Running A Festival In A Foreign Country

I’d always wanted to live abroad. Technically moving to London, England was living abroad after being raised in Bridgend, Wales but only a total prick would actually speak those words out loud. Sure I’d been on lots of holidays, but my FOMO was real when it came to my peers who had gone ‘travelling’, talking of their experiences as being on some sort of higher plane than my mere taster of foreign cultures. Whilst I never had the courage to take the financial leap into the red to hop on a train and discover myself, I couldn’t help feeling like I was going to regret the decision in my later life.

Fast forward more years than I’d like to admit, and I now live in Brisbane, the one in Australia. Over time I postured that even those who went travelling never really got to see a place, never got to understand the positives, negatives and tedium that a place can offer. I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone with my close-knit group of friends and try and find my place in a city on the opposite side of the planet which I’d never been to before. Living in London saw tourists galore, and people who were there for a summer or a few months, people who barely got to scratch the surface of what living there was truly like. Life isn’t all about great experiences, it’s about everything from a good night out to filing taxes, you need to experience the bad to appreciate the good. I had a chip on my shoulder that I needed to get chiselled off one way or another. My then-girlfriend now-wife was a huge inspiration to making it a reality, having lived in multiple countries of her own volition since she was a teenager. After she got the job offer in Brisbane, we decided to go for it. Meanwhile, I tried to appear as though I was assured of our decision while inwardly panicking that I was making a huge mistake.

Fast forward again two years and things have changed again. I used the anonyminity as an excuse to finally give stand up comedy a go and being the stubborn control-freak I am, I’m now running a comedy festival. It’s a particularly strange situation to be in because I’d always thought that this sort of thing was an extension of people being really popular and having great networking skills. I have since realised that this is not the case. During conversations with other comedians after it first became public that I was organising the festival, I swiftly realised they were talking to me as though I’d volunteered to be the one who goes through the scary door in a horror film. The sort of language that’s an optimistic blend of sympathy and pity, realising that the experience would traumatise me and my green enthusiasm would soon be replaced with self-destructive paranoia.

“Such a waste, he had so much to live for, he was so good at sports.” they could have said, who knows.

Organising a festival is a monumental task at the best of times, but as an immigrant (let’s not use bullshit terminology like ex-pat) it actually made it a bit easier. While I find the number of cultural references which fly over my head here baffling, reducing my input in conversations with other Australians to playing catch-up rather than joining in, this disconnection has made it far easier to get stuff done. Basically what I’m saying is that by having no real friends, it’s far easier to be able to tell them what to do.

The reason it wasn’t a total shitshow is that I’m not the first person to have ever run a fringe festival, and there were a bunch of people willing to help out, the first year of its existence being 2016 back when Kath Marvelley created it. People with vast amounts of experience with Brisbane, comedy and festival organisation. People who knew their shit, had done this before, and wanted it to succeed. In our discussions I soon learned that there’s only so many times you can suggest something before being politely explained that it’s a terrible idea before you realise you’re probably being more of a burden than a help. This was a situation I far prefered to the alternative.

What’s most confusing is that none of these people are getting paid, including me. It’s rocked my negative view of humanity to see so many people selflessly volunteering their time to making the festival success, going above and beyond anything that was expected or asked for. As a Brit, all I can do is thank them a lot and apologise for not doing more in new and creative ways. I secretly wondered what they’re end game was, suspicious that the help would suddenly depend on the festival being renamed “Bris Funny Fest Presented By (X)”, but those egotistical demands never came. Instead they’ve been patient, helpful and in fact proactively discouraging praise and public acknowledgement. My suspicious mind wondered if this was because they were sure the festival was going to fail, and didn’t want their name to be associated with it, but (touch wood) it’s looking like it’s going to be a success! As far as I can tell, they’re actually good, selfless people. They’ve restored my faith in humankind. I just hope one of them doesn’t make me regret saying this by killing me and eating my remains after this has been published, that would be a shame.

They taught me that this wasn’t just about the individual shows, but about promoting comedy as a viable form of entertainment for venues, giving performers the chance to put on shows that take risks which open mic spots don’t usually allow, understanding the needs of the local population and how they decide on what they want to do with their evenings. It wasn’t about getting everything right, but taking risks and trying to improve on it in the future.

The core of organising things is the same no matter what you do, and I’d been the one doing more than my fair of the slog for promoting Neon Highwire shows back in the day. A lot of the fundamentals are the same, but scaled up fifty times (or whatever number of shows we have now). My nature is to help people as much as possible, realising that in most cases it’s far easier to do it yourself than ask others, but obviously, this time that was literally impossible. Instead, I just created a private Facebook group with all of the performers and threw anything and everything in there that I could think of, each and every time expecting my charade of knowing what I was talking about to be exposed. Instead, it was mostly met with silence, or appreciation, which was not something I was expecting at all. Sure I got things wrong, but the fact that I knew I didn’t know what I was doing made it easy to admit error at every turn. The fact that we weren’t getting paid probably helped too.

Person: “Have you done (x)?”

Me: “No, but now you mention it, I really should have done that weeks ago.”

Brisbane may have a reputation in Australia for being less cultured than other cities here, but that’s just a great opportunity to over deliver. Having grown up in Bridgend, South Wales and spent five years living in Brixton, I know how these reputations are mostly bullshit and if anything give those who live there a common ground to rally against. It’s funny discovering the same old rivalries and snobbery existing on the opposite side of the planet. I end up drawing parallels to cities I’m familiar with to frame it all, having not had these things drilled into me from a young age in order to try and understand the prejudices and the effects they have. There’s nothing like low expectations to make your achievements seem better than they are.

It’s now less than a week before Bris Funny Fest begins, running from 2nd – 20th August. The majority of tasks have been done, and now the success lies in the hands of the performers. I know once it’s all over I’ll feel like a limb has been removed. A limb that was completely impractical and would sometimes slap me awake in the night, but still a part of me. With only a few months left before my wife and I move to the Netherlands for a whole new set of challenges (including a new language), it feels like a good way to draw this chapter to an end. I wonder if Nijmegen has a comedy festival…