What are arts festivals good for, wonders Simon Wilson on the eve of the opening of the 2020 Auckland Art Festival
I've seen a man do acrobatics in a bathtub. It was pretty fun. In it and around it and high above it on a wire, breathtaking, enormously skilful, very wetting for the people in the front row - and very sexy too. Naked torso and his heavy jeans soaked through, surely making the whole act harder and more dangerous. Bath Boy, he was called. He was performing in a spiegeltent at an arts festival.
It was quite a long time ago now, which tells you two things about arts festivals. One, that the great performances stay with you; and two, that there are not as many great performances as you might like.
That second one isn't a criticism, by the way. There aren't enough of most of the best things in life.
It's arts festival season again. Already, yes, because in Auckland it comes round every year now, although in Wellington they've stuck with the biennial approach.
What's the point of an annual festival? They say it's invaluable in securing sponsorship, which translates into "there might not be an arts festival if it wasn't annual". But is that really true?
Festivals put a strain on resources, especially venues, which are not available to other potential users. They're not as well supported by our leading performing arts organisations as you might expect, because scheduling and programming needs can be difficult to co-ordinate. They also suck sponsorship away from those other organisations, and there's already far from enough of that to go round.
As for audiences, do we even want a festival that often? Why is more better? The arts, like sport, thrive when the work is some combination of stimulating, new, much-loved, surprising, rewarding, relevant, highly skilled and, especially, hotly anticipated.
When it's commodified, though – when it's predictable, routine, lacking any sense of being special – we're likely to stay away. Just ask Super Rugby audiences, facing week after week of pointless, boring games. It's almost as if the rugby authorities are trying to kill off the fans.
The same danger exists for arts festivals. There's a formula for an international festival now and it has bred some formulaic artists doing formulaic acts. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the spiegeltent cabaret shows.
Every festival has one and, when they're good they're extraordinary. A bold, contemporary artform, mixing circus acts like fire-eating, clowns and sword-swallowing with intoxicating music and a great deal of sexual strutting.
But they're not good just because they have those things. They have to be good versions of them and, sadly, many are not. Mediocre routines, corny or just plain stupid music, unfunny comedy. It's astonishing that some cabarets still haven't worked out how to be sexy without being sexist, are still zeroing in on the bald guy in the front row: pat his head, bound to get a laugh.
I gave a spiegeltent cabaret a bad review once and one of the performers wrote to thank me. He said they were tearing their hair out because the producer insisted they do cliched rubbish.
Bath Boy was good, because on top of the skill, courage and hilarity, he was original. I've seen a couple of acts in later festivals copy his show: not so good.
The Auckland festival is smaller this year than it used to be, which is a revealing commentary on both the state of its sponsorship and the expectations of its potential audiences.
But ah, the good that a good arts festival does. These days there's always lots of free stuff and outreach shows in different parts of the city: serious effort going into making it a festival for everyone. And some shows are built around community involvement, through schools, local choirs, volunteer performers, you name it. All of that is terrific.
Local artists get important support, too. In this country there are annual try-out sessions, where groups can perform part of a show for festival directors from around the country and overseas. Those that get picked up can receive financial support through grants and guaranteed bookings, not just in the big festivals but everywhere from Tauranga to Wanaka.
There's a strong festival circuit in the provinces now, which is great for audiences and performers alike and that circuit provides some groups with the springboard they need to travel and perform internationally. It's an industry that's built infrastructure.
You can argue the circuit has also skewed artistic endeavour to certain types of show: not too expensive to stage, small enough to pack in a suitcase (or the back of a small truck), bold but not too bold. Driven more by the commercial expectations of officials than the artistic vision of its creators.
You could also argue that's precious nonsense. And so what: festivals provide a degree of security for many top and emerging performers, and for audiences to see their work. That's excellent.
The exact same thing happens on a global scale. Most of the visiting acts we see here were created specifically for the festival circuit. That's a bunch of often extraordinary work that would not exist without festivals. Festivals also allow us to see some great mature or long-standing work that just wouldn't come here otherwise. The show I'm most looking forward to, the choral work Lagrime di San Pietro, is one of them.
Still, you can always make a good thing better.
Some performers on the festival circuit are strangely content to trot out mediocre work, perhaps because of some misguided sense that we won't appreciate anything better or perhaps because they're not as good as they think they are anyway. You can't always tell in advance.
Best fix for this: look past the festival's own promotions and google the shows you might want to see: access to many of the world's best critics is just a click away.
There are some things the festivals themselves could do better, too.
The Wellington festival calls itself the New Zealand Festival - but that's not what it is. A true New Zealand Festival, like the New Zealand International Film Festival, would tour the country. You couldn't get all the international acts doing that but you could do it with some.
Why, currently, do the Auckland and Wellington festivals overlap but without having co-ordinated programmes? Wouldn't they enjoy some economies of scale if they got over their rivalry?
Actually, why do both cities stage their festivals in March? What's wrong with spring, when, unlike February and March, there isn't much else on?
Or summer proper, which is busy but also a time when they could stage more big, outdoor events. And, how about this, the whole of both cities could participate with much more of an outdoor bar/cafe thing going on? The Sydney Festival is in January.
Or why not tie the festival to other events? Next summer, they could piggyback on the America's Cup to turn the whole of Auckland into cultural/sporting/party central. Throw in a big food festival and wow.
Even without sporting events, why doesn't the council get behind the festival? Are those banners on lamp posts really the best they can do?
What a good time to close Queen St to traffic, flood the place with activity and have a big, rolling party. Get the shops involved.
Canoodle the visiting performers into taking part, on free stages up and down Queen St and elsewhere in the city. Hire a bunch of other performers too. Pop-up art. Pop-up fun. Have that food festival, with stalls outside the restaurants and food trucks everywhere. Pop-up transform the entire city.
Make Auckland really famous: the city that's big enough to sustain all this and small enough to make it happen. Do it before Wellington does. Or have both of them do it.
More cheaper tickets. Seriously. The Auckland Festival has a 50 per cent student discount for some shows, if they buy on the day. There's also a "pay what you can" scheme on some shows, for community groups. Splendid. Extend that thinking, please.
More than all that, the question that most bedevils arts festivals in Aotearoa is, what makes us special? The usual answer involves a lot of Māori and Pasifika work - and so it should - and often it's outstanding.
This year's festival will include Tira, a free sing-along in Aotea Square; Ka Pō, Ka Waiata, or Songs in Darkness, which promises a beautifully moody musical exploration in the Town Hall's Concert Chamber; Upu, bringing "the wealth and power of Pacific literature roaring to life"; and Black Ties, a Māori/Aboriginal rom-com wedding culture clash (yes, true), commissioned by Australian and New Zealand festivals and funding agencies.
I'm a fan. Arts festivals celebrate the best of what we are and also challenge the very idea of that. They bring us the world and that's cool too.
They aim to be popular while staying dedicated to the premise that people want quality entertainment. There's not nearly enough of that about.
They provide mass audience events where the whole event is so thrilling, being part of the crowd is as exciting as the show. Well, almost. Better than sex? Hell, it's even better than sport.
They provide experiences of beauty and wonder and absurdity and we really need that, and they do surprises. That dance piece, that singer and that contortionist I saw one year, in a spiegeltent cabaret show that really was great, who asked, midway through trying to manoeuvre his body through two rings, if his hair was all right. "Because I don't want to look ridiculous," he said.
And yes, sometimes you find yourself sitting in a festival show asking, what the hell is this?
Art is to fix what's broken, says one of our greatest choreographers, Lemi Ponifasio. You can take that any way you like, but it works for me.
Auckland Arts Festival, March 11-29; New Zealand Festival, on now, until March 15.