"The kind of people who come to Womad respect the environment more than other people," he says. "The flower beds, they will not be wrecked at all."

Also, a protective perimeter fence has had to be erected for the event.

"It's normally an environment where people just walk through, but you can't have that during Womad, because we need to sell tickets to pay for the artists."

This fence takes 20 people about a day to put up. "We are very fortunate to have the community probation service to assist with these tasks. These people are fantastic, especially the wardens; they motivate their gangs. They enjoy it - they come here and they can see a positive result."

Then with a straight face, Keat says: "Good positive feelings make the plants and grass grow - and it bodes well for good weather."

When we finally prise him off the garden seat - he is reluctant - we head to the Chimney Stage, which has been turned round to face the food stalls this year.

The garden has been cleared away, so there's plenty of room for seating now and people will even be able to get some shade under a giant copper beech.

"It was part of the park's improvement - we never ask for anything to be removed.

"So you can actually just about stay at the food court and eat all day, watch the Shell Brooklands Stage and then turn your head that way and watch the Chimney Stage but, if you want donuts, you are going to have to wander up and down the hill," he says.

Keat won't be one of those people enjoying the acts, but he will be on the move.

"I don't think I've ever seen a complete performance," he says. "You have to prepare the stage and then you are preparing the next multiple stages and they start exactly on time.

"Our standard here is very, very high, right down to the fact that you can walk into clean panned toilets.

"One of the most important thing is the cleanliness."

Another is keeping the site natural.

Even the over-60s seating areas have been wrapped in camouflage material so the structures blend in with the park and all the service lines are hidden away in the bushes.

"We don't want this to look like an industrial site," he says.

The lawns are put under pressure by the 30,000 to 40,000 people who pour into the park over three days but, if any grass is destroyed, Womad pays for it to be replaced.

However, all efforts are made to protect the site during the eight- day setup and two-day move-out phase.

Michael says there are huge trucks coming on to the site delivering portacoms, generators, tents, pipes, fencing, containers and other equipment.

"We don't want to damage the lawn - that's important to us. We want people to enjoy the lawn."

Some trucks even transform into other things.

"That's the Shell Brooklands Stage, but not as you know it," he says, pointing to a white truck. "That's it complete - as it comes in."

Two days later, talking with Pukekura Park curator Chris Connolly, I notice the truck has disappeared. Just like in one of the Transformers movies, it has morphed into a towering stage that has no hints of its portable, compact beginnings.

Other transformations have been the responsibility of the New Plymouth District Council parks department.

Standing at the entrance to Brooklands by the zoo, Connolly explains how the front fence has been taken out to give visitors a clear view into the park.

"We've exposed the trunks on the big Norfolk pines, so you get the scale of the big trees.

"Your eye gets taken right through into the park," he says.

There are mass plantings of red Flower Carpet roses at the entrance, standard Iceberg roses at the front of the zoo and brilliant beds of New Guinea impatiens in cerise and traffic-cone orange leading into the park.

While Brooklands is always kept looking good, Connolly checks off a list of things that need to be done to make the venue perfect for Womad.

"We check the tracks; co- ordinate the mowing so we get the last mowing done the day before they start setting up; get the gardens weeded; and have the arboriculture team go through the trees and remove dangerous branches or anything that might catch trucks or vehicles."

Staff members check for and remove wasp nests, take out any plants that might be swarming with bees, cut back water lilies to improve reflections, waterblast the front of the bowl stage to clean off the duck poo, sweep paths and check all the temporary lighting in Pukekura Park turns on for people to see their way at night.

"We shift the zoo farm animals out of the zoo to a nice quiet place in the country where they can have a relaxing weekend," Connolly says.

"The monkeys stay - they party up for the weekend," he says, conjuring images of the movies Lion King and The Jungle Book.

But not Madagascar: "There are some of the exotic animals that are sensitive to the continued noise and these ones we protect with hay bales to give some privacy and protection. The meerkats do get frightened by the unusual noise - they're not used to it."

Out in the park, there are stand- tall stars. "The site's really made special by trees, the planting and the landscape."

Connolly lists plane trees in the bowl, a kauri and up top, three flowering cherries, two copper beeches, rhododendrons, a walnut tree, a sweet chestnut, puriri under-planted with king ferns and a cabbage tree hosting a fern, griselinia and an astelia. "It's a great conglomeration."

He points out a stalwart standing tall between the Brooklands Zoo and the back of the food stalls in the Global Village.

"We think that's the biggest macrocarpa left alive in New Zealand," he says, of the shaggy beast planted as part of the King estate, more than 100 years ago.

Standing in this place of great beauty, the Womad site coming to life around him, Connolly looks content.

"I feel very proud to be involved in managing the park, but I feel proud for Taranaki really that we have a venue like this that's getting used and that visitors come from out of town and marvel at it. There's such ownership of it by the community."

Keat, a former chairman of the Bowl Trust, has seen that ownership in action. "You hear people stand up at the top of the Bowl and say to their visitors, 'This is our Bowl'. People are so proud."

Today, tomorrow and Sunday, the TSB Bowl of Brooklands, zoo and park becomes another place, one filled with music and rhythm, costumes and colour, food and friendships.

It becomes Womad.

Taranaki Daily News