More than 40 artists representing traditions from all over the globe will perform at the 12th annual Richmond Folk Festival this year. The free three-day event along Richmond’s historic downtown riverfront is the most popular of its kind in the country, drawing approximately 200,000 music fans every year, rain or shine.
Ever wonder how such a production is put on year after year? We sat down with festival organizers Lisa Sims and Stephen Lecky to get their insights on Richmond’s favorite festival.
Q: Performers are flying in from all over the world. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in getting everyone here on time, through Customs, to their hotels, and then over to the stage?
Lisa: We’ve periodically had issues with visas, and those issues sometimes are exacerbated by political or world events over which we have no control. But, for the most part, we’ve been lucky. And occasionally artists will arrive just in the nick of time – two years ago when we brought back the Papantla Flyers (the “volodores” ritual on the 100-foot pole), they were actually driving day and night to get here in time to oversee the erection of the pole, and the blessing of the pole. But they made it.
The year Rosanne Cash played, she and John Leventhal were flying, but her band was driving. The night before they were scheduled to perform, she and John were stuck in airports for many hours due to cancelled flights…and we were sweating their arrival, for sure. But, again, they made it.
Stephen: In 2014, we had one artist not make the show due to visa issues, and he remained stuck in France for a bit. We were lucky to bring him back the following year to play. We’re fortunate to work with the National Council for Traditional Arts because they help a lot with those issues.
Q: Which would you consider the most memorable act? Why?
Lisa: It’s just impossible to pick just one! I always go back to the Papantla Flyers, just due to the sheer magnitude of the 100-foot tall pole and the fact that it’s what appears to be a somewhat (in my opinion!) death-defying ritual. But I have very specific memories from so many performances—the “Crown Fashion Show” at the Virginia Folklife Stage, Grandmaster Flash in 2015, Ralph Stanley on Brown’s Island during the first National Folk Festival, Wang Li with his haunting mouth harp was mesmerizing and transporting... There are really too many to count.
Stephen: That’s a tough one. I always love our Saturday night dance tent acts. That seems to bring out the best in RVA each year—a tent on Brown’s Island filled with hundreds of people of all ages, races, backgrounds, just all getting down to a great band. There is a wonderful vibe in that tent each year. One of my favorite Saturday night shows was Trouble Funk in 2014; go-go always does well at the RFF.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about putting together such a huge event?
Lisa: I’m not sure it’s surprising, but what stands out is just how long it takes to plan and put in place, and how many thousands of details must come together for it to work. If it all goes well, no one notices, but it one thing is out of place, everyone notices. We can never be off guard—there’s a constant diligence and attention to every detail that’s required. And… the number of people involved is mind-boggling. Thousands.
Stephen: The attention to details is critical. There are a ton of moving pieces with the festival and if we can make attendees feel like it is running smoothly, then we have done our job well.
Q: Three days, dozens of acts, multiple stages and 200,000 people – what’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give to anyone planning something like this for the first time?
Lisa: Details, details, details. The tiniest things can make a huge difference. The big stuff, like the artists, gets a lot of attention, but it’s the tiny things that can make you or break you. And remember that you can’t control the weather—you can only control how you react to it. And, if you’re hosting 200,000 people, you’ll need a team of thousands to produce the event.
Stephen: Build a big support system. This event is possible because of thousands of volunteers, a dedicated staff, amazing sponsors and so many more folks who make a drop in the bucket or spread the word about the event. Without our team leaders who help manage our volunteers, our staff that helps with water and ice, our stage announcers, bus drivers, hotel staff, and more, this ship would sink…it takes a small village to pull the festival off each year.
Q: And finally, after the festival closes and everyone goes home, what do you do to unwind?
Stephen: I like to catch up with family, do some work in my house and yard, and just bask in the glow of what hopefully has been another successful Folk Fest! October is by far my favorite month of the year, both because I love the festival and being able to help produce it, but also I love the fall, the leaves changing, Halloween…and the free time that comes immediately after the festival.
Lisa: Like Stephen said, we do a little “basking in the glow” of what hopefully was a fantastic community event. But there’s not much time to unwind. We begin meeting to plan the next year almost immediately, while the current year is still fresh in our minds.