How to Build a Better Festival

by Brandon Zech April 22, 2016
Jules Buck Jones’ Animal Facts Club at Fusebox (Image via Facebook)

Jules Buck Jones’ Animal Facts Club at Fusebox (Image via Facebook)

April is festival season in Texas, and I recently attended the Fusebox Festival in Austin and CounterCurrent in Houston. Both are interdisciplinary arts festivals that schedule multi-day performances and include theatre, dance, art, and a lot in between. Fusebox is the older of the two festivals, having been around for more than ten years, while CounterCurrent began in 2014. While attending events for both festivals I noticed some things that did and did not work.

With that: here are five ways for festival organizers to make their festivals even better for performers and audiences.

1. Create a good calendar and website.

Before I attend your festival, I plan my day. The best calendar I saw this year was Fusebox’s printed insert in Arts and Culture magazine, which closely resembled stage/band lineups for multi-day music events. Programming at festivals should be scheduled so that visitors can have something to do back to back to back, and this calendar was the only festival lineup that even remotely provided a quick visual breakdown of all that was happening. Both festivals’ websites left a lot to be desired in presenting a concise schedule—there are plenty of models to draw on (again, see music festivals), but the presentation and visibility of the schedules themselves seemed like an afterthought.

2. Capitalize on local organizations and talent.

Big festivals often act as magnets and platforms for performers from across the world—and audiences love to see performers from Brooklyn, L.A., and Tokyo. But don’t forget to include your local talent. Both CounterCurrent and Fusebox did a good job at employing homegrown artists. If you exclude the local art community (or the general community), your events might be met with resistance or resentment. CounterCurrent interspersed local talent in a number of the events, and Houston-based Hillerbrand+Magsamen’s bouncy house was a highlight of the festival.

On that note, I still don’t believe CounterCurrent takes full advantage of the possible contributions the Houston arts community can offer, including bringing in big names. Many organizations in town could partner with CounterCurrent to bring in artists that would put the festival more firmly on the map. I feel we got a glimpse of this at Jason Moran’s Meet Me at MacGregor performance, presented by CounterCurrent in collaboration with Project Row Houses—this is the first project in a series of five that the two organizations are partnering to present over the coming years. More of this type of collaboration, please.

3. Vary festival programming.

One thing about this year’s CounterCurrent calendar seemed overly familiar: Remote Houston, a program presented by Rimini Protokoll in this year’s festival, is an audio-guided walking tour that takes listeners around Houston on a two-hour journey. Compare this to [the invisible city], a 2014 CounterCurrent program presented by artists Josh Okun, Lacy M. Johnson, and Rob Ray, that…you guessed it: took visitors on a guided walking tour around Houston. And both of these join the lineage of Carrie Schneider’s Hear Our Houston and The Human Tour (2013), which was, you guessed again: walking tours around Houston. If we want to go all the way back, we can link Schneider’s project to Michael Galbreth’s Human Tour from 1987. Walking as performance has been done (and Schneider wrote about it for us. Read that here).

Festivals need to stay on top of trends within artistic communities and then present something different from what they’ve recently seen. The same project over and over, even by different artists, feels stale.

Austin’s Fusebox did a fantastic job keeping programming fresh—no two shows I attended during the festival even remotely overlapped in premise or with programming I’d recently seen elsewhere. Everything felt new.

4. Bring the performers and scenes together. 

Get your visiting talent and audiences together with your local talent and audiences. Each day of the festival, Fusebox hosted a ‘waffle chat’ where organizers served attendees breakfast and presented a program in which different performers from the festival talked to each other about issues around their practices. In bringing together artists who have never talked or been in the same room before, their conversations added a fascinating dialogue to the festival. The conversations showed just how diverse the range of performers was.

CounterCurrent did something similar and hosted conversations organized by Carrie Schneider that included festival performers, people from the Houston arts community, and University of Houston faculty.

5. Have a great festival hub.

Fusebox hit the jackpot on this one. They had a beautiful, intimate second-floor theater space that acted as the festival’s main gathering place, as well as a late-night performance space and after-party venue. This perfect location also hosted the festival’s Late Night Project series featuring the jarring performance of CHRISTEENE, the spectacle of Narcissister, and the endearing project Every Song I’ve Ever Written. The destination proved versatile and welcoming to all event-goers.

Similarly, CounterCurrent attempted to use Houston’s new MATCH building (and also the bar Mongoose Versus Cobra) as festival gathering places. But in doing so, CounterCurrent missed an opportunity to host and centralize after-party concert/club-like performances, so their late-night shows were too spread out across the city, and consequently, the festival didn’t give attendees a real reason to come back to the bar and celebrate post-festival.

I’m delighted these and other growing and successful Texas festivals host serious international and local performers. There are endless possibilities and opportunities to make the events even stronger, and I’m excited for what the coming round of festivals might bring.

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