|Today's date: Tuesday May 21, 2013||Vol 46 Issue 20|
We Cover The County...
Alyssa Dupuis performed with her Rundown Royalty bandmates at Hillside Festival 2011. photo by Tony Leighton
Hillside Festival: 29 years of music, culture & community
by Chris Daponte
Few events across Wellington County enjoy the type of success of Hillside Festival, a three-day event held here on the island at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area.
Final preparations continue for the festival, which annually attracts 15,000 people and is now in its 29th year. But tickets for the July 27 to 29 event have been completely sold out for months.
“It has become a cultural experience, rather than just a music festival ... Its vision has emerged from its very good people, ” said executive director Marie Zimmerman.
She is referring not only to Hillside’s patrons, whom she calls “peace loving sweethearts,” but also to its performers, 12-member board of directors, four full-time staff members and, particularly, to its 83 volunteer coordinators and 1,450 volunteers.
“I’m overwhelmed by the level of compassionate commitment the volunteers bring ... to ensure other people have a good time. It’s amazing,” said Zimmerman.
She is one of the festival’s full-time employees, along with artistic director Samir Baijal, office manager Jason Timmins and volunteer manager Cate McParland (summer student Jenna Allan from Erin is also with the team this year).
A resident of Eden Mills, Zimmerman took over from Rachel Thompson as director of Hillside Festival in 2010. Zimmerman has also served as artistic director of the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. She grew up in Montreal, attended graduate school at Queen’s and McMaster, and has worked for more than 10 years at local arts festivals.
She explained a group of six to eight friends hosted the inaugural Hillside Festival in 1984. For the first few years it was held at Riverside Park in Guelph before moving to Guelph Lake.
“It’s just grown from there,” Zimmerman said.
The not-for-profit event receives much of its funding from federal and provincial arts grants and the remainder of costs are covered through ticket sales. Over the years the event has also received in-kind support from Guelph and Guelph-Eramosa Township.
“It’s a pretty important event for our township,” said Guelph-Eramosa Mayor Chris White, adding many people mistakenly assume the event is held in Guelph.
The festival, Zimmerman explained, is known for its “folk focus,” but organizers try to feature indie music and a broad range of genres to attract a diverse crowd.
After a great event last year, which included artists such as Mother Mother, Hollerado and The Sheepdogs, Zimmerman said the 2012 festival promises to be even better.
This year’s performers include Kathleen Edwards, The Be Good Tanyas, Arkells, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Great Lakes Swimmers, Adam Cohen, and Mickey Hart Band.
“It goes on and on; it’s quite extraordinary,” Zimmerman said of the full list of performers, which is available at hillsidefestival.ca.
“The whole point is to expose people to new bands and also to bring in some of their favourites.”
Zimmerman estimates about 43% of Hillside patrons are from the Guelph area and about 20% from the larger region, including Wellington County. About 25% are from the Toronto area and another 12% come from farther away, including the U.S. and, occasionally, places like Australia.
But regardless of their origin, Zimmerman said feedback from patrons is overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the festival’s large number of return patrons each year.
She credits that to the quality of the programs offered at the event, as well as to it being very well organized. But perhaps the biggest draw is what she calls the “non-corporate and non-commercial” feel at the festival.
“There is sort of an altruistic vibe at Hillside [which starts with the volunteers],” she said. “Our volunteers are very kind and they reach out to people and try to make them comfortable.”
Volunteer Carolyn Silvestro said the attraction of Hillside is obvious.
“The atmosphere is great ... it never feels like a concert,” she said. “It’s not overcrowded; it’s very safe and family friendly.”
Silvestro who has volunteered at the festival for the last 15 years, got involved through friends and because she wanted to be “part of something that’s pretty fun.” The Guelph resident marvels each year at the collective spirit of over 1,400 volunteers coming together as a team.
“That always amazes me every year, to watch that,” said Silvestro. “The volunteer community is a pretty special thing.”
Fellow longtime volunteer Gerry Robbins first got involved with Hillside over 20 years ago, covering the event for Spotlight Magazine.
He credits the “vision” of Baijal for the great lineup of musical and spoken word performers, but he agreed with both Zimmerman and Silvestro that Hillside is about more than just the entertainment. He adds the “high volunteer-to-patron ratio” helps ensure a stress-free and safe atmosphere.
“It’s like a big family picnic,” Robbins said. “It’s a really relaxed time ... there’s great music and lots of storytelling.”
Robbins, as the “mayor of Volly Village” - the campground where many volunteers spend the weekend - is in charge of ensuring volunteers also have a fulfilling experience.
Zimmerman said volunteers often spend hours in the “blazing sun” while on duty, but when not working they get to enjoy the festival. And this year, as an added bonus, she said organizers are able to offer volunteers lunch on several occasions, thanks to the help of generous sponsors like Fergus’ Van Gali’s Cafe and Inn and the Ignatius Centre near Guelph.
“We just feel incredibly lucky for that,” Zimmerman said. “It speaks a lot to the integrity of the sponsors, that they want to support those people who helped grow this festival from the ground up.”
A big part of the festival’s development, she explained, is the environmental stewardship that has become increasingly important over the last three decades.
The festival has banned plastic water bottles and provides free water from a city truck. Other environmental measures include:
- washing dishes on site, with the use of a solar water heater, instead of using paper and plastic;
- offering trail access to cut down on the use of cars;
- building their own stage with the help of volunteers; and
- using huge compost pits to cut down on waste.
Commendable behind-the-scenes environmental initiatives aside, Zimmerman points to several major highlights over the years - or what she calls “Hillside moments.” One “very moving and enriching experience” in 2008 at the 25th anniversary event stands out in particular.
She explained that on a very hot and dry weekend, a group composed of Buddhist Monks from Tibet and Canadian Aboriginals joined forces on a rain dance and song, after which the skies did open up.
“People were just brought to tears,” said Zimmerman.
It may be an extreme example that can never be repeated, but it’s also one that very likely could not have occurred anywhere else.
The 2012 Hillside Festival runs on July 27 from 5 to 11pm and on July 28 and 29 from 11am to 11pm. For more information visit www.hillsidefestival.ca (organizers are working on an “accessible website,” set to launch in March, that will cater to those with special needs).
July 20, 2012
The Wellington Advertiser
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