Back in the spotlight

Successful return of summer festivals pleases patrons, organizers alike


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Manitoba’s summer of 2022 will go down in history, and the return of festivals will be a big reason why.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/09/2022 (198 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba’s summer of 2022 will go down in history, and the return of festivals will be a big reason why.

Stages and cultural centres throughout Winnipeg — not to mention sites across the province such as Birds Hill Provincial Park north of the city, or the Selo Ukraina amphitheatre near Dauphin — ended three years of pandemic-enforced silence with a three-month celebration.

In so doing, they provided people who dearly missed beloved events an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, discover new entertainers and enjoy longtime favourites, or set aside COVID-19 miseries for an evening or a long weekend.

“Coming off the festival, I think all of us felt exhausted, which is to be expected,” Zachary Rushing, Jazz Winnipeg’s programs manager, says. “But on the other side of a little bit of sleep, I think we’re all incredibly proud of what we accomplished.”

Festivals big and small received a financial shot in the arm, but also but a much-needed boost in energy — and the knowledge that two years of work trying to bring the events back to life were appreciated.

Pavilions at Folklorama, the multicultural event that took place July 31-Aug. 13 at community centres across Winnipeg, set attendance records. It posted a 14 per cent increase in visits compared with its 50th-anniversary edition in 2019.

A total of 168,515 people enjoyed the food, drinks and entertainment at 24 different pavilions.

”Over these past couple weeks, we have seen the beauty and excitement of Folklorama re-ignited,” Teresa Cotroneo, Folklorama’s executive director, said in a release after the event wound up.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival announced the 2022 edition was its second-most attended festival in its history. The 74,000 that swooned and sweated at a steamy Birds Hill Park from July 7-10 were eclipsed only by the 76,000 that set the folk-fest record in 2019. Large crowds were on hand this year to groove to acts such as Talking Heads alumni Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew on July 8 and indie-rockers Portugal. the Man an evening later.

It was a big moment for Lynne Skromeda, the festival’s executive director, who wept in 2020 when she was forced to announce the event’s cancellation owing to the pandemic.

“I’m just working on my board report right now and my opening statement is ‘With great pleasure, and relief, that I can say that the Winnipeg Folk Festival was a success this year,’” she says. “We lost our purpose for two years, but now it’s back again.

“It was also really hard in the lead-up, between supply-chain issues, our volunteer shortage and soggy springtime weather, among other things. There was a time when we weren’t sure it was going to be pulled off as we wanted it to, but it really came together in the end.”

For the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, its June 14-19 event helped Jazz Winnipeg to a firmer financial footing after holding only a few smaller events in 2020 and 2021. It also helped set a new diverse course for the festival, including 55 per cent of performers being women.

“We were able to make a six-day festival… happen in a relatively limited time frame compared to what we normally had to do,” says Rushing, who took over his job in 2021 after spending three years as a jazz fest volunteer.

“It totally reinforced how much this is a festival of community — in terms of the musicians who participate in it, but also the volunteers who give so much time and effort and energy to make this whole production happen.”

Chuck McEwen, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival executive producer, says he was delighted to see fringers return to the Exchange District, the festival’s longtime home. That support led to 59,845 tickets sold over 983 indoor performances, which returned more than $536,000 to performers.

Loosened restrictions didn’t end with the pandemic though. The jazz and fringe fests were able to allow patrons to enjoy their alcoholic beverages throughout Old Market Square rather than being penned up in beer gardens. Similarly, the folk fest was able to extend its liquor licence for the entire festival site, allowing attendees to bring purchased drinks stageside rather than enjoy drinks and entertainment from afar.

Expect more of the same in 2023, Skromeda says.

“It was a huge success. People loved it,” she says. “It didn’t cause any problems. It didn’t cause any issues because we have such a well-behaved audience to begin with. People really enjoyed it.

“It was actually quite funny… I was in the tavern on a few occasions, and I would watch people walk to the edge where the fence was, and they would look around and say ‘Am I supposed to be doing this?’”

The festival routine didn’t end when the garbage was collected and the receipts were tabulated. Jazz Winnipeg hosted its outdoor series at the Dalnavert Museum in August and is teaming up with the Exchange District Biz for Love the Exchange, an event planned for Sept. 16 with blues artist Sol James and Latin jazz group Trio Bembe playing the Cube stage.

The folk fest begins its 11-show Hear All Year Concert Series on Sept. 19-20 with the Joel Plaskett Emergency and Mo Kenney playing the Park Theatre.

Dauphin’s Countryfest is also getting in the act. It’s hosting two sold-out concerts with crooner Johnny Reid in Yorkton, Sask. and Brandon, tonight and Sunday respectively, as well as country-rocker Jess Moskaluke’s Nov. 16 concert in Brandon.

Planning for the festival summer of 2023 has already begun. Expect more details Tuesday from organizers about the 2023 Countryfest, which will once again take place on the Canada Day weekend.

For Jazz Winnipeg, it’s a six-month head start to bring music back to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Old Market Square.

“Musicians weren’t on tour. The whole industry was on hiatus for two-and-a-half years,” Rushing recalled, noting Jazz Winnipeg couldn’t start preparing for the festival until January 2022. “For comparison, we’re starting now for next year.”

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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