Can “Transformational” Festivals Be More Than a Week of Escapism for 150,000 Attendees This Year?

If you walked up to a stranger, gave him a hug, and commented on his good energy in downtown Pittsburgh in the middle of October, you’d get some very strange looks. Do this while sporting body paint, a feather headdress, and tie-dye leggings at a festival like Symbiosis, Burning Man, or Lightning in a Bottle and it’s simply business-as-usual under the new set of social rules that govern these temporary communities.

As a New Yorker, former management consultant, non-hippie, and someone who spends most of her year working in remote villages in Africa and Asia, I should admit I’m relatively new to the whole west coast festival scene. I should also be clear that, in this case, I’m not talking about music-driven gatherings like Coachella or Bonnaroo that draw 32 million Americans a year, but rather “transformational festivals” (to echo the term used by Rolling Stone), which place their emphasis on arts, culture, and community.

I spent last week at the Oregon Eclipse Festival at Big Summit Prairie primarily because I wanted to see the total solar eclipse, last visible from North America in 1979, which made it well worth the 5,000-mile journey from my current base in Berlin, Germany.

Camping for a week with 30,000 devotees of a subculture that’s becoming increasingly prominent as a cultural and economic force — even the notoriously “anti-capitalist” Burning Man festival grossed $32.4 million in ticket sales alone in 2015 — I felt like a well-disguised intruder. (Although, rocking steampunk goggles, body glitter, and sequined leotards for a week made me forget what jeans and t-shirts ever felt like.)

To my surprise, in addition to seeing my first total solar eclipse -- and of course many music acts flown in from Germany, Brazil, and France -- I also attended workshops on neuroscience, astrology, and permaculture, met the leaders of several Native American nations from both North and South America, went to live theater shows performed to Hollywood-level production standards, and danced to a 30-person live marching band ensemble from Portland, Oregon. I couldn’t help but marvel that if a small team of organizers could bring 30,000 people together on a rural stretch of land in central Oregon, then our powers of human organization are being vastly underutilized.

A Social (And Economic) Movement?

Before I attended Oregon Eclipse, I assumed all festivals were glorified multi-day concerts, but this relatively new breed of gathering is essentially a temporary community that springs up for a week to experiment with breaking social and economic norms. These kinds of festivals serve as venues of exploration for people of all ages (I saw countless families with small children in tow) to challenge the fixed spectrum of what we wear, who we interact with, and what we readily speak about in our daily lives.

Approximately 150,000 people are attending these kinds of festivals across America now, and thousands of others in every professional field, from public relations to sanitation, are making their living from this booming industry, as well.

Catering professionals have shifted their business from Wall Street to Big Summit Prairie, fashion designers eye the Burning Man playa as much as the runway, and Los Angeles production teams find year-round work building art installations and supervising theater productions for these makeshift human settlements. This self-sustaining financial cycle, coupled with an ever-evolving labor market that offers flexible work schedules to more workers every year, could quickly bring festival culture into the mainstream by offering the time, space, and money for more people to participate.

But for now, there remains a large gap between the human behavior exhibited at festivals — where people live communally, proactively engage with one another, and express themselves creatively — and the social norms that govern us once we fly home to Seattle, Toronto, or San Diego. These experiments in community-building showcase what we’re capable of, but it’s the responsibility of those lucky enough to attend to bring the best of festival ethos home with them.

Bringing the Ethos Back Home

Back in San Francisco this week, I find myself smiling at strangers as I walk down Market Street, new feather earrings swinging from my earlobes. Am I the same New Yorker? Inspired by how readily we can come together, I realize I can create festival-like opportunities year-round just by hosting a dinner party, staging a friendly debate, or inviting someone to lead a free workshop on something they’re passionate about. I’m eager to spend the next few weeks finding ways to create experiences and share knowledge among my friends, even on a small scale.

Thanks to the festival phenomena, I have a new notion that life is a theater, and I can choose to sit in the audience or get on stage and help steer the show. I can give, create, and engage — or I can operate within the same comfortable spectrum of social norms that keep us from acknowledging a stranger or dressing and dancing a little more expressively or learning about unfamiliar topics from knowledgeable peers.

On 7th Street today, a homeless man grabs me and asks where the nearest Whole Foods is. Normally I’d shrink away, head down and engrossed in my daily routine, but this time I pull out my phone, google Whole Foods, and point him in the right direction, passing him some money and a smile. It’s the little things we can do to acknowledge and help one another that can make the “real world” a little more...festive.

Ultimately, the thing that makes festivals worth taking a week off from work, buying half a new wardrobe, and flying across the country doesn’t have to vanish once we leave the festival grounds. We don’t need to wait for the next total solar eclipse to operate under a slightly modified mindset that says: “Don’t wait for the person in front of you to go out of their way to connect with you. You know what you’re capable of, so be the one to go out of your way to smile, engage, ask questions, and make someone’s day.”

By just proactively engaging with one another 365 days a year, we can bring a large part of what makes these festivals so special back into our lives all year-round.

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