Festival Planning 101 — Part Two: Theme and Content

A great event always starts with a great idea. All the other details can be “schmoozed” to fit the theme or concept that is the originating spark of this festival (or retreat, campout, convention, gathering, gala, symposium — whatever you have in mind). We’ll talk about all those other details later, and how they flow into and inform each other, but first we need to get crystal clear on your concept. 

For the purposes of this series, I’m going to assume that we’re planning what I would call a “camping festival.” This will make communication a little easier, but it also gives us a platform for us to scale up or scale down the event details when we get into specifics. I totally understand that not everyone has a keen interest in a camping-based event with classes, activities, bonfires, and performers — and tents, campfire cooking, bugs, weather, and wildlife. However, within the Pagan community, this is exactly the kind of event I have been helping to organize since about 2008. It’s relatively simple, and it is distinctly cheap, which makes it a favorite of the folks here in the Mid-West US.

The first question to ask yourself is, “What is it you want to do, say, or accomplish with your festival?” What was the idea that came to you in the night and made you think, “Wouldn’t an event like this be great?” You need to drill down to the core of this idea so that you have a crystal clear understanding of what it is you are offering to the community that is different or special. 

Image courtesy of Moran at Unsplash.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Whether you have been aware of it or not, other Pagan events do exist in your area, and people near you have been attending them. That’s a shocking revelation for many folks. Every year, Camp Midian has a booth at Pagan Pride Day (Indianapolis), and every year I have heard people say, “I had no idea Pagan festivals were a thing, let alone that there were any in Indiana!” Not only are they a thing, but they’ve been a thing since the 1970’s in the US, with some of the oldest ones drawing massive crowds from every corner of the continent. Pan Pagan Festival, Pagan Spirit Gathering, Starwood Festival, Rites of Spring, Florida Pagan Gathering (which started in the 90’s, but that’s still thirty years of life). And then there are the long-running Pagan conventions — ConVocation, PaganiCon,  PanTheaCon. Don’t forget the large single day festivals, namely International Pagan Pride Day! And yes, my friends, every state in the US, most European countries, Canadian provinces, Australian states and territories, and several other countries around the world have their own Pagan gatherings (ranging from single day gatherings to campouts to conventions, large and small). 

Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, and it can be hard to get information about these events if you aren’t already tapped into a network that includes them. The Witches’ Voice website used to be a clearinghouse of great networking information for the Craft and Pagan community, listing not only festivals by US state and other countries, but also featuring classes, covens/groups, and individual listings of folks who had created accounts with a mind toward networking. However they closed their operations after twenty-two years in service to the community, and now we are left to do our best with search engines, social media networking, and hashtags to find what we need. Bon chance!

One of the most comprehensive lists available  these days is Linda’s List of Pagan Festivals (linked below). It’s challenging right now to know what is traditionally offered in your area, though, because a lot of events were paused or cancelled in 2020 and may not be resuming in 2021. Still, this is one of the best starting places!

I would also highly recommend checking with your local or regional Pagan Pride Day coordinators. They are usually very well informed about the big events and groups (service committees, planning groups, large covens/kindreds/groves) near you, as this type of networking is the foundation of PPD’s success year after year. They can at least point you in the direction of some contacts and websites to gather information. You want this information now (for the content/theme portion of your planning), but you’ll also need it later for building community support for your event.

I can’t stress enough that hosting the same type and style of event with the same basic feel as something else happening in your area is not going to work out the way you want. A Summer Solstice campout held at a campground 50-100 miles away from another Summer Solstice campout does little but split the community. The only time I would recommend doing this is if the community is already split or fractured beyond resolution, and your new event offers a sort of safe-space alternative for people who would otherwise never attend the original event. (“We can’t go THERE. Their safety and consent policies just aren’t in-line with our core ethics.”)

Image courtesy of Danny Avila at Unsplash

Standing Out from the Others

Otherwise, if you are offering an event on the same weekend (or in close proximity) to another event in your area, make sure that you are offering something original in your theme or content.  Most Pagan-flavored festivals are very open-ended in the sense that they are designed to be of interest to all people with some connection (however tangential) to nature-based spirituality. The long-running events will often adopt a theme for the year (often something elemental, qabbalistic, or otherwise magical/philosophical), but part of their appeal is their inclusivity.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with offering an open-ended, all-inclusive Pagan event. If your area doesn’t have much going on for its Pagan folk, then your community may very well appreciate not needing to drive twelve hours to reach one of the big gatherings. Simply offering that experience may be special enough to draw the attendance you need to cover the costs of the event.

However, the idea of “niche-ing down” has a lot of merit in the world of Pagan events. There are sub-communities within the Pagan/Polytheist/Witchcraft/Magickal world that are very under-served and who feel vastly under-represented when they attend most “inclusive” gatherings. Yes, everyone is welcome, but it can be daunting to be the lone representative of a whole tradition among thousands of attendees. Conversely, it is extremely affirming and an excellent opportunity for sharing and growth to attend an event based on a cluster of concepts or practices that includes that path.

Some examples of niche-festivals serving the community include:

  • Babalon Rising Pan-Thelemic Festival — With a cap of about 500 attendees at its venue (Camp Midian), Babalon Rising has been holding an annual camping event since 2006. Most attendees are drawn to the event from Ceremonial Magick practices, but the high-quality educational content of workshops and lectures, commitment to both traditional and experimental ritual forms in practice throughout the 5-day event, and dedication to open exchange between those interested in the magickal and sorcerous arts has drawn practitioners from Chaos Magick, Voudon, Druidry, Folkloric and Traditional Witchcraft, and Sex Magick. The festival features four learning areas where participants can choose between Traditional Magick, Chaos Magick, Emergent Magick, and Sacred Sexuality/Sex Magick. Attendees bring their own rituals to perform in the woods and around the all-night bonfire and drum circle. 
  • Northern European Religions Festival (N.E.R.F.) — Also with a cap of 500 (and also hosted at camp Midian), this festival began life in 2018 as The Asatru Festival. The Asatru Community is still one of the primary sponsors of the event, which draws Norse/Germanic and Celtic Diaspora attendees from all over the US and Canada. It is family-friendly, with one of the best-run children’s programs this former teacher and mother of two (now grown adults) has ever seen at any Pagan event, large or small. Rituals and group feasts feed the community’s body and soul, and bonfire revelers are captivated by traditional bardic arts from Norse, Germanic, and Celtic traditions. Workshops explore lore and practice and are interwoven with time for rest, merry-making, and good old-fashioned competition and shenanigans.
  • Hoodoo Heritage Festival — Presented by the Association of Independent Spiritual Churches, this Hoodoo Heritage Festival (not to be confused with newer events of the same name in other parts of the US) has had an annual presence since 2008. Featuring well-known and highly respected presenters from the African American folk magic, rootwork, and hoodoo community, this is a practical, spiritual, and inspirational collection of classes, workshops, discussions, blessings, and more. In 2020 and 2021, the festival has gone to a virtual format in order to continue delivering their outstanding content and connectedness to the community.
  • Viridis Genii Symposium — Hosted virtually in 2021, this relatively young but entirely impressive ethnobotanical herbal retreat is organized by Catamara Rosarium (of Rosarium Blends) and Marcus McCoy (of Troll Cunning Forge and House of Orpheus). The symposium, held virtually in 2021, is an immersive and deep exploration of magical and mystical traditions of plant wisdom and allyship. Tied deeply to folk magic and traditional Craft, this event’s practical crafting and theoretical explorations are an herbal Witch’s waking dream.

People crave content and experiences that speak to their deep interests, and the events above are enjoying success in no small part because they are run by knowledgeable, passionate, ethical, and organized folks to meet the needs of a specific piece of the community.

What festival could you offer to meet the needs of yours? Other niches within our community who could benefit from a retreat, symposium, or festival experience might include: traditional or folk magic/folkloric practitioners, Hellenic polytheists, LGBTQ+ folks, African Diasporic Traditions, women-inclusive, men-inclusive, Druidic & bardic practitioners, children (like Pagan summer camp), and so much more. 

Image courtesy of Maxime Bhm at Unsplash.

Some Other Defining Feature

If it isn’t your niche or theme, there is likely some other aspect of the content or its delivery that is very important to you. I imagine this is why you are choosing to explore undertaking event organization instead of just finding the closest events to you and attending them.  

What might I mean by “content delivery” or “other features? Well, in my region, we have a good number of camping-based events, but not many offerings that are multi-day, hotel-based experiences (conventions). Some people really, REALLY dislike camping or aren’t able to physically handle the rigors of living outside for three to seven days. A con might do great here, if someone felt motivated enough to take it on. 

Or perhaps you have attended far too many events where content is present at you (“sage on the stage” style), and you would really like to offer an immersive, hands-on, experiential event where presenters and facilitators act as “guides on the side,” giving participants the chance to make, do, and fully take part in tool creation, spell construction, ritual working, and more.

You could be inspired by the idea of a weekend intensive with a special author or speaker, where that one individual presents the core curriculum and content. Or perhaps you’d like a community round-table approach where all the discussions are fielded by panels who are curated from your community’s experts and elders.

The possibilities are endless, but they will likely be defined by something you currently find absent or unappealing about the events you’ve seen or experienced. Your event will solve a problem or fill a gap.

Image courtesy of Alexandre Brondino at Unsplash

This is Square One

Depending on the niche or theme you choose, you may be running a small event to start. Think: 30-50 people. We’ll talk more about size in the next installment in the series, but I want to start by saying, size is truly not the metric by which you should be measuring your success. One of my events is the Women’s Goddess Retreat, which is capped at 35 attendees. We can’t do what we do (we discovered through experience) if more women are present. Our circles, our sharing, our process breaks down. Similarly, Babalon Rising can’t compare its 300-500 attendees to Starwood’s 3000-5000. We would lose who we are and what we do at that scale. 

Size isn’t necessarily your goal. Quality is. And quality starts with concept and content. If you get big, or if your aim is big, you’ll be grateful that you started by defining your core now.

So, start brainstorming the type of classes, workshops, rituals, games, activities, authors, performers, and vendors that might align with your concept. Use a concept map, Google docs/sheets, or a content planner like Asana or Trello. But start getting a picture of what this will look like, what kind of experiences will make your vision a reality, and the people who might help you pull it together.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Vechorko at Unsplash.

Get Ready to Juggle Chainsaws

From here, we can go in almost any direction to get started. Honestly, a lot of the next stages of planning will happen simultaneously in your real-life application of them. But I have to address them one at a time or in clusters in writing about them. So I’m picking at (almost) random. Here is the line-up for the remainder of the series:

55 Questions to Ask Before Starting — April 2021

Theme and Content — May 2021

Size, Venue, Cost — June 2021

Presenters and Performers — July 2021

Safety and Well-Being — August 2021

Staff and Volunteers — September 2021

Admin (Money and Communication) — October 2021

Marketing and PR — November 2021

Feedback and Improvement — December 2021

Anything I Missed (Q&A) — January 2022

But remember: I’d love to address your specific questions. So ask away!

Cited Festivals

Linda’s List of Pagan Festivals — http://www.faeriefaith.net/festival.list.html

Babalon Rising Pan-Thelemic Festival — http://www.babalonrising.com 

Northern European Religions Festival — www.facebook.com/groups/asatrufest.n.e.r.f/ 

Hoodoo Heritage Festival — http://www.hoodooheritagefestival.com/

Viridis Genii Symposium — https://www.viridisgenii.com/

Women’s Goddess Retreat — http://www.asteriabooks.com/retreat

[Written by Laurelei Black.]

[Author’s Note: My Planning Background (Briefly): I have been planning events for students, families, schools, businesses, and (perhaps most prominently) the Pagan community since I was in college. I got my start with the Student Activities Council at a University of Arkansas satellite campus as a freshman in 1993. By 1996, I was on the Board of Directors for the largest student union all under one roof in the world. I attended my first Pacific Circle Festival in 1999 when the event was already 20 years old. I’ve presented workshops, performances, lectures, and rituals at Chrysalis Moon, Starwood, ConVocation, and Starwood in addition to the countless times I’ve organized and presented at my home stomping grounds (first Our Haven Nature Sanctuary, and later Camp Midian Festivals and Events). These days, I’m on the Board for Camp Midian Festival and Events in Southern Indiana, having been one of its original founders. I am the Director for the Women’s Goddess Retreat and one of the co-Directors for the Babalon Rising Festival. When I’m not planning activities for Pagans in the woods, I am often helping to organize events for the disability community in my city or (until recently) serving as president of the PTSA at a local high school.]

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