Opinion

Art festival hip to be square

By John Lewis

It is nearly Shepparton Festival time and for those who like a good dose of claret mixed with your Rhumba or a splash of Shiraz with your Jackson Pollock, it is the perfect time of year.

Who would have thought that a busker and a dancing dog in the Maude St Mall followed by a trumpet-playing clown at The Aussie in 1996 would have spawned an annual three-week circus that gets letters of praise and money from the Minister for Creative Industries.

The Shepparton Festival, which has thankfully dropped the capitalised ‘‘ART’’ from its title, may be just a curious blip on the calendar for some people, but for those of us with a bent for something different, galvanising, provocative, intoxicating, or just plain weird — March is a time to get with the weird stuff.

As a teenage flower-child in the 1960s, I remember that people who could not understand the weird counter-culture were called squares.

Today, I can honestly say that all my stand-out cultural memories of Shepparton have been well-rounded festival ones.

My arrival in 1992 came after a decade in London where a step out the front door meant a Pogues gig, followed by an all-night Sergio Leone festival and breakfast at The Tate Gallery.

In Shepparton, we gravitated towards theatre, a cover band or two, and maybe an annual visit from a real orchestra.

I remember being incredibly excited by the dangerously bohemian prospect of a pottery exhibition above a shoe shop in the Maude St Mall.

Then came the Shepparton Festival.

Over the years I have seen a concert of Ennio Morricone film scores, a candlelit maze built from fruit boxes, a bamboo tower next to the Telecom Tower, and people swaying on stilts to a soundtrack of bells as the sun went down over Victoria Park Lake.

I have seen Paul Kelly at Eastbank, and Mephistopheles at Ardmona.

I have sang with choirs, danced with Africans and played guitar alongside real musicians.

I once saw a big man on stage morph into an abused teenage girl, a bull, a street hood and a terrified old lady in the space of half an hour to a soundscape of screams and galeforce winds.

I have never forgotten that.

At each one of these events I have met new people, caught up with familiar faces and shared stories.

They have become staging posts and postcards of my time here.

And the best bit about it all is that these things came to me — I did not have to go and find them.

All these crazy, comforting, bewildering, and ultimately empowering experiences were made possible by the careful planning and doggedness of the people who plan and execute the Shepparton Festival.

The best festival programs are a mixture of the familiar and the unknown.

The lucky dip is where you find the most exciting things — and this year’s festival program has plenty of chances to get electrified or burned.

You know what you are in for with Gin on The Lawn, Converge and the Albanian Harvest Festival — good times in the sun with music and food.

Excellent.

But what about things such as Bass Bowl, Treasure Languages, Queer Stories, and Eat Your Words?

You just never know what you will walk away with, unless you walk in the door.

The festival in recent years has moved away from the big banger drawcard — a celebrity performance, or startling public installation.

Instead it has moved into the quieter space of community engagement with workshops, storytelling, food events — all ground-up experiences, rather than top-down big ticket attractions.

Maybe that is why the Shepparton Festival is the longest-running festival in Victoria — it still provides a space for people to be together in familiarity or in bewilderment.

The choice is yours, but you have to be there — or be square.

John Lewis is a News reporter.