Over the past fortnight, every time I stepped foot in Queens Gardens or Strand Park it felt like I was Alice stepping into Wonderland for the first time. Festival 2018 (affectionately dubbed Festi18 in the HUXLEY office) transformed these iconic Townsville locations into magical worlds of their own, which were made even more magical by the non-stop programming of local and touring performers.
The 12-day showcase of talent alongside the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games was unlike anything our city had seen before – a melting pot of visual arts, music, theatre, food and dance that celebrated inclusiveness, diversity, and the skills of locals. We lost count of the homegrown performers that took to the stages – because while big names like the Thundamentals and Peter Helliar took to stages drawing respectable numbers, it was the local acts that booked out shows weeks in advance. We cannot congratulate groups like Theatre iNQ, Cajam Circus and the Comedy Generation enough for packing out performances, even with last-minute seat expansions – and with visitor numbers announced by Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill this morning, it’s clear Festival 2018 exceeded expectations.
“We had 22 sell-out shows, 70,000 people through Uncontained alone, and more than 20,000 through Queens Gardens. You can only say Festival 2018 for Townsville was a huge success,” Cr Hill said.
“Cairns saw about 60,000 people through their Festival. The feedback we got from staff and dignitaries visiting was that they were pleasantly surprised by what we had on offer and the buy-in from our local community. When they vox popped people, everyone they talked to loved it.
“I’m really pleased – this festival began from the ground up. The development of Townsville’s Festival 2018 included many of our community, arts and culture groups, and I think that’s why it was a success: we didn’t bring someone in to build it, we asked our community to help. And you can see that with elements like Uncontained, which came through an idea of the local advisory committee – and look what it’s become. It’s so good and we’re getting so much positive feedback from the community. I think we can leave it here until about June when we’ll figure out what we can do with all the containers.”
PRO: Townsville audiences are learning to book in advance
If nothing else, Festival 2018 has encouraged a further departure from the last-minute booking mentality our city has possessed for some time: hordes of people were turned away from the box office on the days of performances after being informed they had run out of tickets well in advance – and next time if they wanted to be there, they should have booked ahead. We’ve harped on about this previously: events take a huge risk going ahead if bookings aren’t made in advance – how will the organisers know audience sizes, or how many to cater for? How will they know if a show has the momentum to run for an extra week? Give them that peace of mind, and support the organisations that continue to produce incomparable shows just for our city.
CON: Not everyone quite understood what this Festival 2018 thing was all about
There were some cases where we were surprised shows had sold out – because no matter where we went or who we spoke to, knowledge about Festival 2018 was minimal:
‘Isn’t that just the basketball happening at the Entertainment Centre?’
‘It’s the Games being screened at Jezzine Barracks, right?’
‘We’re in Townsville, so the only Festivals we get here are for running or triathlons. Not my cup of tea.’
Not that I’m judging … but how can you think the Festival is all about sports when you drive past Strand Park and see world-class street art on towering shipping containers, surrounded by fencing with Festival branding? I’m guessing I’m preaching to the choir, because lots of HUXLEY readers approached us for conversations during the Festival. But honestly – information can only be force-fed to people so much. The general rule is that once people hear about something three times, it begins to sink in – and even when I wasn’t working, I heard at least five Festival 2018 stories weekly with more than enough information to gain a gist of what was happening. The local Council, Festival Committee and the organisations performing as part of the event all did their part promoting, however in many cases it fell on deaf ears.
CON: The big guys treated Townsville & Cairns like footnotes to the Gold Coast event
One major bone we had to pick was with the Festival 2018 social media team – who failed to promote any events outside of the Gold Coast. In the lead-up, it was teased as the largest arts and culture event Queensland had ever seen, spanning our state’s four largest cities. But looking at the Festival’s Facebook page throughout the event, there was no mention of anywhere other than the Gold Coast. Facebook is quickly becoming people’s search engine of choice over Google – if you want to know what’s happening, type an event name into the Facebook search bar. So for the chatter on there about Townsville events to be limited wasn’t the best choice; they commented on one of our videos last week with a link to the Festival 2018 program – only it was the program for the Gold Coast, not Townsville.
PRO: Word spread, and spread fast!
Crowds did build, though! Comparing the opening night at Queens Gardens to this weekend saw a marked increase in numbers, with word of mouth playing a very strong part in pushing people through the gates – whether it was for a Spiegeltent show or to enjoy the atmosphere of food trucks and live performances on the festival stage, the Gardens were abuzz. And, in our opinion, were the only venue needed for the Festival. Three locations did mean performers were spoiled for choice in terms of staging – with Jezzine Barracks perfect for Full Throttle’s Astronomical, the Uncontained stage suiting band performances incredibly well, and the tents in Queens Gardens making beautiful settings for everything from intimate cabarets to high-flying circus shows – but if a similar style of arts festival returns in 2019, it’s unlikely the State Government will fund it to the tune of $1.6 million again – which included $200,000 for public art.
Bringing the event back on a smaller scale, without the excitement of the Commonwealth Games delivering as much focus and funding, may be a case of consolidating everything into a single location – and our top pick is Queens Gardens. Not only was the location beautiful, but allowed more than enough space for two Spiegeltents, a village of food trucks, a decent-sized main stage, an intimate bar, and the roving staging of Alice in Wonderland. There would be more than enough space to add further visual art installations (possibly not the mammoth size of Uncontained), and would leave no doubt in people’s minds about where to go for Festival events.
PRO: There’s talk of it becoming a recurring event
Mayor Jenny Hill said the conversation about a regular event similar to Festival 2018 was open.
“We are talking about Festival 2018 becoming annual or biennial and will continue to do that, but also have a number of events on our calendar already which would tie into it really well like the Strand Ephemera and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, which already overlap. We know this Festival really worked because it appealed to every age group: whether you were a kid watching Jay Laga’aia, whether you were a part of Happy Feat, came for Thundamentals, or were in my older set wanting to see Ian Moss or Diesel. In among all that we had a lot of community groups like NQOMT, Theatre iNQ, Townsville Guitar Orchestra … they were all part of it with a great mix of national, international and local artists,” Cr Hill said.
We cannot congratulate the local Festival 2018 committee enough: every single event we attended as part of the Festival was incredible, and would have been well-worth paying to see. That’s the beauty of these festivals though: the appeal of free events draws in new audiences, exposing them to local organisations they hadn’t given a second thought in the past, and in some cases creates new fans for life. An event similar to Festival 2018 is something Townsville needs on a regular basis – with more points raised here. President of Full Throttle Theatre Company, Madonna Davies, summarised it best: “In a lot of regional communities, everyone works separately. Festivals are an opportunity for different people and groups to come together, showcase what they do, and bring all the best local and national acts to one place so the community can experience all of this talent in a single period of time.”
Festival 2018 is something Townsville has been thirsty for. I wouldn’t say our thirst has been quenched, but we’ve definitely had a good taste and are ready for regular refills. Sitting in a Spiegeltent waiting for one show as the throbbing bass of another show next door echoes in the air around you is something else. It’s a fantastic experience, with a smorgasbord of culture laid out for you to pick and choose from. So what is next? Will Townsville see something more permanent out of this one-off statewide celebration? That’s still to be confirmed, but all signs are pointing to this year’s event being a success.