The decisive emergence of festival culture in the last decade has slowly, but surely, redefined the traditional concert experience. We’ve watched as music events have slowly coalesced with art expos, facilitating the broad exposure of visual artists to a much wider audience. The status quo shifted to become equal parts art and music, inspiring concert-goers in a much broader context than previous concert experiences. Thanks to the industrious work of Burners everywhere, creative lightning bolts echoed across the entire event industry during the turn of the century. Organizers began to channel several of the tenants of Burning Man, none more important than the concept of radical inclusion. The definition of a participant slowly began to blur as attendees were now becoming empowered to contribute in any and every manner possible. Enter movement and yoga. Previously separate, these event communities synergized in a move that would largely redefine the ethos of our massive subculture. No longer was it solely about the music, the art, the yoga. It was about present mindedness and immediate experience as tools for positive lifestyle change.
The Elements of Conscious Festival Culture
Nowadays, the three pillars of festival culture – music, art, and yoga – can be found at the top of most progressive festival posters. Using this more immersive model, event organizers have slightly separated themselves from mainstream dance events, eventually getting tagged with the fresh, new-age moniker of “conscious festival”. While the name itself has many in the industry facepalming due to it’s pretentious connotations, the title does speak to the broader scope of these events. Establishing healthy living as a cornerstone has changed the landscape for live music gatherings. It has inspired more responsibility from attendees, diversified and strengthened associated communities, and simply exposed people to progressive ideals.
The Fourth Element
While the skyrocketing growth of festival culture has many wondering when the bubble will pop, attendees and organizers alike keep pushing the boundaries of modern day celebrations. With the three pillars well established across the fest landscape, the question becomes: what will be the next major contribution to the evolution of conscious festival culture? One surprising piece to the puzzle that has steadily been gaining steam is the institution of immersive theater at several events around the globe. Comedians, poets, actors, and carnies are being employed to create surreal environments for the often unsuspecting guest. Attendees might find themselves playing a key role in a sketch or play, lending their words and wit to the spontaneous creation of a scene. This theatricality is already being cultivated by a number of wonderful production teams. Below, I’ve listed a few of the dedicated pioneers at the forefront of this movement.
People lucky enough to have experienced a Jive Joint set mid-flow already know the magic that these actors cultivate. Led by Super Tall Paul and Rossome, the Jive Joint is equal parts music and comedy; a perfect fusion of improv and skit based performance. Anyone who has had the good fortune to stumble upon the Jive Joint knows the captivating talent that these performers possess. Good luck distinguishing the planned from the spontaneous with this act. I’ve watched aimless festival wanderers cruise into the show mesmerized by the ukulele of Super Tall Paul and the over-the-top physical comedy of Rossome. Did I mention that nobody is safe in the audience? Whether you’re having a good time, a great time, or a really, really,really great time, you might find yourself up on stage, weaving a story that is being created on the spot, at the speed of light. Do yourself a favor and take a seat up front for the opportunity to push your creative limits with these extremely talented improvisers.
Since 2015, the Hangar Stage at Electric Forest has been transporting festival-goers into an eccentric, wonderful spin on 1940s USA. Shaded beneath a massive airplane hangar, one music stage surrounded by 6 unique experiential booths creates a time-traveling playground of pure imagination. On my first time there, I was beckoned into a photo booth by an accordion-wielding actor. Brushing aside the ‘out of order’ sign, our host led us into a narrow corridor with several rooms. We had entered the poetry brothel, an intimate, plush venue where actors and guests swapped poems and embraced the whimsy and absurdity of it all. After being filled to the brim with poetry, we scurried across the dance floor to see what else lay in wait for us. A tattoo tent, a themed body-buffing station, a pin-up booth, and a fully functioning barber shop all contributed to the outlandish 1940s theme. It was possibly the most unique stage that I have ever seen.
What began as a brick and mortar trade and thrift store in 2008, The Grand Artique has become a self-described festival within a festival. Old-timey aesthetics and southern accents dominate this American Frontier era production. At Lightning in a Bottle 2016, the character cast took over the general store for the fest, serving as both shop proprietors as well as entertainers, carefully navigating the path between comedy and seriousness. This full-blown circus troupe led by colorful characters such as Boss Blackie Dearheart and W.C. Thornbush create an otherworldly ambiance complete with their own general store, saloon, anthem, and church (which held a real-life wedding last year). The structure and stage design amplifies the satirical history upon which the whole performance is based, taking you right back to the Wild West.
At Envision Festival in Costa Rica, fortuitous attendees might find themselves tumbling down the rabbit hole into the Tea Lounge, an intimate tea party curated by the mad-hatter himself, Mark Highlove. Both a professional herbalist and cirque-extraordinaire, Highlove and company create a very laid-back atmosphere that invites communion between the performers and the guests, creating an experience that is equal parts health, vitality, and silliness. Cast and crew take turns serving adaptogenic teas in between wacky improvisational skits and circus performances that vary from event to event. Sometimes there is a stage, sometimes there isn’t, which makes every iteration of the Tea Lounge unique. Guests engage in fortune telling and tea leaf reading in what can be described as a sacred clown tea service. The performers are passionate about health and wellness which comes through authentically, allowing guests to unwind in a clean, wholesome fashion. Audience engagement keeps snowballing until conversations swell to revelatory capacity – all while enjoying delicious blends of perfectly prepared elixirs.
For most of us, it’s the unplanned, unimaginable adventures within the festival grounds that are the most memorable. This blossoming theatrical element has the ability to supercharge spontaneity and creativity within the average festival-goer. I’ve seen it first hand: the adrenaline that pumps through someone when they are pulled onto the stage, the pure bliss of inventing your own character within the story. If you find yourself in the scene, go with the flow, play along. See if you can make the actors laugh or break character. Become a part of the creative process and you will come out of it with some lifelong memories.