No Laughing Matter

Humour Energy and Rhythm are the key focus of the Australian pavilion’s Shanghai Expo cultural program, which is being pitched at more than 90 percent of visitors to the Expo who have little or no English at all, writes Sophie Loras.

When the doors open to World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on May 1, it will be the biggest expo the world has ever seen. With over 220 countries and organisations participating and an anticipated 80 million visitors over the six-month period, Australia is hoping its A$83 million investment – the biggest investment the country has ever made towards an expo – pays off as an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen its bilateral ties and nurture new areas of co-operation and exchange with China.

So when family-owned event management business George P Johnson (Australia) won the $3 million public tender to oversee the Australian Pavilion’s cultural programme it was faced with one enormous challenge: How to provide an innovative and diverse cultural program for Australia’s pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo when more than 90 percent of the expected 7 million visitors to the Australian pavilion will have little or no English at all.

“The challenge from our perspective was to present a program that didn’t rely on narrative,” says George P Johnson Executive Director, Paul Kenny.

“Where something like 97 percent of the audience only speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, and given there will be more than 70 million visitors to Expo during that time, that’s a lot of people who don’t speak English!”

The brief therefore has involved developing a programme based around the key words of humour, energy and rhythm and incorporating a range of art forms including the visual arts, performance theatre, multimedia, music without narrative, literature and film and dance.

The contract covers the curation, production planning and logistics and travel for the performers and artists. A strategic decision has also been made to deliver the cultural programme to small groups of audiences over large ones.

“Many other countries will be presenting well renowned artists whereas we have deliberately chosen to focus on delivering our cultural programme in a more intimate way,” says Mr Kenny.

“We would rather have 16,000 people delighted in small groups than in one big venue at the one time.”


The cultural programme is split into three key components: a resident group of performers; a rolling program of visiting performers; and a major concert for Australia’s National Day at Expo.

In the first tier, a resident acrobatic troupe will perform an aerial show above the final stage of the pavilion’s public area known as ‘Act Three.’ Act three is the final part of the Pavilion’s public visitor’s area and includes much of the pavilion’s retail merchandise and food and beverage booths. The 15 minute aerial show will depict scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The aim being to show the similarities between Australian and Chinese cultures – ie the art form of acrobatics – but also the cultural differences.

“When it comes to acrobatics, we may not have the discipline of the Chinese acrobats but this show is designed to show the lyrical beauty and swinging momentum of our [Australian] acrobats,” says Mr Kenny.

The second aspect of the programme is the more than 200 Australian artists, performers and groups of artists engaged in entertainment for the pavilion’s VIP suite, performances around VIP events or on the pavilion’s outside stage. This will include performances from jazz bands to classical ensembles, rock bands, indigenous performers, cabaret acts as well as comedians including the Umbilical Brothers.

“One of the highlights of this programme is bringing rising stars from conservatoriums across Australia to Shanghai for a fortnight of performances as well as being artists in residence with the Shanghai Conservatorium,” says Mr Kenny.

It is anticipated many of these artists will also take part in outreach programmes and participate in other events around China as well as being integrated into the 2010 Year of Australian Culture in China which takes off in June.

The final aspect of the cultural programme is events for Australia’s National Day on June 8. On this day, Australia will have access to the 2000-seat Shanghai Expo auditorium with a performance especially developed by internationally renowned Indigenous artistic director Stephen Page. Mr Page has created a special “Spirit Guide” for the event – drawing on Australia’s diversity to address both the country’s indigenous past as well as its multicultural present.

“Australia has a long culture of involvement in world expos and all the way through this process we have led the way,” says Mr Kenny.

“Australia was the first international pavilion to get its building application completed for Shanghai World Expo, it was the first to start building its pavilion and it’s the first to get it all finished – and this puts us in a great position to showcase our country in the best way possible.”

To read a profile on George P. Johnson click here.

To learn more about Australia’s business programme at World Expo 2010 click here.

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