The Future of #Festi18

Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill said Townsville's Festival 2018 program entertained more than 100,000 people over its 12 days.

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.”

One of Garth Jankovic’s street art creations welcomes visitors to Uncontained as part of Festival 2018.

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.

Nicole Cross performing at Uncontained during Festival 2018.

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.

“Hey Townsville business, thanks for sharing information about a Townsville event! Please find information on events in a different city here!” IMAGE: Odyssey on the Strand, Facebook

 

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.

The work of Colombian illustrator and street artist Wosnan showcased in Strand Park as part of Uncontained for Festival 2018.

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.

The Queens Gardens Festival Stage played host to a range of performances over the 12-day event including community karaoke with Cranky Pants, performances by Ulysses Dancers, Jay Laga’aia and more.

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.

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2 Comments

  • Hello Huxley, I have read this article with interest and agree with most of what you have observed. From what I have heard and seen I would say that the Queens Gardens venue was the most successful. It was however not without its problems. The promoters may have tried to put on too many tent events in the gardens area. One employee has commented that many people left because the noise from an adjacent event was destroying the enjoyment at the event they were attending. This is a proximity problem and when one act is turning the volume up so that it can be heard over another and then the reverse happens you have a problem.

    I really do not know what was happening in the Jezzine venue but every time friends posted from there it looked like very few people were attending.

    I followed the event at the Strand Park quite closely. I visited almost every night. The Mayor may say that 70,000 people attended but that is not the whole picture. 70,000 people could well represent the number of people who walk on the Strand over that period. I can tell you with some accuracy that the attendances at the Strand Park concerts were very poor indeed. The opening night was reasonably well attended but from then on it was downhill. Some nights during the week they were lucky to attract more than a few hundred people. There was no ticketing so no one will really know. But I know what I saw. The foodies also gave up and went home.

    The reasons you have mentioned for poor attendances may well be true but I think there was just too much on for too long a period.

    I think the Queen’s Gardens event with all the tents should be split between Queens Gardens and the Strand Park. This would give more separation to the individual events and the noise problems would not arise. Secondly, the Strand Park event was ridiculously over staged for the small area it occupied. There was after all only about 30 m from the front of the stage to the footpath and some of that area was taken up with the large sound and light control tent. It was very poorly planned.

    Years ago the Dean Park sound shell was closed down ostensibly because of noise complaints from local residents even though it was in a largely industrial area. It has never been replaced. With this city’s love of outdoor events a new dedicated venue must be created. This venue would have stage and dressing room facilities, ample power, ample parking, space for the audience and for food vans et cetera. It must have good toilet facilities as the site of the portaloos along the strand footpath was just disgusting. A venue such as this would require none of the ongoing set up and pull down costs that currently happen every time something is staged in the Strand Park or elsewhere. This is a huge ongoing expense, staging, toilets, tents power, fencing, you name it every time something goes on there are large recurrent costs.

    People say the Strand Park is a good venue, and so it is but for some events it is just not suitable any more. It is after all, one of the smallest parks in the city. Everyone loved to go to the Dean Park Sound Shell so creating a new purpose-built venue will surely not be a problem in attracting an audience, provided the acts are good enough and well promoted, as you said.

    The Strand Park is currently in very poor condition with large areas of dead grass and degraded turf. I do not think the irrigation system is fully functional either. The park will regenerate in time but in the meantime it has been largely unusable and normally hundreds of people use it for recreation every day. Anzac Day and a big market event is coming up soon and this will do nothing to improve the amenity of the park. It is not good enough that one of our premier parks should be used in such a way. It should not be shut away for such long periods and it should not be degraded to such an extent. If you do not live near the park you may not care about it BUT is an extremely popular family recreation facility every day of the year.

    So let us have another Arts Festival in a few years time but let us open it in a brand-new purpose-built Townsville Festival Centre. I think this would be a very popular initiative for the Townsville Council and possibly the state government to initiate. It may not be hugely expensive either.

  • It would be great if they included a designer, visual artist or someone with developed aesthetic sensibilities in the team that puts together such things in future. A bit of tweaking in the presentation and layout of the festival would make it much more engaging and stronger in its presentation.
    Great that you guys are starting a critical debate and review if such things.
    Townsville sorely lacks a critical culture and does itself a disservice because of this.
    Well done to all. It is s great first attempt and I look forward to even better things in the future

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