OPINION: Now that it has reached its 21st year, and survived through the especially trying times immediately after the earthquakes, the Scirt World Buskers Festival has deservedly become a keenly awaited summertime treat for Christchurch audiences. This year's festival will open with its first evening shows today and street shows tomorrow. Over 11 days it will feature dozens of performers delivering a total of 660 performances to crowds that, provided the weather is kind, are likely to outdo the 300,000 who attended events last year.
It is a long way from the first shows. In those days the festival lasted only a week, it had fewer than two dozen performers and the total audience was measured in the thousands, climbing after five years to the low tens of thousands. At one point in those early years it was sponsored by the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology and a minor fuss blew up about the $16,000, half of it in deals on things like accommodation, that the CPIT was giving to help keep the event going.
Its appeal grew, however, the festival grew longer and by the end of the first decade of this century it was attracting audiences that totalled well into the hundreds of thousands. Part of this was a widening of its range of entertainment to the point now that the title "buskers festival" could perhaps be regarded as slightly inaccurate. For where once the festival was purely a gathering of street performers from all over the world - and they remain a vital core of the shows - it now offers a wide variety of circus, comedy, fringe theatre and cabaret-type acts performing in indoor venues as well. A common element to most of the acts is still, however, the edgy, the offbeat and the unexpected that audiences expect from a festival with "busker" in the title.
The festival probably fixed itself in the affections of Christchurch audiences when it continued to be mounted even after the February 2011 earthquake had closed off its venues in the central city. Now owned by the Christchurch City Council, and with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team as its principal sponsor, the festival in 2012 offered one of the few chances for amusement and distraction in what was then almost entirely a landscape of destruction and demolition.
As a financial venture, the festival is not a significant success. Last year favourable weather boosted ticket sales, but its expenses were higher because of the extra cost of fencing, portaloos and the like in the festival's Hagley Park base. That meant the profit was just under $20,000, down from the $85,000 in 2011. Even the calculation of additional spending in the city as a result of the festival is not great. Before the earthquakes, that had been estimated at $3 million, much less than the $25m of Cup and Show Week, for instance.
But for once the financial calculation is not so important. The lift to the mood of the city by the festival's presence may not be calculable but it is hard to deny its reality. Many of the performers are truly world class - some, such as the Boy with Tape on His Face, have honed their acts here before going on to bigger things - and with such a variety of them there is something to please everyone.
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