The Peterborough Folk Festival is over for another year.

I always feel a bit gormless for a while after the festival, not really sure what to do with myself and not terribly focused.  After a year of planning, of having my schedule revolve around the festival, the weekend itself goes by so quickly that it seems like I missed it.  Can we go back? Can we slow and stop time so that I can talk to a few more people, hear a few more acts, get a few more things done?

It’s also a relief, I won’t lie – we pulled it off, another great year, and while our ambition always outstrips our abilities, it’s impossible to doubt that this was one of the best years of the festival in memory.  Some years it rains, some years technical things go wrong or acts don’t live up to your expectation or volunteers flake out and don’t pull their weight.  This year, the weather was lovely, the events ran so smoothly that it felt weird, the musicians were terrific, and our Coordinators were on their game.  Everyone was happy, great to work with, and responsible.  It was, in a word, charmed.  Lots of work, still, but work where the payoff was a great festival.

It’s bittersweet for me, because this is my last year as Executive Director of the festival. I wear multiple hats, so I’ll still be involved – most notably as Artistic Director for one more year – but for the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to shape the vision of the festival, to lead a great team of committed, pleasant, and talented people towards a festival that embraces a wider audience and that has a growing reputation in Canada.  It’s both difficult and exciting to let that go. I’m not sure what my life is like without the festival at the centre of it.

I first volunteered for the festival as a parking attendant in the late nineties.  Later, I came on board as the Coordinator for the Artisans Village, and after a break, as the Coordinator for the Club Crawl.  Watching Aengus Finnan and crew as the Shelter Valley Folk Festival took shape, I got a lot of ideas about how we could change our festival to be better, and I put my name forward as Director.  I remember the feeling of panic and fear when the AGM was over and I’d been voted in; I’d never done anything like this, never put myself forward for anything this big, and I wasn’t certain I could pull it off.

I remember PFF 2007 like it was a dream; it still seems like a shining moment to me, mostly because of the stellar lineup and the euphoria of everyone on our team over making it work.  It hasn’t ever felt quite like that again – every year has been different, but that one was striking because so many of the Coordinators and the Board were new, and the look in in everyone’s eyes when the festival was over was one of wonder and excitement. And exhaustion.

We’ve made a lot of changes to the festival since then, dropped things that weren’t working, added things that seemed to be missing, and worked hard every year to make sure this is the best festival we can present.  Despite being one of the lowest-funded folk festivals in Ontario and probably Canada (mostly because we’re one of the last free folk festivals in Canada), we put on a great show and this year, over 10,000 people came out and enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that getting here has been easy; honestly, I can say that there’s been hard times throughout my run as a festival volunteer (the PFF has no paid Staff).  Lots of times I’ve been angry or stressed beyond what I thought I could bear.  I’ve heard things about myself through the grapevine that have been heart-breaking in their misunderstanding of my intentions.  I’ve had people I considered friends do things that were painful and upsetting, and I’ve seen enough unprofessional behaviour for a lifetime.

The goal has always been to raise the bar for arts and events in this area.  Peterborough has great energy, good artists, and a wellspring of ideas, but they’re stifled by lack of confidence and professional rigour.  They’re willing to accept low pay, poor performing conditions, and little respect because they don’t have the confidence to try harder and ask for more.  People don’t like being challenged on this; it’s been the status quo for so long, and habit and familiarity has made it difficult to combat.  I feel that it’s getting better, and I think the festival has had a strong impact on that by bringing in great emerging artists from across the country.  These acts are new, but they rehearse, write, perform, and approach the business of music with a professionalism that belies their short time in the business.  They bring musical sounds and influences from other cultures and scenes, and hopefully inspire local artists to add new sounds and ideas to their own repertoires.

I’m proud of this, and I’ll continue to be proud of this.  I’m proud of all of the work we’ve done with the festival over the past five years.  And I’m excited for the future – both to see what my life is like when the festival is no longer the centre of my year, and to see what is accomplished with the festival in the future.

This year marks a change; a change in personnel, a change where five years of strategizing and planning have paid off, and now it’s time to think ahead another five years, and to bring in fresh minds and ideas.  This festival exists only because so many volunteers are so willing to give up their own time to make a dream happen – the idea that a community can come together without boundaries, without huge corporate sponsors, in the spirit of local multi-generational celebration and cooperation to create an event that is uniquely Peterborough in its shape even while it welcomes people from beyond our city.  The idea that you can run a professional urban folk festival where a friendly, relaxed atmosphere pervades everything.

It’s exciting and satisfying, and I can’t think of a better way to have spent my time over the past 5 years than to help make this happen.



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