William Stenson

Arts community gathers under big top

Glastonbury tent serves as centrepiece for unique, grassroots micro-festival in rural Campbell River

While fire jugglers, stilt walkers and costumed characters were all on display under the big top circus tent off rural York Rd. last weekend, the real draw was the music.

And, perhaps, the tent itself.

The inaugural North of the Oyster spring concert series debuted before a small but enthusiastic gathering in and around the brightly painted, red-and-yellow tent, which was purchased by Cortes Island-raised promoter Benjamin Howells.

“My company, along with Katrina Bennett and Daryl Seguetti we’ve secured the tent from Liverpool,” said Howells. “About two-thirds of the money we paid, and we crowd-funded the last third and got the community involved.”

The North of the Oyster “micro-festival” was something of a thank you to the community that contributed to the purchase of the tent.

Covering three nights across two weekends on a 100-acre property, the event featured bands including Illvis Freshley and Jesse Roper of Victoria and the Vancouver ska collective Roots Roundup, as well as several DJs.


Bluesman Jesse Roper leads his trio through a set during the inaugural North of the Oyster spring concert series in the Project Intent circus tent off York Rd. Friday, May 15, 2015. — J.R. Rardon/Campbell River Mirror

To avoid costly permitting, turnout was purposely kept low with Howell’s Little Island Productions and the three-pronged, grassroot-based Intent Network bypassing major advertising in favour of social media invitations.

The Intent Network — pun strictly intentional— is made up of the crowd funding platform Project Intent, Intent Rentals and Intent Creative Network, a locally based social media website — still under construction — that allows like-minded people to collaborate, vote on projects and suggest artists they would like to see.

“Technically, as far as definitions go, it’s a business and a monetary endeavor,” Howells admits. “But the way we phased North of Oyster this year, a lot of the people, including the sound, visuals and a good part of the artists, a lot of people are doing it for free.”

The circus tent was shipped from England last year, after Howells supplemented his own investment with nearly $21,000 raised through the Project Intent crowd funding platform.

“The crowd funding of the tent was a metaphor for following your dreams,” said Howells. “The crowd funding template we use is open to the community to use, particularly if your endeavor has a facet to it of aiding your community. It can’t just be businesses that make money; the idea is having entrepreneurs and young people starting companies that help and aid the communities they live in.”

The tent arrived shortly before its planned debuted last summer at the inaugural Atmosphere Gathering in Cumberland.

But when the proud new owners began examining the giant canopy, they discovered they had a problem.

“We had no idea how to set it up,” Howells said.

Howells had to bring in fifth-generation tentmaster Robert Fosset from England to train and certify a crew to transport, erect and take down the big canopy, which travels in a semi trailer.

This month’s North of the Oyster festival is the first time the tent has been raised since Atmosphere, and the first time the crew has erected it without Fosset’s help.

With the tent as a centrepiece, Howells hopes other small communities can use it to host similar micro-festivals throughout the Island . But applicants are subject to pre-qualification.

“We’d like to team with various community groups and try to get this tent set up, maybe do a concert one weekend through some of our affiliates, then open the tent up to any charity groups who want to use it for a few weeks after that,” said Howells.

The North of Oyster Festival was originally scheduled to span two weekends. The opening Friday was cancelled for logistical reasons, but it opened May 9 with a family day that included child entertainers, an aerial circus workshop for kids and other musical acts.

The festival resumed in earnest Friday night despite the fact advertising was limited to social media sharing and invitations.

The low-key approach resulted from discussions with the Strathcona Regional District and local RCMP, and a conscious decision to keep costs low by limiting the turnout. As part of an agreement with local officials, the production chose not to advertise beyond social media.

“We already knew we didn’t want to go with a permit,” said Howells. “And we didn’t want an event liquor license if it meant having a beer garden. We prefer families to booze.”

Which is not to say the property was a dry zone all weekend. While the festival site was alcohol-free, there was no prohibition on drinking in the campground area on the private property.

Elsewhere, the festival grounds had all the traditional infrastructure associated with a typical event, including a medical/safety tent, security, Porta-sans, potable water station and volunteer staffers, in addition to food and merchandise vendors.

And having pulled it off this month, Howells hopes to return next year with a bigger, better festival.

“Certainly next year, we hope to go through a permitting process and follow all the steps to make this a full public event and bring the numbers up slightly,” said Howells. “We hope to be here and hope to have a long-lasting relationship with all the stakeholders involved.”