By Rita Bratovich.
The Newtown Festival turns 39 this year and will be as spritely and ostentatious as ever. When it was first established by the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (NNC) as a fundraiser there were a lot fewer festivals, markets and other events on the Sydney calendar than there are today, yet Newtown Festival has affirmed its place as one of the most popular and celebrated.
“There is something special about Newtown… not just for the people who live here, but for the people who come here,” says NNC CEO Liz Yeo, speculating on why the festival has endured and thrived. She describes it as the Newtown “brand”: a quirky, creative, open-minded sensibility, welcoming and non-judging.
NNC runs other fundraising events during the year including a weekly market, Newtopian Dream and Sydneyvision Song Contest, but the festival is by far the biggest, accounting for a significant part of their supplementary income. Rising costs and reduced Government funding have meant the traditional gold coin donation at entry has been changed to a $5 contribution – hard to balk at, though, when you consider the quality of the offerings and, more importantly, the incredible work that NNC does.
For forty years, the NNC has helped homeless people in the area, working with a number of agencies including local council, police, social services, boarding houses and organisations such as Mission Australia with whom they conduct a monthly outreach to support people sleeping rough in the inner west.
Yeo says it’s important to note that “homelessness” does not just refer to people living on the streets. There are also the “hidden homeless”: those in temporary shelters; sleeping on couches from house to house; or in an environment where they are threatened or mistreated. NNC is invaluable as a place to seek support and help find a solution.
Yeo herself has been a Newtown resident since the 1980s and has seen a lot of changes but she believes the fundamental personality of the locality has stayed the same:
“There’s still a lot of strong core values there, I think…people who want to keep it real.”
Community consultations have revealed two values in particular: protecting the Newtown “vibe”, i.e. its quirk, individuality, artistry, Bohemianism; and housing affordability. There’s a genuine sense of pride and commitment within the community, and the festival will reflect that.
“This year, we really wanted to work on the theme of ‘bring back the local’”, says Yeo, and they have sought partnerships with local businesses whose values align with those of the festival. Urbane Real Estate, for instance, had all its agents take part in the Newtopian Dream sleep out and they are also sponsoring a local family film night in the park on the eve of the festival.
Better Read Than Dead, one of King Street’s enduring identities, is again presenting a Writer’s Tent which will host a day long program of book launches, readings, performances and workshops.
Newtown Locals, a collective made up of popular local eateries will gather in a culinary corner and serve up the tastes of the town.
Show starter and festival favourite, Dog Show will be hosted once more by Sassy Treats.
Heaps Gay will make their spectacular debut at the festival with the bedroom singer’s dream – a Karaoke Closet!
For a bit of class, La Toosh will park their vintage Parisian tram-cum-bar/cafe/ theatre in the park.
There will be kids entertainment, lots of stalls and you can buy Jo Wallace’s book, Humans Of Newtown or a Newtown Locals t-shirt at one of the information booths as a souvenir.
And, of course, there’ll be music. The festival has always been a springboard for local talent and one of its success stories, Sarah Blasko has returned this year to help choose the line up.
“I believe this program to be a genuine expression of the Inner West music scene and we’ve aimed to make it as diverse as possible,” says Blasko.
One of the bands playing on the day will be Food Court. Having just released their first album, Good Luck in September, this youthful four piece has a nostalgic Aussie pub rock sound with overtones of punk and a sense of fun.
The members are all born and bred Inner West locals and remain loyal to the area, regularly playing gigs at local pubs and venues and giving back to the community whenever they can through fundraisers.
They had applied unsuccessfully for four years, so they’re thrilled to finally be playing the Newtown Festival. It falls right in the middle of a national tour – in fact they’ll be getting off a plane from Melbourne on Sunday morning and lugging their instruments straight to Camperdown Memorial Park.
The band recently toured the US and were well received, but Newtown Festival will be one of their biggest gigs to date and a lot of their friends will be in the crowd, so it’s a special buzz.
Lead singer, Cristian Campano describes the Inner West as “the best place for us to grow up because it’s such a creative space.” Playing at the festival is an opportunity for the band to contribute to that shared creative space.
“I guess that’s why we’re playing even knowing there would be no payment – we just thought it would be for a good cause. And they always put a lot of money into the arts in the Inner West, you know, there’s always something on, it’s great to be part of it.”
Another big focus for Newtown Festival and the precinct in general is sustainability. This year an Eco Village will be at the centre of the festival area and will feature stalls with environmentally friendly products and educational displays; hourly workshops on sustainable living (keeping plastics out of the ocean, lobbying the government, growing vegetables, composting etc) and a mobile worm farm into which suitable festival waste will be thrown.
Cameron Little from Sydney Sustainability Centre is coordinating the program. He says it is just the start of a long term plan, so there will be a bit of trial and error, and a period of adjustment.
“We’re going to roll it out rather than freak everybody out in terms of stallholders and vendors because we need them to come with us on this journey.”
The objective is to minimise what goes to landfill and change behaviour.
Patrons to the festival may wish to take note: there will be no plastic bags given (bring your own bag); no plastic water bottles will be sold or distributed (Sydney Water will be supplying refill stations so you are encouraged to bring re-usable bottles).
Stall holders have been given strict guidelines on the use of compostable plates, cutlery, cups and similar service ware. Those who arrive with non-compliant service ware and who are unwilling to obtain the correct service ware will simply not be allowed to trade. Even drinking straws will need to be compostable.
The festival is also banning balloons, which, according to Little, “just escape, choke the environment and kill aquatic and marine animals.”
The main goal is to educate and encourage participation and to that end, Little has invited the Citizens Climate Lobby. He feels it’s important that people understand the politics and what they are able to do to change things.
Above all, Little would like the sustainability program to represent Inner West residents and their beliefs.
“We’re trying to address the value system of the community within which we’re operating. And this is a very progressive, very socially aware and environmentally engaged community, so we want their event to be consistent with their values.”
Nov 12, 9:30am-5:30pm. Camperdown Memorial Park, Newtown. $5 contribution. Info: www.newtownfestival.org
Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, 1 Bedford St, Newtown, www.newtowncentre.org