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Enlighten 2016: celebrating light

Natassja Hoogstad Hay

Peeking behind the curtain of Enlighten

News headlines flash across white walls. Dancers float in the sky, seemingly suspended by umbrellas. Psychedelic patterns flash across Questacon’s turret. The usually-staid Parliamentary Triangle is transformed by the light, sound and imagination of Enlighten.

From a humble audience of just over 8, 500  in 2011, Enlighten has increased in popularity each year. In 2015, a staggering 287,000 people flooded the festival; the addition of the Night Noodle Markets more than doubling attendance. If you ever needed proof of just how much Canberrans love a food festival, this is it.

Almost a year of planning goes into pulling the 10-day event together: from initial discussions about creative direction until the lights are turned on, there are acts to book, artists to invite to town, and detailed logistics to bed down.

Enlighten is much more than its signature architectural projections. It features a huge line up of free and ticketed cultural events, encompassing music, talks, performances, and a chance to see Canberra’s cultural institutions—as the tagline goes—in a new light.

And while tens of thousands stream through the Parliamentary Triangle after dark, it’s a surprisingly small team that brings the festival to life. The ACT Government’s Events ACT team gathers some of the best in the business together to breathe light into Canberra each year.

Main image caption: From Left: Event organiser, Jenny Boyd. Creative Producer Nicole Warren. Event organisers John Leahy and Jason Rose. Image by Ashley St George.

Main image caption: From Left: Event organiser, Jenny Boyd. Creative Producer Nicole Warren. Event organisers John Leahy and Jason Rose. Image by Ashley St George.


The artistic force behind 2016’s stunning show is Creative Producer Nicole Warren, who returns after an impressive debut last year. Based in Melbourne (although a now frequent visitor to Canberra), Nicole brings a background in performing arts, hybrid circus events and two years of producing the annual Joondalup Festival to the role.

Nicole says it’s the use of unusual spaces that she finds most exciting: she fell in love with the Enlighten staging area the first time she made a quick dash to the Parliamentary Triangle before being interviewed for the job.

“I was walking around going ‘this is the most beautiful site’, are you kidding me?” she says.

That initial spark of excitement ignited in a swag of Australian firsts for the 2015 festival: from  Spain’s Voala Station performing aerial acrobatics entirely from cranes (suffice to say the Worksafe approvals were challenging), to Voyage, the much-photographed light installation of rows upon rows of folded boats on Lake Burley Griffin.

While last year’s festival theme was “very ethereal, light and air”, the creative brief for 2016 is autumnal landscapes and childhood dreams,” says Nicole.

“It’s very different to 2015, very landscape based, very immersive… with an autumnal flavour through some of the architectural treatments.

Enlighten's Architectural Projections, produced by The Electric Canvas. Photography: Martin Ollman.

Enlighten’s Architectural Projections, produced by The Electric Canvas. Photography: Martin Ollman.


Back for the fifth time is The Electric Canvas, Sydney-based architectural projection specialists who have been instrumental to Enlighten since Day One and brought something fresh each time.

“We don’t want to offer the same thing every year,” says Nicole. “We want people to hopefully feel a sense of play within the Parliamentary Triangle, and also in the satellite attraction venues.”

And while there’s no aerial crane show this time, Nicole says there will be “forklifts, scissor lifts, and a lot of weights.”

From the outside, Enlighten’s staging seems effortless – but how does the event come to life?

The brief is “contemporary and innovative”, which forms the basis of the creative direction. This big picture planning and major creative decisions take place in June. Nicole offers an insight into her creative process: “I start with how I think it should look, feel, smell, taste, [and] put this all down as a vision board.”

From here, Nicole builds the program. High on the agenda are international artists, an Australian premiere, and exclusive Canberra events. Local artists are invited to submit ideas for performances in August.

By December, artists and performances are booked. The rest of the planning and refining of the schedule takes place from here, including coordinating nine cultural institutions and dozens of visiting artists. Last year’s schedule encompassed 90 artists over 65 sessions, and Enlighten’s exponential growth has brought logistical challenges.

The Night Noodle Markets are back again this year.

The Night Noodle Markets are back again this year.


The Night Noodle Markets in particular proved far more popular than expected, leading to marathon queues at the event. But this year there are more stalls, and a staggered program will help with the flow of people moving between events and food stalls.

During the festival itself, it’s all hands on deck for Nicole and the Events ACT team, with all twelve in the Events ACT team chipping in to make sure the event runs smoothly, supported by a team 30-50 volunteers from the local community.

The Enlighten schedule runs with the precision of a major sporting event, owing to the experience of the events team. “It runs like clockwork,” says Nicole.

Enlighten remains distinct from its cousins Vivid in Sydney and White Night in Melbourne, in particular through the incorporation of the institutions that define the capital. “[Enlighten is all] about seeing Canberra in a new light, and we’re really aware of our national cultural institutions and how important they are,” says Nicole.

The stage is set for another magical Enlighten festival. Now, all we need is for someone to turn on the lights.

12 things not to miss at Enlighten

Photography: Martin Ollman.

Photography: Martin Ollman.

Architectural Projections

Stunning architectural projections will transform the Parliamentary Triangle for nine nights, with The Electric Canvas and selected artists presenting designs across six iconic buildings: Australian Parliament House, Old Parliament House, National Library of Australia, Questacon, National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery of Australia.

8pm till late Friday 4 to Sunday 13 March | Parliamentary Triangle | Free |

Night Noodle Markets

As the lights go on across the Parliamentary Triangle, visitors will tuck into fun, authentic Asian eats, from dumplings to dosa, Pad Thai to gyoza. Bars and music add to the market atmosphere of the Night Noodle Markets.

5pm till late Friday 4 to Sunday 13 March | Reconciliation Place | Free entry |

The Gantry Bike

The Gantry Bike is a modern interpretation of the travelling circuses and sideshows of the late 1800s, which rolled into towns across America to inspire, awe and entertain.

7pm, 8pm and 9pm, Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March |Parliamentary Triangle | Free |


It’s sunset on the roof of Parliament House. Get the hottest ticket in town and be one of 200 lucky people, enjoying snacks, drinks and music with the best view in Canberra.

6pm Saturday 5 March | Australian Parliament House | Tickets $55 from Ticketek

Circles of Light

Searchlights stretch up into the night sky creating a cathedral of light. This interactive sculpture can be manipulated from within and admired from afar.

8pm Friday 4 and Saturday 5 March, and Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March | Australian Parliament House | Free |


Through music, text, song, movement, surrounded by the Zoo’s sights, sounds and smells, Wild Voices Music Theatre will playfully explore and reveal Shakespeare’s natural world to the backdrop of the National Zoo & Aquarium.

5:30pm and 7pm, Friday 4 and Saturday 5 March | National Zoo & Aquarium | Adult $35, Concession $30, Child $25 from Ticketek |


Join Tim the Yowie Man under a cloak of darkness, explore the historic National Archives building. Join Tim the Yowie Man touring and uncovering the building’s secrets and collection treasures.

9:30pm Friday 4 and Saturday 5 March, and Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March | National Archives of Australia | Adult $20, Concession/Child $18 from


Illuminated dancers and musicians move, play and react like falling leaves and echo the sounds of autumn. Interact with these illuminated human sculptures and watch them respond.

Throughout the evenings of Friday 4 and 11 March | Australian Parliament House Forecourt | Free |


Some very large inflatable white rabbits, illuminated in stark white light, have been invading festivals around the world courtesy of artist Amanda Parer. The bunnies of Intrude stand tall yet relaxed at 7m high and appear to be quite at home in their new patch. Presented by Canberra Centre.

From 6pm on 4, 5, 11 and 12 March | Parliamentary Triangle | Free |


Giant illuminated jellyfish transport you to the deep blue and the life aquatic. As they glide through space, these creatures of luminous beauty change colour.

Throughout the evenings of Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March | Parliamentary Triangle | Free |

Out Of The Cabinet

Satirists Shortis and Simpson revisit the early 1990s through music. A time when Hawke was in government and hypercolour was in fashion!

6:30pm and 8:30pm, Saturday 5 and 12 March | National Archives of Australia | Tickets $15 from

Hannah Gadsby – Dogmatic

A storyteller par excellence with a joke rate most dads at a family BBQ would envy.

7:30pm, Friday 4 and Saturday 5 March | Questacon, Japan Theatre | Tickets $30 from Ticketek (recommended for ages 16+) |

the essentials

What: Enlighten
When: Friday 4 to Saturday 12 March
Where: Parliamentary Triangle

Read this article in full and more in our latest edition of Magazine, available for free at these locations while stocks last.



Natassja Hoogstad Hay

Natassja Hoogstad Hay is a communications professional working in Canberra. An unashamed foodie, she loves cooking and going out to eat, and has a special love of coffee and wine. She’s obsessed with social media (handy in her field!) and is working on perfecting her Instagram game. In her spare time you might find her at a yoga class, cosied up on the couch with a book or the TV, or outside taking photos of beautiful Canberra sunsets. More about the Author