Entertainment

Stensons preparing for their last festival in Harrison

This will be the last year that Phyllis and Ed Stenson are helping organize the Harrison Festival of the Arts.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
This will be the last year that Phyllis and Ed Stenson are helping organize the Harrison Festival of the Arts.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

Phyllis and Ed Stenson are in a bit of a frenzy.

The couple is in the midst of organizing their last Harrison Festival of the Arts — after more than two decades each of dedication to their respective administrative roles.

Their replacements have been hired to run the well-loved and eclectic festival, which started out with a budget of no more than $4,000 and now hovers around $450,000 with in-kind donations.

It's crunch time.

"Every year it feels like we're never going to be ready on time," said Phyllis in an interview with the Progress over the phone.

It's down to the wire leading up to the last festival with Stensons at the helm, which is running July 6-14 with the tagline 'World Music and Art/Small Town Roots.'

"There are just so many details to finalize. Then you start to realize it's all going to happen anyway whether we're ready or not."

A musical highlight for her personally this year on the concert program is the July 11 evening show by Oliver Mtukudzi and The Black Spirits.

The other is the eager anticipation of seeing Wailin' Jennys close the show.

"One of their first shows was at the festival. They've been back a couple of times and they've always been special to us. It will feels good to have them close it out. They have a history with us, and individually they are really special people."

The Jennys sang for her during a "guerilla audition" they staged in a hotel room years ago at an industry conference, and immediately Phyllis fell in love with their music and sweet harmonies.

She won't, however, miss the drudgery of filling out funding applications, or the precariousness of the arts sector. But she will miss some of the characters.

"I also feel good knowing that we are leaving the organization in good financial shape," she says.

Ed says he's not really thinking about the fact that it's their last festival.

"It's hard to think about it being the last or first when at this point it's just total immersion for us," he says.

There hasn't been time to reminisce or think about the end. But there are aspects he will definitely miss.

"I'll miss all the wonderful music and interacting with the performers," Ed says.

He'll also miss volunteer orientation, when they first get to meet other people outside the festival office each year.

"That's when we know things are really going to happen. No matter how many

years you do it, you hold your breath and hope it all works out."

However in the "won't miss" category, he puts anything to do with selling advertising for the festival program.

"I won't miss that by any stretch, because I'm not a salesman," he says.

Phyllis is proud of what they've created with the festival, and they feel like they're leaving on a high note.

"I feel we've done some important community work, and Ed and I feel good about that.

"Through music and experiencing different cultures, it really brings the community together. It's a celebration."

At festival time every July, it really feels like they're creating their own community in the tiny beachside community.

"That's the part I love the best."

When Phyllis started with the organization, she says it was on a volunteer basis and there were no international musical performers.

"We had theatre production from UFV, an art exhibit and some hands-on workshops," she remembers. "We had a bit of music in the plaza for free.

"I think we had a folk dancer and local piper Evans Palmer.  Then I started learning about where to find musicians. I learned about other festivals and how to supplement our funding."

Ed, who is general manager, says the new organizers for the Festival Society, Andy Hillhouse and Mel Dunster, might have a bit of a learning curve, but they are like-minded and ready for the challenge.

"They understand the philosophy we built into this organization, which is to be inclusive as possible, as accessible as possible, so everyone can afford to be exposed to the music," he says.

They wanted to make good-quality visual and performance arts available to the region, so people wouldn't have to travel for three hours.

"We tried to reflect back to the community, the different ethnic groups that make up our country," Ed says. "We talk about world music, but the fact is, the vast majority of the performers on the program have been people who reside in Canada. So program has reflected a wide spectrum of cultural groups from within the country."

What will they do next year at festival time?

"I don't know," says Ed. "It will be interesting. We will be available, but only if asked."

He's going to take it easy.

"I might go work on a stage, and not have to think about how the performers got there, or what else is going on. I can get them set up and let them go. I don't have much of a chance to do that now."

But for now, it's almost festival time.

There's the rich tapestry of diverse offerings from Music on the Beach in the plaza, to the Memorial Hall evening concerts, as well as literary events, a juried art market, children's day and visual art displays.

"Watching the audiences enjoy themselves at a performance is always great," says Ed.

"The venues are still small and intimate enough, that people can usually chat and visit with the performers. It's one big happy family."

Check out all the listings at www.harrisonfestival.com, or (604) 796-3664.

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