Monday, 25 June 2012 9:37 AM

Festival Fires Imagination

Australian volunteers are known for their ingenuity and 'can do' attitude but I have to take my hat off to Solomon Islanders. Let me tell you why.

Last month, a caller to the Festival of Pacific Arts office tried several times to make contact. Every time, the call disconnects before a conversation can be completed. After 10 minutes, the phone rings again and this time, the call is successful.

The caller had overcome the poor mobile phone coverage by climbing to the top of a coconut tree so he could find out about the upcoming Festival of Pacific Arts band auditions!

Being faced with the image of someone shimmying 15 metres or more up a tree trunk with mobile phone in hand gave me an instant jolt into my new world.

To my absolute delight, I've landed in Honiara, Solomon Islands in a volunteering arts management role for the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts. The 14 day festival takes place every four years and unites artists and cultural leaders from over 20 countries and territories across the Pacific, showcasing the region's cultural heritage and diversity.

More than 3000 people are expected in Solomon Islands for the festival.
Being in what feels like the most privileged of volunteer positions available, I have this overwhelming sense that the festival will bring the nation to a complete standstill - and not just because Honiara's main road struggles to cope with the traffic on a normal day!

No matter where you go, it's impossible to navigate a conversation without hearing about the fast approaching festivities. The closer we get, the more excited people are and the community is packed with enthusiasm, anticipation and national pride. I sense that although the region is steeped in culture, it is starved of opportunities to embrace its natural artistic talents.

For example, the performing arts committee conducted a solid weekend of performer auditions open to anyone in the country interested in the chance to gain a place in the festival stage program.

Almost 100 applications flooded our in tray - sorry, no online submissions here - leaving the committee with the difficult task to whittle these down to 30 performers. It was a daunting undertaking in a world where the nation prides itself on 'Solomon time'. Many people asked me what we were thinking to plan an audition schedule of 9am-9pm both days, only allowing bands 15 minutes to set up and perform one song.

I don't deny the presence of doubt didn't creep in, but whether by sheer luck or the fact that finally an opportunity existed for these unknown bands to be seen and perform out from under their leaf hut, we ran ahead of schedule. Seeing shy, timid Solomon Islanders take to the stage and come to life through their music was not only inspiring, but also reinvigorated my belief in the importance of nurturing arts and culture in every society.

So here I am, having stumbled into a volunteer placement perfectly aligned with my current profession, I am presented with an opportunity to bring something of what I know of festival management to the Pacific.

It's been chaotic to say the least, but without question, a richly rewarding experience. Delivering a major international arts event in any country, let alone a developing country, is a massive undertaking. In the case of the Solomon Islands, think geographical isolation, limited access to experience and knowledge from previous festivals, bureaucratic frameworks and limited access to basic services and supplies. These are just a few of the factors faced in my new festival planning environment.

But no matter how difficult or challenging, I'm heartened by the benefits that a festival of this scale can bring to any community and it's great to see how arts and culture is connecting people from all provinces in Solomon Islands, as well as the region. I have no doubt that arts and culture are highly valuable resources in development terms, both socially and culturally. The festival will enrich locals and visitors alike, leaving all with a shared appreciation from the two-week long celebration of Pacific arts and culture. The economic benefits and the influx of visitors to the country will be great for local businesses and tourism operators too.

Since being in Solomon Islands, I've witnessed first hand the immense interest and discussion generated, the shift in peoples attitudes, the intensity of the preparations and people harnessing their cultural and artistic expression. There is a distinctive buzz across the region, proving how a festival of this kind can be a catalyst for positive change.

It's great to be part of this journey.

Michelle Bell is the author of this Press Release and is an Australian volunteer working as the Assistant Stage & Events Management Coordinator for Pacific Arts Festival. She is one of eight Australian volunteers helping Solomon Islands to host the Festival of Pacific Arts. The festival is being staged in Honiara between 1-14 July, 2012.

Michelle graduated from a theatre arts degree majoring in Stage Management at the University of Southern Queensland. She worked at the Sydney Opera House for three years and spent two years in the Torres Strait Islands as Operations Manager for the Gab Titui Cultural Centre. She is currently on leave from the City of Sydney Events Unit where she was responsible for Chinese New Year Festivities (including the Twilight Parade), Art and About and the Martin Place Children's Christmas Concerts and Tree Lighting.

Source: Press Release, Australian High Commission, Solomon Islands

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