How To Build A Festival


On Friday we learned the Edmonton Indy, the summertime car race, had ended. Last week we also learned Winter Lights, a linked series of snowy parties, would fold.

Eight years ago, when it launched as Champ Car, I thought of Montreal. Every summer, when I lived there, Formula 1 turned the island into a big, crass party that happened to be about racing. But it never worked in Edmonton, even as Champ Car became the more prestigious Indy. Why?

It never felt right.

Corporate sponsors never went for it and neither did Edmontonians, outside the serious racing fans. It was an import. In a top-down city, eager for glamour and instant recognition, a $22 million civic investment in a car race might be a terrific idea. Edmonton isn’t a top-down city.

Festivals and parties and projects that sing in Edmonton are bottom-up events that begin with a local idea. Edmontonians make it. Nothing has to be forced. We don’t have to talk about the pretend international marketing benefit to rationalize the thing. An Edmonton-built event doesn’t have to go from a $50,000 budget to a $3 million budget in a year.

The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival are iconic because they followed a pattern of success. They feel right. From the beginning they felt right. Even if theatre intimidates you and you hate folk music, they feel like Edmonton. The Fringe, now, after more than 30 years, is ready to be marketed abroad.

But it doesn’t have to take 30 years. The Fringe worked from the beginning, for Edmontonians. And in the beginning, those are the only people we ought to worry about.

The Mill Creek Adventure Walk, at the end of January, 2012, reeked of Edmonton: almost 5,000 people came to the evening stroll, with lanterns and actors dressed as magpies and slides and snow blocks for the kids. Aurora, the fairy princess at the end, was an understated beauty. My kids still talk about it. It was the most successful part of Winter Lights by far because its organizers sat down and thought about Edmonton. We’re a city of a million. We can’t do everything. What works here, historically, and what doesn’t? Theatre, snow, comedy.

It was strange and mysterious, pretty, funny, a fusion of light and dark. The Adventure Walk was a theatrical invitation; all 5,000 of us were contributing. It had magpies! All the thing needed was a wine and beer tent, for the adults. I understand why the Edmonton Indy failed. An announcement that the Mill Creek Adventure Walk has folded makes no sense.

If we’re going to invest in a festival, we ought to think like social venture capitalists. Some are winners and some are losers, but it isn’t a lottery.

Did Edmontonians come up with the idea? Does it fit the city’s culture? Is it easy to find corporate partners and volunteer support, or is it an excruciating pain in the ass?

If the Indy had started in 1972 or 1987 as a soap box derby and slowly (or quickly) grew into an international car race, today it would be one of the biggest events in the summer. That’s Edmonton for you, as the poet says.



6 thoughts on “How To Build A Festival

  1. i am appalled at this news. i thought the festival was the highlight of last winter – especially when seen side by side with the metropolis fiasco. it had magic, it had lights, it embraced winter in the most enthusiastic and glorious way possible and i have been trumpeting its virtues from the rooftops to an audience that will now have nothing to look forward to in january. i am saddened but i hope that something equally glittering arises from this. we need it so much!

  2. Pingback: What is a Make Something Edmonton project? « magpietown

  3. any update re this years Adventure Walk..i have heard of something going on this coming weekend (but not sure if is the same) F -i.e Feb 2.

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