The strange life of festivals…

Yesterday, Freeplay 2012 was announced, and along with it, the news that it will be my last festival. The decision to leave and the launch has got me thinking about the roles of festivals as they relate to other creative realms, to me personally, and how Freeplay fits into both of those things as well as the surrounding game creation & playing culture and community.

Rambling thoughts follow…

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week, which is part of the Adelaide Festival, and which runs alongside the Adelaide Fringe. I spoke to an audience of school kids along with Rob Shearman and on a panel with Rob again and Megan Abbott. It was strange to be there as a ‘writer’ with people so established and accomplished, but I think I held my own, and I certainly came away with a clearer idea of what part writing plays – or I’d like it to play – in my life.

I was also struck by the vitality of all the surrounding festivals. We saw shows at The Garden of Unearthly Delights, we huddled together in an old church to see a friend’s first play, I saw the phenomenal staging and physical performance of Raoul and was caught up in, I think, my first ever standing ovation. I went to the insane Barrio and hung out while the worst firework show I’ve ever seen fizzed and sputtered around me. The journey of the five days I spent in Adelaide was unexpected but invigorating, in all the ways I think a festival should be.

Closer to home, last week, I went to the launch of the 2012 Next Wave festival. I owe Next Wave a debt of gratitude as it’s where Freeplay started and they were incredibly supportive in passing it on and making sure we didn’t fall completely into oblivion in those first years. It’s full of different people now though, but they’re still doing amazing work, and listening to Artistic Director Emily Sexton’s launch speech and the variety and risk-taking the festival is taking in not only its programming, but also in the way it structures itself as a festival was both inspiring and challenging, again, in all the ways I think a festival should be.

In taking part in these events and in looking forward to what 2012 has in store from others like the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Melbourne International Animation Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and Melbourne Fringe, it’s impossible not to think about my own place in this mix, about Freeplay’s place in it all, and given that this will be my last festival – my place within Freeplay itself.

I think there’s always a question of what a festival is, what’s it for, why bother with it, in the back of every festival director’s mind, and I think – after four years – I’ve finally found my answer.

A festival is made up of many different people who contribute to the shape and the experience; a festival looks outwards at an audience or a community, not inward at practitioners; a festival is essentially vital and a place for exploration and challenge rather than a place for contemplation and improvement;a festival is slightly messy, slightly seat of the pants, slightly anarchic; a festival is utterly human, driven by and facilitating people and their interactions with each other rather than an abstract notion or industrial imperative. You could make a case for other events like conferences or community groups that they’re the same, and certainly Freeplay shares some characteristics, but there is something that you know when you see that separates out a festival from something else, something intangible, and something utterly essential.

Emily Sexton, Artistic Director of Next Wave, said something in her launch speech that  connected with some of these ideas for me

But what I hope will feel most different about this Festival is how much we have thought about you, our community. Festivals are political. They insist we’re better together than we are on our own. That a series of experiences are better than isolated encounters. So I would love you, our people, to help us create that charged temporary space. Together, in that condensed humanity, we will find the radical new.

I totally agree with all of this and I think in addition, I’d add that festivals create a very specific type of affordance separate from the community that surrounds them. Communities come and go. They form and they disperse. A festival cannot create them from nothing, nor can it bind them, and nor could it stop them from breaking apart. On top of being a space for people, for community, I think they are a place for provocation and negotiation in ways that are created, curated, and outward looking too.

Personally, Freeplay has always been a negotiation, an endless series of transactions and compromises. I have lost friends because of it, but also made new ones. I have seen where my limits lie, and I have been given opportunities I’d never have had otherwise. I have figured out a clearer sense of what I want from the world, but I have also given so much of my time and myself to not pursuing those same goals. And in the end, all of that informs my relationship to the festival and feeling like it was time to move on. But even then, that moving on has been a negotiation between what I want the festival to be and what I actually think I can make it. Freeplay will be as good as I can make it within the constraints of money, interest, venue, my own agency, and other people – the board, the programming committee, staff, friends and family – but it still won’t be the thing I see in my head.

But I don’t know that the things we choose to make ever are, all we ever do is negotiate with what they are and what you wish they could be. All you can do is work to find the thing between the personal and the profound, between the individual and the collective, between the work and the audience, between the industrial and the artistic, between inspiration and desperation.

The best festivals do all of that – and in doing so, are necessary parts of any creative industry, artform, sector, whatever definition you throw at what games are what they might evolve into. They support what happens inside, but they also take that and show it to the world. They are, at their messy human heart, about that.

I’m thankful to everyone who puts on festivals of all stripes.  Having helped put my own on, I have a better understanding of the endless pressures that go into making it happen, and I am endlessly inspired by their work and their energy, and I hope that, in some way, people have been inspired by the work that’s gone into Freeplay.  I’m also thankful to the people who’ve come to Freeplay in the past – and who will hopefully come again in future – and who whether they know it or not enter into that negotiation with each other and the event itself.

I’m looking forward to 2012, and I’m also looking further forward to attending 2013 as an audience member and taking part in the whole jostling of ideas from an entirely different perspective. I know it will leave me changed in ways I didn’t know needed changing – as all good festivals should.

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