People of Woodfordia: Becky Wandell

People of Woodfordia: Becky Wandell




Interview & photos by Claire Meraki & Jody Gilchrist

Woodford Folk Festival can be any number of things: a wellness retreat, a food safari, a musical tour, a fairground, a theatre, a circus, an art school or a comedy club. There’s something for everyone, even the littlest ones. Lovingly wrapped in the arms of the folk festival, lies the Children’s Festival – a bright, eye-widening wonderland. Entry is free with any valid ticket to Woodford Folk Festival and a programme bursting with activities, games and performances means there’s something fit for every kid. Becky Wandell plays Mother Goose, being the Children’s Festival Manager for the last 30 years. Claire Meraki and Jody Gilchrist sat down with Becky at last year’s folk festival and talked all things play.

Claire: I’m sitting here at the kid’s festival with the beautiful Bec, who has been running this place for a very long time. So tell me about your connection with Woodford.

Becky: In the days before our own children, we had the Burnett River Folk Club in Bundaberg, which is where we were living for a while in the early 1980s. Our club was a small, thriving community of people who loved music and having fun. We connected with a folk club in Maryborough, presided over by Bill Hauritz, and the two clubs would share travelling musicians as well as travel to each other’s clubs and organise bus trips (magical mystery tours) to nearby towns. Here, everyone would descend on the local pub, take over the verandah, play music, sing, drink and move on. Both our clubs had resident bush bands so, music, friendship and the spirit of community was the centre of our world. Our folk club organised a weekend musical gathering, spearheaded by Marty, called the Bucca Folk Festival. This was not just music but games too, like a beer drinking competition from a suspended curly rubber hose so, not your normal ones. 

We used to imagine how we could make our lifestyle our daily life and work – the kitchen table being where the dream was built. By then, we’d all moved back to the Sunshine Coast, Bill reconstituted the QFF, the Nambour Folk Club was thriving and the first festival began on the Maleny showgrounds. By then, my partner Bill Burvill and I had our first child, Zak. My kids, who are now 34 and 30, know no life apart from having this festival in it. Next year will be my 29th or is it 30th Children’s Festival programme – anyway, I’m sure I don’t know how that happened. My tertiary education is in Horticulture. At The Planting Festival I select the tree species and where they’re going to go and manage the logistics of that. At the beginning I had no training in children’s education or kid-related anything. 

C: There’s the deep end, jump in!

B: That was it. Bill said to me, “Why don’t you do a kid’s programme?” We’d had one going for a couple of years but Judy Gardener who organised it was stepping away. I said, “I don’t know anything about kids,” to which he said, “You’ve got a couple of kids, just do it”. So that’s where it came from, his belief in me, or maybe just nobody else would do it. So, I began with, what do Zak and Toshi like? They loved Playschool so, that was my inspiration and starting point in the beginning. I wouldn’t put anything in the programme that I wouldn’t want my own kids to love and be inspired by. I still use that principle when programming. We all love our kids beyond measure, and I wanted that full festival experience and deep connection for all the children.

C: Absolutely. It was wonderful listening to Costa Georgiadis yesterday and watching him roll around with kids. I mean, he’s an icon; he’s out there talking to the biggest crowds and when he came to the children’s festival, it’s wasn’t this ‘dumbed-down’ version. It was fun but also respectful and intelligent.

B: Exactly, and that’s what it’s all about in the kid’s festival; instilling those seeds of hope and inspiration across every bit of the programme. We want our kids to be able to go out into the world feeling well–grounded and supported so that they can be who they want to be. In a respectful way. That’s what I’m passionate about.

C: So how would you describe Woodfordian culture to someone who has never been?

B: It’s a real experience and one that people who come for the first time are unprepared for. I think that the level of care and consideration for others takes some by pleasant surprise. Just watch when people find out the ringing of the bell means that a lost item has been reunited with its owner. I would say of the culture, that it knocks your socks off and puts them back on again!

There’s a beautiful story, one of Sam who was a little boy with Downs syndrome, his parents brought him every year and he’d run up and give me a huge grin and a hug. The love and commitment his parents gave him made me doubly aware of the responsibility I had for all kids. I watched Sam grow into a gorgeous and confident young man, then one year going through the proposals, here was an application from Sam to do a beat box workshop for kids. Where’s the tissues? He successfully ran his workshop with the kids and I realised what a precious gift I had received, to be part of the foundational springboards from where the kids jump. 

C: And he’s got a home here.

B: I think that’s it. You asked about the culture, I think that’s what it is. Most everyone who comes here has that deep sense of connection and treats this place like their home. Nobody drops any rubbish. Like Bill said at his talk, last year he went out into the General camping area the day after the festival had finished, after everyone had packed up and gone, and there was no rubbish. Nothing was left behind. People take everything with them because of their great respect for this place, the land and each other.

C: Again and again, we’ve heard this place is really special. We’ve had a number of different people independently say that they come here and it fills them up for the year. People in really big, really tough jobs.

B: People have said that to me a lot; that it resets their life each year. Like you said, Costa was here. He was programmed for two sessions over two days and now he’s decided to stay for the week. He just wants to hang out.

C: He was saying this is his first ever Woodford!

B: It is. We’ve been trying to get him for a while. And I hope we’ll be seeing much more of him. Charlie McGee from Formidable Vegetable Sound System applied one year and the band didn’t get in so, he rang and said, “Can I volunteer at the kid’s festival?” So, he came and he did.

Jody: You’ve also got an International on the Children’s Festival bill this year.

B: Yes, our first!  This year we have an American hip hop artist, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. He was introduced to me through Charlie McGee. To be honest, I’ve not been drawn to hip hop, but after talking to Cactus (Secret Agent), and listening to some songs, the same sense of community and messages of love were there. He’s a great bloke and offered to bring his backing singer at no extra fee. There is so much generosity here; it continually fills my heart.

J: He busted out some serious stuff at The Grande last night.

B: I was there standing on a chair. It was so exciting. To see the collaboration of Secret Agent and Formidable Vegetable and Costa. It was a blast!

C: They got them up on stage at The Pineapple Lounge as well. He’s won a lot of hearts here, Cactus. This is their first time in Australia, and they said they’ve been blown away by Woodfordia; they’re having the best time!

B: You know Cactus just won a Grammy, hot off the press.

C: Saw him here first. We need to get his signature while we can still afford it. But it’s thanks to your vision and enthusiasm that all of these people get to experience that magic. You took a punt on an international act that you hadn’t really seen or heard of and I think it’s paid off enormously.

B: I’ve been very happy with the programming this year.

J: International, Grammy award-winning artists, who some of the best artists here are in awe of.

B: After Cactus saw Mal Webb, he said he had fan fear!  And speaking of fan base, I’ve never seen anyone as mobbed as Costa was. Everyone wants a photo, he is so very approachable and generous, he has something about him makes everyone want to say hello. Kate, the creator of Dirt Girl, was here as well. The kids know Costa from watching Gardening Australia with their parents but, they also know him through Dirt Girl.

C: It was wonderful watching him sit down with that girl yesterday and go through that app, where she can take a photo of a bug and send it off to scientists.

B: Yes, Questagame. Costa then picked up a piece of bamboo, stuck it in his back pocket, got another piece of bamboo and was banging it so, he was seemingly making music from his bottom. The kids loved it. He joined our procession and we went out into the festival streets with all the kids and he’s banging his bottom bamboo and watering all the plants in the stalls as we go past them. 

C: Dressed as a gnome. Steampunk sunnies. Gumboots on.

B: He’s so generous, so very generous.

C: Thanks for coming Costa, we love you! Come back! So Bec, what’s your favourite part of the kid’s space?

B: Like that’s not a hard question! I love the Puppet Joint. We’ve got the Storytellers Chair in there. It’s actually just eight hay bales with some colourful cloth over it. But I love the intimacy of a storyteller sitting down with the kids surrounding them, all huddled on the ground and up on the arms of the chair. It’s such a lovely, intimate, one-on-one engagement and the kids get completely enveloped in the story. We start and finish the day with a story.

C: And I love how you do cultivate long-term relationships here. I mean, we’re very good friends with Kirsty and Kester, and they’ve been coming forever. It’s great because, although you keep the children’s programme fresh and new, the kids can come back each year and see familiar faces.

B: Yes, that is the challenge. They’ll see Nearly Normal Norman, our MC. And usually Professor Wallace, who has been performing pretty consistently here for 30 years and isn’t here this year. 

Bec’s phone rings. Strangely enough, it’s Professor Wallace.

B: There you go, that’s what happens. That is so Woodford! During the set-up period, and say, if I need a plumbing job, it isn’t the electrician that drives up. That’s exactly what happens here. It must be the power of collective good energy.

C: Beautiful. Anything else you’d like to share with us?

B: I hope that the programme gives something for everyone. I think that’s always my wish and my concern. Sometimes a workshop is programmed and there is an unexpected outcome. About 10 years ago, we began a chess workshop, which ran over 3 days. What I discovered, apart from learning chess, was that the workshop provided a space for kids who were a little overwhelmed by the energy and noise of the rest of the festival. Same with the Hoop-la, which we started about 15 years ago. It too had unexpected outcomes.

C: That’s the crazy ball and bamboo thing.

B: Yes, an awesome bamboo artist, Jamie, from The Boo Crew, comes up with a different design every year. Before it was invented, our issue was the huge energy spike we saw in the 7 to 8 year old boys at about day 3 of the festival. From the moment we put up Hoop-la, those kids focused all their energy on throwing balls through those really high hoops (along with their dads). It’s not easy to get those balls in. That’s the best thing we have ever done, in terms of keeping the energy at a really manageable level, for that age group. And it was completely by accident. 

C: Yeah so, it’s finding a way to engage the rainbow of kids. Not all kids want big and bouncy and noisy. My 10 year old son loves the sandpit and he seems to become a mentor for the younger kids.

B: Yeah, and that’s the biggest sort of thinking each year; trying to make sure that there’s enough range for all the kids. Science workshops usually engage the boys. We run science things four out of the six days. That’s good. And each day there’s permaculture workshops. All very physical.

C: I love these huts this year! The little huts. They are so beautiful!

B: The cob houses. They were begun at The Planting children’s programme and now two more have been built. I’d love one at home.

C: Yeah and I was talking to Pira who is in admin at the River School and she was saying, “Oh my gosh, we want to build these at school!”  This place is like a seeding ground where people come along and see that, ‘We can build a little cob hut too!’ Imagine a school with all of these through the grounds. It’s bringing the Woodfordian magic into the world.

B: It’s amazing, the generosity of spirit of everyone that comes here.  Dr. Karl was on stage and at the end he said, “If schools want to contact me, I will do a Q&A with any school in Australia. I’ve got Wednesday afternoons free, just phone me and I’ll do a Q&A with your school”.

C: Over webcam or something?

B: Yes, and if you are a public school, he said he’d send some books. For free. This is what it’s all about, connecting, making connections, the human family.

C: And he’s a science communicator.

B: That he is. I loved at the end of the show he said, “I’ve got three things I want to tell you”. He said that we can reverse climate change tomorrow if we want to. It is possible. Secondly, since 1936, a university in the US has been studying generational change and since that time, each generation is nine IQ points smarter than the previous. So, he said to the kids, you have the capacity to make that change. And the third one was that this is also the most peaceful time of our human existence. He then explained the historical context of his statement, proving that it is a peaceful time. It’s the media who chooses to tell the bad story. He left those three messages of hope to all the kids and their parents. It was a full house. And the kids were asking very intelligent questions about space, the speed of light and asking, “Is there an end to the universe?” They were asking some really big questions. For the last couple of years, we’ve also been running sessions (called Kaleidoscope and Me) where guests are invited to sit down and talk about their childhood and uncover the spark that drove their choice in what they do. This year it was Dr. Karl, Costa, and Cactus (Secret Agent 23 Skidoo), just to show the kids that these adults were once little like them. 

C: Well I just look forward to seeing all these kids! I mean, they’re already perfect, but going out into the world and watching what they create, as enhanced by the space you’ve given them, and this festival.

B: This collective generosity and love. Yes, me too. This is how we’re going to change the world isn’t it. By nurturing one child at a time.  

Big kids, bundle up your little kids and bring them along on the ultimate summertime adventure. Forge lifelong memories with the smallest members of your tribe and watch them flourish in their own way, in their own world. The full Children’s Festival programme is out now – let the planning of adventures commence!

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