Festivals offer an opportunity for a diversity of arts forms, collaborations, fast-paced environments and the ability to push the envelope. However, tight turnaround contracts, hectic schedules, and competition for audiences definitely pose difficulties for those engaged.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with arts workers who are regularly engaged with festivals in different contexts. I interviewed a wide range of roles, from artists to technicians to administrators and producers about their experiences.
In Australia, our vibrant festival scene allows for many roles to work from gig to gig and get by (if those roles are paid, of course). Despite the wide variety of festivals and experiences, my research uncovered shared challenges – communication, support, expectations, workplace policies and creating environments that enable and maintain good mental health.
Often when you commence your role with a festival, you are generally joining a rich and complex ecosystem. There has been lots of work put into it before you jumped on board. This makes communication even more essential – clear expectations of your role, and how it fits in the bigger picture, and critically, what support is available, and how to access it.
A great example of this is providing simple information sheets. These can include a brief overview of who is working on what – for example, if you need help with ticketing, call Rani or, for all rigging queries, go to Lisette. Commencing a role for a brief period of time can be really challenging. Clarity is key – and can really help us excel, no matter our role.
The performing arts industry in Australia has awards and policies, but we often lack guidance around effectively implementing workplace policies in our unique working environments. A festival environment is a great place to offer artists and arts workers information about dealing with discrimination, bullying, and harassment as well as creating culturally safe spaces, accessible environments, and other critical topics. These steps underpin a mentally healthy festival experience. The festival environment provides the perfect opportunity for education and support, as we’re all automatically united by a shared vision – how to create a wonderful festival experience for everyone involved – and eager to make that a reality.
Being part of the festival scene is certainly an exciting and rewarding experience. The nature of the festival structure and design creates many challenges: working long hours, high pressured environments, navigating working with or leading new people and teams.
Often the challenges that are faced during any regular season or rehearsal period are heightened in a festival environment. This can have an impact on our mental health. Acknowledging this common experience is an opportunity to start implementing practical prevention initiatives. Things as simple as meet and greets, debriefs, check ins and other supportive processes can help ensure that all arts workers have the tools for a healthier and more sustainable career in this dynamic industry.