5 Minutes With Brian Gilbertson

In 2019, Creative Director of the Christmas Pageant, Brian Gilbertson put yet another successful event under his belt. We look at how he turned South Australia’s Christmas Pageant into a theatrical wonderland. 

Photography Dimitra Koriozos
Words Sharmonie Cockayne 

Brian Gilbertson has had a colourful career. He spent his first decade as a lawyer, sold his practice to study singing in Vienna, threw himself into a wildly successful and international career as a professional singer in opera and theatre, and, along the way, has worked in production, direction, and large-scale outdoor events. A career of such scale meant a life of worldly travels, but he eventually settled in Adelaide to spend more time with his children, and in 2002, Brian interviewed for the position of Pageant Creative Director. 

The pageant brings all of Brian’s experience together: legal knowledge, performance skills, direction, and creativity. 

“They asked me ‘what would you do with the pageant?’ and I didn’t have a clue, because it’s such a big event. So, my answer was to investigate, to research, talk to the people who are down there, see what the conditions are. I think that too many people make the mistake of coming into an event or a business and putting their mark on it when you don’t have the right to do that yet. The business had been pretty successful without me so far, I thought that I should learn from it rather than it learn from me.” 

Brian recalls the pageants before his time – the pageant took the form of a mass snake, moving through the city as performers roamed lazily between floats. Now, he’s stricter about each individual’s role to create a greater whole.  

“My main focus of the pageant was to turn it into 170 moving theatrical sets… If we can be distinctive, the value to the public without them really knowing it is you’re seeing 170 performances in an hour and a half.” 

Of the 17 years and those 170 sets, Brian says a number of them have really stood out.  

While he reminisces of the trials and tribulations in creating the Christmas Rapping float (“I was trying to bring the pageant further into the future. We got DJ Chep to do the MC-ing on it, we built this rage cage with all of this live skating on the float going on while the pageant is en route”), the one that remains closest to his heart is the multicultural float. 

“I knew that it might be difficult, because we have over 200 different cultures in South Australia. We’re not making a political statement; we’re just simply saying we’re a community. Along that line of 3.3km of humanity standing together, all from different walks of life, all from different levels of income or not, on that one day we’re all the same and all with smiles on our faces just focused on one thing.”  

“We went to Multicultural SA and they agreed to manage that for us – they would manage the cultural groups and we’d devise how that might look and what we would do on the float. We put a specific band from different countries on there each year, and dancers from different countries out there. We’ve had smoking ceremonies. Sometimes there’s a visiting country here, and Multicultural SA say ‘we’ve got dancers from such-and-such and they’d love to come in and do it’. I think that’s a really good outcome,” says Brian. 

It’s that community-focused, good natured approach to the pageant that’s continued and propelled success. Now recognised as a heritage icon by the National Trust and a state institution by the government of South Australia, it’s the second-largest parade of its kind in the world, and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Brian understands what captivates an audience and brings people together.  

“I did research the first year that was internal as distinct from external. I wanted to see what was going on in the pageant route – with the police and how they saw things, what were the danger things, what were the good things. To help get that along the way, I decided I would make 100 calls and say, ‘I’m Brian Gilbertson, I’m the new pageant director, would you help me out with some research because that’s going to help me.’ Seriously, just about every person asked ‘how can I help?’ with an energy burst of 50 per cent on top of how they opened the phone call.” 

This is the power of the pageant.