The Fremantle International Street Arts Festival

Fremantle International Streets Festival: Interview with Brendan Coleman

Gene: Hi everyone. I'm Gene Carr. I'm here with Evyn Lundy and Leo Hidy, both of whom are Oberlin College interns. And I'm pleased to introduce you today to Brendan Coleman, he is the creative producer of the Fremantle International Street Arts Festival. Welcome Brendan, And thanks so much for joining us.

Brendan:Thank you, I’m so glad to be here.

Gene:  Now, before we get too far, some folks in our audience may simply not know where Fremantle is. So why don't you set the stage for where you are, and give us some background on the festival? 

Brendan: So, Fremantle is the port town of Perth, which is the capital city of Western Australia. The population of Perth is around 2 million people and we're on the West coast of Australia. So for those people that don’t know Australia so much, we're the largest state, and we're also the least populous state. We're a large, huge state, a bit like you might see in Canada or whatnot, and there’s a similarity there with a lot of the population of Australia being on the East coast and whatnot. Except the climate is, I’ve heard, it’s like San Diego, California, or Greece, or somewhere like that. Yeah. Nice, warm winters with rain and hot, dry summers and so forth.

Gene:So tell us a little about the festival, how it got started, and how many people come in - set the stage for us, if you will.

Brendan: The first festival was in 1999, about 22, 23 years ago, and it came out of the natural busking quad culture of Fremantle. Now, Fremantle is a port town, it's a historic town; It attracts a lot of tourists from the weekend, as well as being a very artsy town on its own. So there are a lot of artists here. And there's always, on any given Sunday or Saturday weekend, or even during the week, ‘musical buskers' or what we call ‘circle show buskers', which are circus or cabaret or all varieties of [performers], gathering people delivering really, high quality, fun busking.

So entertainment, and then passing the hat at the end, and that's always existed in the culture here. So, in 1999 the local council, the city of Fremantle thought, ‘Let's just try and capture this a little bit and celebrate it with the festival over Easter’. They used to be chosen because there was a natural four days of public holidays, which allowed a longer time for it to happen.

And it also is at a time where people are looking to come to ‘Frio’ and just spend time here. And immediately it was very small. I actually performed in the first one as a circus performer, as a busker myself.  It was very modest, we did one street closure and it too - it captured people's imaginations. The businesses really loved it, the public really loved it, the performers really loved things celebrated that way and did well, of course. And again it was just a small thing, very modest. Program publicity, things like that. But then, it just built from there. And the short answer is that from there, it really just kept going each year.

It started to attract people from interstate, it started attracting internationals that were in Australia at the time. And then we find ourselves here, now, evolved from not just presenting busking, but also presenting outdoor theater and straight theater, roving acts, anything, any kind of visual arts - anything that can be staged outside.And the public had come down! 

That's the festival that it's cool and its values. Of course, it's very democratic and accessible. You don't have to go into a venue. You don't have to buy a ticket. You can just come along and encounter things. Or you can grab a program and walk around and seek things out. That's the ethos of the festival.

Gene: And is it still a four day festival over Easter? Is that the timeframe?

Brendan: Absolutely. That's right. So it always goes from Friday to Monday and we work into the evenings on Saturday and Sundays as well. 

Gene: And how many performers do you have and how many people come? Can you give us a sense of the scope?

Brendan: So over the four days, it's obviously built over time, but we've been getting consistently between 100- and 150,000 people coming down and through the city. And so the show can vary from roving acts, which go and encounter people right up to stages with a thousand people at a time. 

And and there’s an amazing amount, so people come down. Fremont, it's quite a pretty town. It's got beaches, it's got ports, it's got historic buildings. It allows people to come down in a way and choose their own adventure. They may encounter the festival by coming down, having fish and chips with their relatives over Easter. We have people that are highly committed and come and sit on a balcony, overlooking the road closure, who stay there all day and watch the show. So, it allows people to experience Fremantle in a different way and also the festival in quite an open way.

Gene: And how many performers do you have at any one time and over the course of the event?

Brendan: So the festival began just as a locals-only thing for budget reasons. And now we actually have the ability, through support and just building the festival responses, to fly people in from around the world.
So the ethos is more of a curated best-in-the-world type of approach. We fly people in from North America, Europe, Japan, and so on, wherever we can find, curating the best folks. So, we usually have around 25 international performers, maybe that number again for just in-state performers, and locals can be a couple of hundred, depending, because we have several community aspects to it as well, from large scale community percussion groups and so forth. But at a core number of, say, about 20 to 30 invited guests and then the community also, here, we can get out to 300 artists depending on the style of works and stuff.

And give us a sense of the scope of your operations; the budget size. How big is your staff? How do you pull that off? 

The city of Fremantle contributed $250,000 to the event. And we also get about another hundred or so in local business sponsorships. So, for the event that we're producing, although that's a reasonable budget and a lot more than we used to have at the beginning, it's very modest for what we produce. And the synergies, the busking model of the public; paying the performance to some degree (although we do provide them with a retainer so there's some security - If it rains, if there's a problem), allows us to get quite a lot from the investment made, in terms of outcome. We have done very high level research on numbers and impacts and so forth with the festival.

And I think we did that about two or three years ago, and it was calculated that the event brings in around $5.7 million into the city through the businesses. So, as well as being a high quality and accessible arts festival for the rate-payers and the broader public, it has a massive economic impact. 

Gene:That’s twenty-five times the investment. That's an extraordinary outcome. 

Brendan: Exactly. And obviously, we built a brand and people know about it now. We created a tradition and a certainty for the businesses to plan. And I guess it increases every year - we've tried to expand into other areas of the city that haven't been involved, stakeholders and businesses that haven't been involved, as much as we can. And we do that by street closures, and inviting people to bring in chairs and tables out or somehow come up with a different way to perhaps capitalize it, and be involved.

Gene: And how long have you been the creative force? Tell us about your journey -  You started as a performer, but tell us a little bit about your own role.

Brendan: Sure. So I actually performed in the first five festivals from ‘99 to 2003 as a circus performer and various duos and solos and whatnot. And the position, it had various coordinators, that position came up to the coordinator, and I took it in 2004, and I've been in that position since then. 

So it's been quite a massive part of my life and something I’ve really enjoyed. And I guess with my background, it's natural, it's a natural thing, you know - actually programming street performers, so it’s something that I like when I’m booking folks. I do understand the animal. I do understand what they need and what we can do to make it work. So it's something I've become passionate about. And I guess in some ways, that's how we've led to taking the audience on, like, a 22-year ride, and every year the audience has come back and they want more. So we’ve moved naturally into curating something which is like a high-quality, best-in-the-water approach so that we can be delivering, we can be educating, moving an audience, and also celebrating people to see and expect, the very best in street entertainment.  

Gene: And how big is your team? 

Brendan: We're quite small, relatively. So, I'm employed by the city of Fremantle three days a week. And we have on our events festivals team 3 part-time staff and one coordinator. Now we also work over other events throughout the year, so there’s the music festival in winter, it’s a heritage festival, and a winter arts festival.

So we are planning for this to be one of the positions throughout the year that allows us to work in a four months cycle which is very important because you're always at some point in some point of the cycle. And we bring in contracted production managers, contracted audio production, contracted security, first aid, all of those things that normally you have in events and so forth. We have contracted publicists now, we have a little bit of in-house marketing and so forth. But yeah, essentially the ethos is always - because we have the natural advances of the city - to invest heavily on the quality of the program and then let that kind of be the primary driver for the people.

We try to minimize production as much as we can, we try to give a good experience, we try to minimize over-marketing and so forth and just really put it into creating something special each year. 

Gene: Beautiful. Let me let  Evyn and Leo ask some questions, Ev do you have a question?

Evyn: So I was wondering how has COVID-19 impacted the operations of your festival? And do you see any of these changes being long term? 

Brendan: The first year, it was a disaster because it was this time last year, we literally had flights booked - I prepared all the visas that artists had, we were pretty much ready to go -  10,000 programs printed, yeah.
So it was heartbreaking, having to pull out, and pull all the people back. Yeah. And thankfully people hadn't arrived in the country or anything like that, but yeah. And I guess, all of us were feeling that shock of What is about to happen? What is happening?

This year has been challenging and we've been listening to health advice from the government and trying to plan in a way to see if we can present something.

So it's been a, it's been a frustrating year, and look, we were pretty much spent. Around November we decided that it’s probably best not to go forward in trying to find models that would make it work;, Whether that'd be fencing, the park, controlling numbers, thinning stages, just having roving - we looked at everything to try and get something happening so there could at least be some presentation for the artists, for the businesses, the whole thing. And ultimately, even in a place like Western Australia, where we've literally  only had one, two-week lockdowns, very little community transmission, we are under quite strict event conditions.

So it felt like we had done a lot of work and it didn't eventuate. But having said that, it’s been really lovely that we've moved the budget over now to create this really lovely work with the Australian Street Theater Company, which I won't get into too much about because it's not public realm yet, but it's going to be based alongside an outdoor program inside venues. So, in large warehouses and whatnot. So we're future-proofing 2022 by allowing ourselves to have a project that'll be large-scale, invite the community, but allow us to work if we're still under controlled numbers and whatnot, we'll definitely have something to present into 2022.

So we've evolved, we’ve taken time, evaluated, tried to work out how to use our resources and come up with something where if we go for gold, everything, we're back in a normal model, we've got a COVID-safe project - Worst case scenario, we have got a really lovely high quality engaging project that will allow us to come back.

Gene: Got it. I have one question, then I'm going to go to Leo. Tell us a little bit about the artists that you bring in. You said you bring in artists from Japan and from North America - give us a flavor of the kinds of acts and performers that you would bring in. 

Brendan:  Each country has its kind of, quirky cultures and strengths and whatnot. For example, we can occasionally bring in a French company and they have a history of street theater going back a millennia. And particularly, in the last few hundred years, a country like France has always had really high quality, interesting, absurd creative theater and performers. A country like Spain, Spain is famous for Catalonian clowning and fantastic street theater interaction. The country of Japan, again, has its own natural flavor and high-skilled circus and really highly-disciplined and beautiful works. 

One of the interesting things about the festival for the people of Fremantle is it allows you to experience these different styles of work and different cultures. That's part of the attraction for the performers themselves. It's fantastic that each year, the performers are meeting people that they have never met from different places in the world who do similar things and build  community. And these performers go on to become connected for years to come.

That's one of the most rewarding, fun things - hosting this event and allowing these connections to happen and it's a bit like a party, really. 

Gene: I'm there! Leo. You have a question? 

Leo: That's actually a great segue to my question, which is: Year after year, is there a specific aspect of your festival that continuously remains your favorite? 

Brendan: So, the gathering - there are festivals and Fremantle all over the world, or you might be where, when you dig deep, they're into them.

And a lot of performers, they travel the world, and they rely on traveling to go to those places. And some of them might live in a small country town in France, or even say, there’s a hillbilly from Ithaca who travels to Canada and around the U.S. They're almost like migratory birds, these ponds that these festivals have and allow people to do a circuit, so that the festival becomes a really important social connection for people that have known each other for a long time.

The gatherings, the flag raises - So, just extending what I'm saying - It's really exciting and fun to be around that,  for people to come together and greet each other and hug and be together. And then also, at the same time, meet and make connections with new people.

So that as well as the outcomes - I love being involved in that and I love meeting new people and being inspired. 

Gene: I tell you, you exude excitement and energy in your job and what a great thing to be able to have a job that brings so much creativity and so much energy. And you've been doing it for a lot of years but it seems like this year is your first year!

 So let me ask, is there anything about the festival in Fremantle that you would like folks in the United States to know about that we haven't asked about yet?

Brendan: Oh, no, I would love to say that - like I said, there's many festivals throughout the world that we tap into and have performers come from, but there's very few that exist in the United States.

So I'd love to see this culture be celebrated a bit more in North America and Canada. A very strong street performance culture in most major cities, and even some of the minor ones as well. I'd love to see America embrace it - you've got the weather, and various places, and I think you've certainly got the artists. I think I would just love to see America join the party a bit more. 

Gene: That's partially what we're trying to do! Listen, Brendan, it has been lovely to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking your time and letting us know about the Fremantle international street arts festival.

Brendan: Thanks so much, it was a pleasure to be here.