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Brian Ritchie knows a thing or two about festivals. As a youth in Milwaukee, he reviewed them. As bass guitarist for the Violent Femmes, he's performed at hundreds of festivals across the planet. And since 2009, he's compiled the line-up for MONA FOMA – Hobart's cutting-edge summer festival known simply as MOFO.
If anyone can explain the enduring allure of festivals, it's Ritchie. "The main reason people go to festivals is that people like to gather together," he says. "Ever since the early days of humanity, people would get together around a fireplace. A festival is just like a gigantic modern fireplace where people gather around to tell stories and share music.
"If you think of early humanity dancing around a fire, singing around a fire, telling stories – this is the impetus behind the success of festivals. The best ones provide people with a certain level of comfort but also provide them with new experiences and expose them to ideas that they wouldn't normally gravitate to in their own lives."
For Adelaide Festival's co-artistic director Neil Armfield, the appeal of festivals lies in "that sense of total immersion". "That's why small-city festivals – Adelaide, Edinburgh, Avignon – are so great because there's a sense of them taking over the whole town so that a visit to that place means you get lost in the experience of the art that surrounds you," he says. His co-director, Rachel Healy, says the immersion "isn't just a holiday from your normal life – it's almost a holiday from the boring stuff that you think about all day. It's also a holiday for your intellect – it gives you space to think about bigger issues and questions."
Traveller asked nine of Australia's top festival directors, curators and programmers – from the worlds of music, theatre, film and comedy – about their favourite festival and which one is still on the to-do list.
BRIAN RITCHIE, MOFO
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... Milwaukee's Summerfest is the biggest music festival in the world. Last year the Femmes played there and on other stages at the same time were Cheap Trick, The Decemberists and more. Aside from classical music, it has almost every kind of music.
When you go don't miss ... I usually ride my bike around there because it's on the lakefront. I might go for a ride in between bands.
Between performances you must see ... if you want to get a different kind of culture, walk over to the Milwaukee Art Museum (mam.org), which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. I usually stay at the Pfister Hotel, which dates to the 1800s – Milwaukee is famous for breweries and beer so it goes back to that era of the brewery legacy. That's where most of the artists stay – I've seen the Stones there and McCartney. I've bumped into Chad [Smith], the drummer from the Chili Peppers, Gwen Stefani ... it's a fun place to be. Karl Ratzsch is a very old German restaurant that goes back more than 100 years. There's also a really great sausage manufacturer in Milwaukee called Usinger's (usinger.com) if you want to sample more of our German culture.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... one I've been longing to go to is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco (May 2017, see fesfestival.com). They have musicians of all kinds of spiritual traditions regardless of the religious orientation. I just find that to be a really intriguing concept for a festival. It's not based on a musical style – it's one based on the reason for doing the music, which is devotional music.
Essentials Summerfest takes place June/July (summerfest.com); stay at The Pfister Hotel (thepfisterhotel.com ). Milwaukee is 150 kilometres north of Chicago.
BRANDON SAUL, FALLS FESTIVAL, BYRON BAY
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire, England. It's in the grounds of what was once a palatial country home and is as much about the food and location as it is about the music. It's the first festival I've been to that was genuinely enjoyable – they had swimming holes you could actually swim in, hot tubs you could rent and rowboats so you could go for a row with a drink in your hand. They have really thought through the experience and every part of it is good.
When you go don't miss ... there's a whole corner of the festival set up for fine-dining. It's sort of like going to a really cool wedding.
Between performances you must ... see Blenheim Palace (blenheimpalace.com) where Winston Churchill was born – it's just down the road.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... Lightning in a Bottle (May 2017, lightninginabottle.org) in central California. It's very, very, very green - as someone who produces events, I'd like to see how they do it.
Essentials Wilderness Festival (August 3-6, 2017, wildernessfestival.com) takes place at Cornbury Park, 24 kilometres from Oxford. The site offers five themed camping areas.
MICHELLE CAREY, MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Cannes Film Festival. It's the distillation of all the craziness and excitement and contradictions of the film industry in one tiny little very 1950s-style French Riviera town. At the last festival, I was walking around behind this man – I didn't think much of it – when some Aussies jumped out from a bush and said, 'George Miller, we love your films!' It's very surreal.
When you go don't miss ... because Cannes is such a compact city, there's really only one focus of attention [during the festival] which is the Palais [des Festivals] and the Croisette. You can just go there – you don't have to be part of the industry or have accreditation – and star-spot if that's your thing.
Between performances you must ... I like a gin and tonic or two on the patio of one of the iconic hotels such as the Majestic or the Carlton. You can also walk for about 30 minutes up into the hills and see beautiful villas that are sometimes used as party venues for the films. If you've got enough chutzpah, talk your way into a party.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... the Locarno film festival in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland (August 2-12, 2017, see pardo.ch). They have outdoor screenings in the piazza and also really great programming.
Essentials The Cannes Film Festival (festival-cannes.com) returns May 17-28, 2017. Stay at the Hotel Le Majestic (hotelsbarriere.com) or the Intercontinental Hotel Carlton Cannes (carlton-cannes.com), both on the Boulevard de la Croisette.
CHLOE GOODYEAR, WOODFORD FOLK FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival on Canada's Prince Edward Island. It takes place in a beautiful field that's quite close to the ocean. One venue, The Tuning Room, has people playing together all day – it's like, bring your instrument, get in there and play on. It goes all day – they finish off when the sun comes up. There's also a main stage – people lie in a natural amphitheatre and look back at this tiny little cute wooden stage.
When you go don't miss ... the dance in the Ceilidh Barn after the main-stage concert has finished. It might be a small festival but they know how to party.
Between performances you must ... do a Fiddling Fisherman tour (from nearby Souris, fiddlingfisherman.co) where you go out and pull up a lobster trap and then the captain plays fiddle for you. The other thing is to visit the Anne of Green Gables site (in Cavendish, 106 kilometres from Rollo Bay, pc.gc.ca).
The festival I'd love to attend is ... Iceland Airwaves (November 2-6, Reykjavik, icelandairwaves.is) always has an amazing line-up and heaps of Icelandic music.
Essentials The Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival is held in July (rollobayfiddlefest.ca); camp on site. Fly to Charlottetown, PEI from hubs such as Montreal or Toronto.
SUSAN PROVAN, MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL COMEDY FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Edinburgh Fringe. The setting is a magical mix of Old Town medieval streets and castle, and Georgian New Town elegance. Every imaginable space is converted into a venue to house more than 3000 shows from all over the globe.
When you go don't miss ... the curated programs of major venues such as Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly and Pleasance. Talk to people to find shows you might like to see. Read reviews in The Scotsman and The List. Take a punt on a bunch of Free Fringe shows where you pay what you like. See Late'n'Live, the best raucous, late-night comedy showcase of the Fringe. Watch the festival closing-night fireworks over the castle – the most spectacular set for a fireworks display imaginable.
Between performances you must ... take the bus to Portobello Beach on a sunny day. Climb Arthur's Seat and watch the sunrise – probably with a bunch of performers who haven't been to bed. Take a midnight walking tour of the allegedly haunted underground streets abandoned beneath the Royal Mile. Absorb the stories of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her court at Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle. Craigmillar Castle (historicenvironment.scot), south-east of the city centre, is beautiful and a lot less crowded. Snooze on a blanket in The Meadows.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... I've always wanted to go to the Pushkar Camel Fair (November 8-15) in Rajasthan, India. Probably not much comedy there but I reckon it would look amazing.
Essentials The Edinburgh Fringe runs for three weeks each August (edfringe.com). Find a room, apartment, B&B, guesthouse or hotel via edlets.com.
WESLEY ENOCH, SYDNEY FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro in Bogota, Colombia. It's big – it has three times the amount of things we can program. Shows come from all over the world and take place in venues ranging from school halls to a tent – no joke, I swear one tent was big enough to hold 2500 people. The audiences are also extraordinary – at the end of the [tent] show, there was whooping and hollering and people banging their feet and calling out.
When you go don't miss ... in Bogota, you can be driven by your fear or by your sense of adventure. Get out into the streets and be part of the atmosphere. Every arts festival is a reflection of its city and to just go and watch the shows is not what it's about.
Between performances you must ... walk around and explore La Candelaria, the city's historic centre.
The one festival I'd love to attend is ... everyone talks about France's Festival d'Aix en Provence (July 3-22, festival-aix.com). My job is to listen to what people are talking about and to get there.
Essentials Bogota's theatre festival (festivaldeteatro.com.co) is biennial; the next one is in 2018.
BRONWYN KIDD, FLICKERFEST
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Palm Springs International ShortFest is really intimate. It provides a great snapshot of the next generation of filmmakers coming through.
When you go don't miss ... the opening-night and closing-night gala events where you get to see the picks of the festival.
Between performances you must ... have a drink at Melvyn's Piano Bar (inglesideinn.com) or poolside at the Parker Hotel (theparkerpalmsprings.com). Catch the cable-car (pstramway.com) up the mountain to find yourself in another eco-system with lots of greenery and trees, which is in stark contrast to the desert below.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... the Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah, January 19-29, 2017, sundance.org) because it's got all this incredible independent talent and a great history of supporting wonderful people like [Australian director] David Michod.
Essentials Palm Springs International ShortFest returns in June. See psfilmfest.org
See also: 20 reasons to visit Palm Springs
NEIL ARMFIELD, ADELAIDE FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... the Avignon Festival, principally a theatre festival, in the south of France. The town gets completely taken over by theatre – there's a sense that it bursts into incredible life.
When you go don't miss ... one of the great things is the way they've adapted all these outside spaces like courtyards to be wonderful theatre spaces – acoustically, there's something very beautiful about that. It's also lovely, in the middle of summer, to be sitting under the stars watching theatre.
Between performances you must ... explore. The whole city is a work of art. It sits completely within its intact medieval rampart walls and the entire city is activated by the festival for all of July. It was the home of the popes for most of the 14th century and the seat of their power was the impressive Palais des Papes. The building's courtyard provides a great open-air amphitheatre as the festival's central and grandest venue.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... the Festival au Desert (festival-au-desert.org) in Timbuktu – an extraordinary festival of African and world music in Mali. Sadly, this is impossible. This festival exists for the moment only in exile. Since 2014, Sharia law has been imposed in Mali and music is banned, instruments burned, musicians threatened with execution. The Festival au Desert leaders are exiled in Burkina Faso and have formed the Caravan for Peace: a touring caravan of Malian musicians and artists who travel to tolerant African countries bringing their message of peace through the irrepressible human need to make music.
Essentials The next Avignon Festival is July 2017, see festival-avignon.com Trains run regularly from Paris to Avignon; Marseille airport is 65 kilometres away. For accommodation, see ot-avignon.fr, provenceguide.com
See also: 20 reasons to visit Provence
RACHEL HEALY, ADELAIDE FESTIVAL
The one festival (aside from mine) you must attend is ... I've got an incredible fondness for Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival. It's a bit of a misnomer because it isn't just jazz. The thing I love most about it is that it's only one venue, really, on Lake Geneva.
When you go don't miss ... the programmers don't see their job beginning and ending with booking [the artists]. They understand that their job is to create an entire day and night experience so there's a fantastic outdoor stage and brilliant markets that go around the lake. They also do clever things – the artists are interviewed on a public stage. They've also thought through that people have kids – they have a great kids' tent. When the concerts are over, there's the famous Montreux Jazz Cafe, which is a supper club where they screen archival footage and have bands – it goes until all hours of the morning. I love the way they think about the entirety of the audience experience.
Between performances you must ... slow down. Montreux's residents are experts at slow living. They take time to shine their shoes. They sit down to a properly set table for lunch. They stroll. They meet friends at open-air street cafes, drink wine and talk about the news of the day.
The festival I'd love to attend is ... Taiwan's Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival (February, 2017) looks exquisite with thousands of people releasing lanterns into the night sky.
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF A FESTIVAL
Break out the highlighter pen – the best festivals offer so many temptations that agonising over the program is part and parcel of the experience.
BOOK A BED
For Milwaukee's Summerfest, Brian Ritchie recommends staying close. "Get accommodation nearby so you can go back to your hotel and chill out periodically because it can be pretty hot in the unrelenting sun," he advises.
WORK THE QUEUES
At the Edinburgh, Adelaide and Edmonton fringe festivals, which all offer hundreds of shows, ask other patrons in the queues which shows they've loved – then go buy a ticket.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
Take a chance on something unfamiliar and perhaps discover a new passion. Maybe you just don't know yet that you love interpretive dance, Tuvan throat singing or Bunraku puppetry.
DON'T BLISTER IN THE SUN
A bad case of sunburn could ruin your summertime festival experience. Apply sunscreen before arrival – and keep reapplying during the day.
Brian Ritchie, founding member of rock band the Violent Femmes, has curated MONA FOMA (MOFO), MONA's Festival of Music and Art, since it began in Hobart in 2009. It returns January 19-22. See mofo.net.au
Michelle Carey became Melbourne International Film Festival's artistic director in 2011 after helping program the festival for four years. MIFF, Australia's largest film festival, returns to Melbourne next winter. See miff.com.au
Neil Armfield is co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival (March 3-19, 2017; adelaidefestival.com.au) with Rachel Healy. He's an acclaimed theatre, opera and film director. Barrie Kosky's production of Handel's Saul headlines the 2017 festival.
Rachel Healy is co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival with Neil Armfield until 2019. Healy and Armfield worked together at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney; she also worked at Sydney Opera House and the City of Sydney.
Wesley Enoch is director of the 2017 Sydney Festival (January 7-29, sydneyfestival.org.au). The former Queensland Theatre Company artistic director also directed the Indigenous section of Melbourne's 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
Bronwyn Kidd has been director of the short-film festival Flickerfest since 1997. Flickerfest programs are shown at the Bondi Pavilion (January 6-15, flickerfest.com.au) before touring to 50 Australian cities and towns.
Susan Provan is director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (March 29-April 23, 2017, comedyfestival.com.au), one of the world's largest comedy events together with Edinburgh Festival Fringe's comedy program and Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival.
Chloe Goodyear is head of programming for Queensland's Woodford Folk Festival (December 27-January 1, woodfordfolkfestival.com) – her association with the festival began in 2002. The festival encompasses music, talks, street theatre, workshops and more.
Brandon Saul programs Falls Festival Byron Bay (December 31-January 2, fallsfestival.com), one of four Falls Festivals around Australia (Lorne December 28-31, Marion Bay December 29-31, Fremantle January 7-8).