More than fun at community festivals

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Community festivals are meant to be fun, but if they’re done right, they can be more.
“Festivals are about community pride,” said Mary Margaret Miller, heritage director for the Mississippi Arts Commission. “Festivals are identity. Festivals are our history.”
More than 50 people around the state met at Link Centre on Thursday for the 2010 Festival and Event Coordinators Workshop. It was co-sponsored by MAC and the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division.
The focus was on tapping into a community’s heritage to create richer and deeper experiences for festival-goers.
Miller said everything from the national economic crisis to the recent collapse of Jackson’s water system remind people that these are uncertain times. Festival and event coordinators have the opportunity to offer stability.
“The things we can count on right now are our culture and the stuff that is passed down to us by our parents,” Miller said. “You want people to find something real at your festival.”
The message resonated with Bo Miller, who is in his first year as chairman of Amory’s Railroad Festival.
“We don’t want our festival to be like a festival you could have just anywhere,” he said. “Amory is a railroad town. We need to refocus on that.”
Kim Whitt, MAC’s arts education director, said one key is to include a wide variety of people in the planning stages.
“The more you involve your community in the planning, the stronger the sense of place comes out,” she said, “so get the librarian involved, get the artist involved, get the teacher, get the old-timers who think everyone has forgotten about them.”
Tina Lutz, director of Tupelo’s Cellular South GumTree Festival, said the workshop provided ideas to help reach out to the community with new media, including Facebook and Twitter.
“We talked about ways to embed video into your pages, so people can see what you’re doing at the festival,” Lutz said. “We could do videos or interviews from the site. It’s another way to communicate what we’re about.”
Whitt also advised coordinators to do more than entertain. In education theory, it’s called experiential learning, and it works for adults, as well as kids, she said.
“It’s not just looking and listening,” Whitt said. “It’s actually giving them something to do.”
Rebecca Jernigan, who represented Oxford’s Double Decker Festival and the Double Decker Storyfest and Square Fair, said she’s ready to put what she’s learned to good use.
“One of the things I have trouble with is getting people to understand that storytelling is an art form for everybody, not just children,” Jernigan said.
She’s planning a special “Ox Tales” event at the L.Q.C. Lamar House to connect Oxford residents with their town’s colorful history.
“I’ve gotten some really good ideas,” she said. “I’m excited to try them.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.