Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power - HetzlerTwo Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power - Hetzler
For the last few years one of Riverbend’s founders, Sid Hetzler, has been nibbling at the edges of that Chattanooga institution, publicly disputing the festival’s own chronology of its beginnings, which now seems to have been adjusted to conform to his account of its creation. With the publication of his book, “Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power,” Hetzler is taking a bigger bite. Whether he’s latched onto an ankle or the jugular probably depends on where you stand on Riverbend.
The first part of the book is Hetzler’s 1990 doctoral dissertation comparing Riverbend and Charleston’s Spoleto USA, which was one of the models for Riverbend. When Riverbend was a gleam in the eyes of Hetzler and a few like minded activists, it was intended to be like Spoleto: a festival celebrating all the arts—both fine arts and popular, from classical to experimental, and including visual and other performing arts.
The baby that eventually emerged from the delivery room—midwifed by funding restrictions from the Lyndhurst Foundation and its consultant Gianni Longo—was something else entirely. It was primarily a popular music festival, and over the years, vestiges of the other arts like chamber music gradually disappeared.
The core of Hetzler’s book analyzes and compares Riverbend and Spoleto through the lens of semiotics. His analysis isn’t kind to Riverbend, but it’s primarily focused on understanding how festivals work. Later sections bring the story up to date with further developments in Riverbend, including this year’s near death of the Bessie Smith Strut, whose openness he says was the last vestige of the intended festival. It also tells Hetzler’s own fascinating post-Riverbend story in which he became an impresario of participatory festivals at his Split Tree Farm.
Riverbend and Spoleto illustrate Hetzler’s key idea that “differences embrace sameness; sameness rejects difference.”
“Charleston represented in Spoleto an idea of differences. Riverbend started that way but then turned into a very narrow set of programs. And then that narrowness, that sameness, rejected anything that didn’t fit it. It wasn’t a big tent, it was a little tent.”
He argues that festivals provide a model for accepting differences and diversity in life, with festival-goers learning to tolerate as normal the narrow or wide range of diversity presented within a festival’s time and space.
“A festival is a context. The people who put on a festival, whether they’re aware of it or not, are creating a context for things, a framing, a theater. What kind of context is Riverbend? It’s in the middle of a beautiful city. How much does it connect with its environment? It rejects it. It fences itself off.”
Spoleto celebrates a much wider variety of arts and styles, and its events are located throughout downtown Charleston, with attendees walking between venues and spending money in local restaurants and shops along the way. That festival tells a story about living in a city—or simply being alive—and it’s a story of differences. By presenting a narrow range of music and establishing a homogenous festival grounds in the midst of a vibrant downtown Riverbend tells a story of sameness.
Why does this matter? Because, Hetzler says (paraphrasing Winston Churchill), “We shape our festivals; thereafter our festivals shape us.” Sameness is not only boring but dangerous, because it suggests that the world is only what we already know, with no room for discovery, for new ideas or for people that are not like us.
“I hope there will be some more consciousness about sameness. What is its danger? What does it look like? What masks does it wear? Is Riverbend diverse or is it narrow?”
Beyond the analytical thinking and the concern over historical accuracy, Hetzler seems to feel about Riverbend’s path not taken almost like an amputee feels a missing limb. If Chattanooga had done what Charleston did with Spoleto, how much further along the path of economic and cultural renewal might we have traveled by now?
For Riverbend’s partisans, surely it doesn’t matter what the original idea was or what’s being played out now in a “theater of power,” whatever that is. But the question of whether Riverbend is good for Chattanooga—not whether it used to be—is hard for thoughtful people to ignore.
“I think Riverbend is no longer a positive model of festival. What Riverbend does is almost unheard of in any city. It’s a black hole that sucks up energy and keeps people away from downtown.”
It’s fascinating that in 2012, a year of continuing economic difficulties for the arts, two new festivals do exactly what Hetzler suggests. HATCH in April and the New Dischord Festival (coming up on June 14-17) put a variety of exhibits, performances and participatory events in venues all over downtown. Also during Riverbend the Chattanooga Writers Guild is presenting three performing authors at the Public Library on Tuesday, June 12.
Could this be the slow, grassroots birth of a Fringe Festival during Riverbend?
“Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power” is available in Chattanooga at Winder Binder or from Amazon.