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School holidays sorted with new festival for families 

Brunswick Town Hall precinct to host more than a dozen events over seven days

Merri-bek Family Festival co-director Jeff Achtem will perform his popular Bunk Puppets show Sticks Stones Broken Bones.

Mark Phillips

EVERY parent knows how difficult it can be to keep their children occupied and entertained and away from their phone or computer screens during school holidays.  

But Brunswick parents can breathe a sigh of relief as a family-friendly extravaganza will come to their rescue for the September holidays this year. 

Billed as the Merri-bek Family Festival (MBFF), shows aimed at primary school age children will be held in a precinct centred on the Brunswick Town Hall over the first week of the holidays beginning on September 18. 

Many of the shows will be free, with entertainment ranging from a scavenger hunt to puppetry, a musical storytime to a Virtual Reality cinema.  

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The festival is curated by two veteran Melbourne performers Jeff Achtem and Tom Sneddon as an antidote to the refrain that every parent fears hearing during the school holidays: “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do!” 

Achtem, who is a parent of two children aged four and eight, said the aim was to provide a solid few hours of absorbing entertainment for an entire family at an affordable budget. The maximum cost of a ticket for the MBFF is $13., compared to a show in the CBD which can cost up to $250 for two adults and two children.

“Almost everything in the festival is free … We wanted to get a family for under 50 bucks, which I think is exceptionally good value,” he said. 

Shows will be held in the Town Hall and its glass ceiling atrium, the Counihan Gallery and Brunswick Library in Dawson Street beginning on the first Monday of the holidays with Strange Garden, where sculptor, prop/set/puppet builder and puppeteer Eliza-Jane Gilchrist will help children make 3D cardboard plants and flowers to start their own strange garden.

The Town Hall Atrium will host shows every morning between Monday and Thursday of the first week of the holidays, building up to an evening program of three shows in the library on Friday, September 22 when the official festival opening will be heralded with a free interactive performance by Choral Edge. 

The main day of the festival will be on the Saturday, September 23, with nine events in all four venues, including an all day Scavenger Hunt and Virtual Reality Cinema in the Brunswick Library. The VR Cinema has been specially commissioned for the MBFF. Audience members strap on a VR headset for immersive 10-minute 360 degree film set in Sydney Road and featuring performers Emilie Bloom, Hamish Fletcher and Meredith Cole. 

Achtem, who is the founder of Brunswick-based Bunk Puppets, will also conduct two performances of his show Sticks Stones Broken Bones, which was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival several years ago. 

Another highlight will be Spacescape on Sunday, September 24, which is described as “an intergalactic Town Hall takeover” and will feature animation, video projections and puppetry. 

Achtem said the shows would appeal to children aged from five up to 12, although some older children may also enjoy them. 

Performers and events at the Merri-bek Family Festival include (clockwise from top left) Choral Edge, the Strange Garden workshop, vocal explorer and songwriter Mal Webb and a book publishing workshop with author Ailsa Wild.

In programming the festival, Achtem and Sneddon have sought to book only professional artists, some of whom, like Bunk Puppets, have performed overseas.  

“There’s a type of festival that this isn’t,” Achtem said. “This isn’t bouncy castles and face painting and balloon twisters – and nothing against that at all but that’s sort of a different vibe, a different festival.  

“We wanted to try and tread a line of creating and presenting experiences that had a spark of imagination, a level of creativity.” 

The concept for the MBFF came to Achtem and Sneddon during a long car trip around regional Victoria when Bunk Puppets were touring their show Bunkasaurus in September last year and they discussed opportunities for local artists to put on shows in their own neighbourhood. 

“We felt there’s an abundance of artists that live around here, [and] a lot of them would just jump at the opportunity to put on something for the local community,” he said. 

“Especially if we can keep it at a price point that really improves access and makes it available to as wide a spread as possible.

“It seems like buy local is the 2023 buzzword so I guess we’re asking audiences to perhaps experience their local artists, and that’s what this is all come from.” 

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The festival is being underwritten by $20,000 of funding from Merri-bek City Council through the Flourish: Arts Recovery Grant Program and the State government’s Department of Jobs, Skills, Industry and Regions. 

“We’re trying to explore and be ambitious with what we’re doing with the festival program,” Achtem said. 

“We have absolutely peanuts in terms of proper festival funding, we are running this on the smell of an oily rag, and we’re lucky if we ourselves as producers will get paid. But the hope is we’re building something for the future [that] audiences will get behind and support in future years.” 

The full festival program and tickets are available on the MBFF website.