Sydney Festival 2015: The Famous Spiegeltent

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
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Portable: The Famous Spiegeltent takes 12 hours to erect. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

For over a decade The Famous Spiegeltent has been a landmark venue for Sydney Festival, and it’s a fair bet that few who have set foot inside haven’t paused for a moment in genuine awe before the gorgeous interior of polished wood, antique stained glass and cunningly positioned mirrors.

Australian producer David Bates has owned The Famous Spiegeltent since 2000, the first year he brought it Down Under for the Adelaide Fringe. “I had been using it as a venue at the Edinburgh Fringe since 1996, but this was the first time anyone had seen it in Australia.”

Bates had first played in it as a jazz musician in 1987, and immediately fell under its spell. “I loved it as a performance space, but also the intimacy of it means that the audience falls in love with the experience.”

If you’ve not encountered Spiegeltents before, some explanation is in order.

Also known as “mirror tents” they’re a unique Belgian invention, originally designed in the late 19th century as a portable dancehall to be transported around towns that did not have their own permanent venue.

Hence they are cleverly designed such that no piece is too heavy for a single person to carry: an achievement that not even IKEA can match.

“There’s about 3000 pieces, it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Bates says. “But when you’re in it, it feels like a permanent building.”

When it’s not at the Sydney Festival it travels all around the world in two 40-foot shipping containers before being erected wherever required. “It takes about 12 hours to assemble, and then it takes a day or two to put in the lights and sound and get it ready for the productions it’s going to house.”

The venues has done a lot of road miles too. The Famous Spiegeltent was constructed in 1920 and spent its formative years travelling around dances and festivals in the Flanders region of Belgium as recently as the 1960s.

In fact, if you were living in Antwerp in those pre-Tinder days, the intricate glasswork of a Spiegeltent was your best bet for unobtrusively checking out the local talent.

“They’re bevelled mirrors, so you can see angles,” Bates explains with a chuckle. “When they were used as travelling dancehalls you could check out people in the mirrors without being seen. In fact, someone recently told me that there was a Belgian expression for them as a result: a tickle or flirting-garden.”

In fact, that flirting had a direct influence on this year’s Sydney Festival. Were it not for The Famous Spiegeltent, the Sydney Festival Director may not even exist.

“My grandparents actually met in this very Spiegeltent,” Belgian-born Lieven Bertels reveals with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for The Famous Spiegeltent!”

It sounds almost too good to be true, but he’s done his research: “This tent was from the northern part of Flanders and we know my grandparents met in a Spiegeltent, and this is the only one that toured,” he explains. “Thus it must have been this one!”

Future festival directors aside, it’s a space that’s also particularly beloved by artists. After all, how often can one stand on the same stage that has supported everyone from festival mainstays like La Clique, the Cat Empire and Amanda Palmer to global legends like Marlene Dietrich?

“There’s a sense of mystery in the tent, it asks you to go a bit further than just performing a regular gig,” says actor/performer Brendan Maclean. “And because it’s usually housing three shows a night there is always a little community of artists waiting just outside the exit door, all from different backgrounds and often different countries. Whole new projects have started from that camaraderie.”

“It can be very hot playing them in summer, but excellent because the stage is low and the audience is close and you can see everyone’s faces,” enthuses singer/songwriter Holly Throsby. “Plus wood and mirrors and painted flowers!”

With The Famous Spiegeltent approaching its first century as a working venue, there are still a few performers that Bates would love to see on that historical stage.

“Tom Waits or Nick Cave would be perfect,” he enthuses. “Of course they’re too big to be in venues like this, but their music is so intimate: they would be perfect.”

The Famous Spiegeltent is located in the Sydney Festival Village, open until January 26.

2015’s Spiegeltent must-sees:

Camille O’Sullivan: Changeling The Irish-French singer, a favourite of many local musicians, brings her passionate touch to music by Arcade Fire, Nick Cave and Radiohead. $50-$65. 8pm. Until January 18.

Black Cabaret A subversive, hilarious take on black-white relations in Australia – with song and dance. $45-$55. 8pm. January 20-25.

Jessica Pratt It’s not all circus and cabaret: this San Francisco singer-songwriter has a soulful voice that will grip you. Making her Australian premiere. $39. 5.45pm. January 10.

The Wau Wau Sisters: As Naked As the Day They Were Born This New York burlesque duo are festival favourites, and for a reason: expect nudity, energy and belly laughs. $41-$55. 10.30pm. January 20-25.

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