A festival – whether it’s music, arts, film or theatre – is a rare and precious thing these days, so much so that it’s almost easy to forget what it’s like to get together with thousands of others and take in art as a shared experience.
Brisbane Festival 2021 was a great reminder. The Queensland capital’s yearly cultural celebration kicked off last weekend with a startling program of live performance, exhibitions and experiences.
It made us realise the 10 things we’ve missed most about festivals.
1. Celebrating the arts
Live sport has been a godsend during the pandemic, but the same can’t be said for performing arts, with what seems like the cancellation of yet another festival every second week – Splendour, Bluesfest, Vivid. So simply being able to get together and watch a live performance is a joy. Organisers had to deal with a bit of inclement weather on opening night of Brisbane Festival 2021, but who cared? We were there, together, celebrating the arts.
2. The sense of discovery
Perhaps you were already going to Imaginaria. Or perhaps you simply bumped into someone who’d been to this inflatable dreamworld of shimmering light sculptures and playful video installations, and their wide-eyed descriptions convinced you to go check it out yourself. That is the festival experience in a nutshell – the planned and the unplanned, the expected and the spontaneous, all coming together to create unforgettable memories.
3. Festival goer camaraderie
You meet someone at Metro Arts’ The Mechanics of Adaption exhibition, and then see them later for the Gail Sorronda performance on Brisbane’s Art Boat. And then later again at QPAC or the South Bank Piazza for that evening’s headline show. Through it all you build a shared experience, which you might end up bonding over at the BOQ Festival Garden afterwards. Variations on this sequence of events happen hundreds of times each day across the festival, helping build on its already giddy buzz.
4. The eating
A good festival needs good food. Thankfully, Brisbane boasts a stack of fine eateries in which to get excited for a show or debrief afterwards. You can taste Cantonese and Sichuan-inspired cooking at beautiful Donna Chang, enjoy elevated takes on French classics at bustling Bisou Bisou, or go large on Mediterranean-style share plates riverside at Byblos. Festival ground zero at South Bank also drops you near River Quay Green with its classy fine diners, or the hip restaurants and cafes of Fish Lane.
5 … and the drinking
And when you want to kick on, there’s a stack of terrific boozers in which to raise a glass to the festival. Near South Bank there’s poky cocktail joint Maker, intimate aperitivi and digestivi bar Brutus, and the al fresco Kiki Kiosk. Over the river in the CBD, Burnett Lane boasts superstar neighbours Alba Bar & Deli, Death & Taxes and Super Whatnot. And in the Valley you can reach for the sky at rooftop bar Iris, or settle in for a long cocktail session at Savile Row or Finney Isles. Bottoms up.
6. Seeing Australian icons onstage
We can’t travel to see some of Australia’s best performers, but at least a few of them can still come to us. Hugh Sheridan crooned his way through Hugh Sheridan Live on the festival’s opening night and will return for Hughman, a mash-up of dance, song and costume. Elsewhere, superstar composer and didgeridoo player William Barton is scheduled to perform on Brisbane’s Art Boat, and the formerly Brisbane-based Kate Miller-Heidke is back in town for a sold-out show. To say we feel fortunate in Brisbane is an understatement.
7. But also seeing Brisbane talent onstage
Brisbane Festival’s capacity to fill its program with local talent is a testament to the depth of artistic talent in this city. International superstars Sheppard dropped a powder-keg performance on opening night, while beatboxer Tom Thum and punk rockers Waax are just two of dozens of local music acts that will star later this month. Elsewhere, author Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe has taken to the stage at the Playhouse and Dead Puppet Society’s Ishmaelis proving a hit at Cremorne Theatre. The festival’s “Brightly Brisbane” tag rings true.
8. Celebrating Indigenous art, performance and culture
There’s a huge Indigenous presence at Brisbane Festival 2021, with 157 First Nations artists engaged across the 23-day event. Yuggera and Turrbal man Shannon Ruska opened the festival with a “Jumoo” smoking ceremony; some of the nation’s best Indigenous fashion designers collaborated with Cairns-based artist Grace Lillian Lee for the fabulous First Nations Fashion: Walking In Two Worlds; and later in the festival Kamilaroi elder Uncle Bob Weatherall, Kabi Kabi and Wiredjuri woman Alethea Beetson, and Digi Youth Arts are collaborating with Brisbane band Halfway for Restless Dream. Brilliant stuff.
9. The activation of city spaces
The pandemic has frequently emptied our cities and cancelled civic life. But events such as Brisbane Festival do the opposite. South Bank has been brought to life with Imaginaria and the BOQ Festival Garden; Lostis illuminating West Village with an enchanting installation of extinct and endangered floral illuminations; and the formerly industrial Northshore precinct has been enlivened by Brisbane’s Art Boat and its dockside reception bar. Right now, Brisbane feels more alive than ever.
10. The late-night hotel debriefs
At the end of a busy day at the festival, there’s nothing better than getting back to the hotel with your crew and comparing notes on what you’ve witnessed. When we weren’t on the 21st-floor Terrace Bar of our Emporium Hotel digs, with its eye-popping views of South Bank, the CBD, and the Brisbane River, we were in our River City Suite with its hand-crafted bronze bar, deluxe spa bath and 55-inch mirrored television. Arguing over favorites never felt so civilized.
This article originally appeared on Escape