There will be no Castle Boys at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer. This is something I never thought I would hear. Volunteering and camping at the festival has often been the highlight of my summer for the past 12 years. This year will be different from any other since I started going. Yes, there will be great music, connections with old friends, drinks in the sun and other fun to be had. But no Castle Boys.
If you have visited the festival campground in the past decade, you will know the Castle Boys as the group of artists and builders responsible for creating amazingly enormous and intricate structures inside the campground every year that become the focal point of the night. A pirate ship, a Prohibition-era saloon, Egyptian pyramids and, of course, castles. Their site has become a central meeting point, but also the home of unique characters in costume and mind-blowing performances. Local bands like the F-Holes played the Castle Boys stage well before playing on the festival stage.
The creativity of the Castle Boys gained support from the Winnipeg Folk Festival and inspired others to create interesting installations within the campsite. A trading post, hammock village and gigantic board games are just a few ideas that emerged and became favourites.
Recently, the festival began to put tighter restrictions on campground artists, limiting the size and scope of what the Castle Boys would be allowed to create, frustrating some members enough to abandon the festival altogether. This year the entire Castle Boys collective has been denied a place.
Word travelled fast on social media. Most campers feel the same disillusionment and disappointment as the Castle Boys themselves. Many people have vowed to stop attending and it seems like they are following through. In past years festival camping passes have been known to sell out by April, often sparking a bidding war on Kijiji for those desperate to attend. This year, with the festival less than three weeks away, there are still festival camping passes available.
The Winnipeg Folk Festival executive director, Lynne Skromeda, recently blamed the slow ticket sales on the severe winter and the Beyoncé/Jay-Z concert, based on "anecdotal research." I can't say I believe that a cold winter or a hip-hop show would have any real effect on camping at a summer folk festival. When you deny the most prominent fixture of campground culture in the past decade, it just might be the tipping point for a lot of people already getting fed up with the over-commercialization.
The reason given by the festival for rejecting the Castle Boys' application they "didn't meet the criteria." The Castle Boys were never specifically told what criteria it was they didn't meet, but can only speculate it might have been because they have more than 10 members. This year, the application for the first time said 10 was the maximum, but other groups involving more than 10 people, such as Big Games and the Trolleys, were able to get around this. It seems the Castle Boys were the only ones for whom this rule change was enforced.
Arwen Smith, a member of the Castle Boys, told me they had developed an incredible relationship with the festival, which had fully co-operated with their projects over the years. Then the festival dumped some of their long-time staff and things changed. The people making decisions now don't seem to understand or even care about the original grassroots beginnings of their own campground art program.
I cannot comprehend how the festival does not beg the Castle Boys to participate every year because of the unique experience they bring to the campsite. It makes me think the current directors are completely out of touch with the sentiments of the people who have supported them for so many years. I'm not saying the camping will be dull. It will just be missing its most prominent display of artistic commitment, which spawned so much more.
The festival brass are making excuses for why camping is still not sold out, but soon they might notice their audiences and volunteers abandoning them for other festivals that nurture creativity, instead of regulating it to death.
Jonathan Wilson is a freelance writer and reporter in Winnipeg and a volunteer crew chief for the Winnipeg Folk Festival.