Sunday, August 21, 2011

Festivals and Weather

As economically important as festivals are, they can’t easily be protected from the risks of weather. We have seen more than the usual reminders of this this summer as storm fronts toppled stage backdrops at festivals in Ottawa and Indianapolis, a severe thunderstorm brought down trees and tents at a festival in Belgium, and flooding damaged the grounds of a festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Festivals are more susceptible than most sectors of the economy to the fingers-crossed hoping-for-the-best planning that goes with an economy in recession or otherwise over-extended. Financial support for any activity may pull back in a recession, or expectations may get out ahead of finances in the later stages of a boom. When that happens, the level of activity should be scaled back so that there is still the flexibility to recover if things go wrong, but often instead, planners take a greater level of risk to meet expectations. With festivals, it does not help that a festival has to be fully planned long before the first weather forecasts are in. And it bears repeating that after a crowd has gathered, canceling because of weather worries cannot necessarily be considered playing it safe; history has recorded countless deaths and injuries from out-of-control crowds at events that are abruptly canceled, hence the showbiz saying, “The show must go on.”

Structural engineering is surely part of the answer to the risks of festivals and weather, however. It is the tallest temporary structures, the stage backdrops and overhead lights and perhaps the speaker towers that pose the greatest risk when severe weather strikes. Festivals should, to some extent, rely more on permanent structures where height is needed. A permanent structure can be made heavy enough to stand up in hurricane-force winds, and at a price that may be less than that of setting up and tearing down the same temporary structure year after year. Where temporary structures must be used, it is easy to say after seeing the recent video, they probably should not be twenty meters tall, despite the theatrical impact the visually massive stage can provide. It is easy enough to make the stage backdrop shorter, use fewer and smaller overhead lights, reduce the wind-facing cross-section, and in general, not try to set up an arena-scale production in an open field. This reduces the weather risk, reduces production costs by more than half, and not incidentally, makes better use of the outdoor setting. Some of the best outdoor concerts I have seen used a flatbed truck as the stage. It’s not as flashy as a theatrical stage, but it’s closer to the land and allows a sense of place that isn’t possible in an indoor setting, or when you try to replicate an indoor setting outdoors.

Weather risks are part of all economic activity, but they have to be built into the planning for outdoor festivals. A festival has to have the flexibility to keep going, or to cancel and pick up again on another day, when the weather turns.