The summer series of high-caliber performances by international folk troupes goes over like a well-oiled machine, but hiccups aren’t a matter of “if” — merely “what” and “when.”
This year Folkmoot was dealt two disappointing blows in the days leading up to the festival’s opening day. Two of the international groups couldn’t get here at the 11th hour, neither by choice.
“It left us in a jam,” said Folkmoot Director Angie Schwab. “It has been a rough year in recruiting groups in general, so losing two was a blow.”
Vetting and picking performance troupes — to ensure both quality talent and a diverse mix of cultures — is a year-round, never-ending process.
Groups must pay their own airfare to get here, and the depressed global economy has made it more challenging.
Meanwhile, visa hurdles are another barrier. Passport clearance has always been an Achilles heel for Folkmoot, but it has gotten worse over the past decade. Nearly every year, a group slated to be here is blocked by red tape in the visa maze.
That’s ultimately what waylaid a group from Bangladesh, who, it seems, got mired down at every turn. Initially, their application disappeared into a black hole due to some sort of technical glitch at the visa processing center in Vermont, which apparently affected hundreds of applications.
It languished MIA for weeks. When the application was finally “found” in the system, the visa still wasn’t being issued, and Folkmoot wasn’t being told why.
By now, the clock was ticking. Once cleared for entry by the U.S., the Bangladesh group still had to be approved by its own consulate to leave their country.
Schwab and Folkmoot supporters tried to explain that time was of the essence, and a lot was riding on Bangladesh’s visa.
“It was for the good of the United State’s cultural engagement and global relationships,” Schwab said.
They even got U.S. Senator Richard Burr “to step in and be an advocate for Folkmoot,” Schwab said.
“Senator Burr’s office found out there might have been some sort of security issue, but that’s as specific as it ever got for us,” Schwab said. “We really don’t even know what it was.”
It could have been as benign as a misspelled named of a performer on the roster, or more serious concerns over a spate of social and economic unrest in Bangladesh this spring.
At last, after weeks of nail biting, the U.S. visa application for Bangladesh was approved, but the window was closing for the group to be cleared by its consulate. More weeks ticked by. The festival drew ever closer.
“It was quite stressful,” Schwab said.
Doug Garrett, the long-time festival operation director, would greet Schwab every morning with the same question: “Any word from Bangladesh?”
“He finally said ‘You have to cut bait, Angie. What are you going to do?’” Schwab said.
Meanwhile, the director of an Indonesian group scheduled to be here fell ill and was put under a no-travel advisory by his doctor. The performers couldn’t come without their director to navigate on their journey and lead them once here.
Schwab quit holding out hope and started scrambling to find other international groups to fill the hole just a few days away from the opening day of the festival.
She landed on a group from Jamaica, who incidentally were already in the region for a program at Western Carolina University. A group of Cherokee cultural dancers who had a few spots in the performance schedule already were added to more venues. And a group of traditional English garland dancers based in the region were invited to fill in and round out some venues.
For the record, Bangladesh was finally approved just as the festival got underway. The soonest airline tickets they could get, however, would have gotten them here for the final two days of the festival.
That didn’t make sense, Schwab said, so instead, Bangladesh and Indonesia have been invited to come perform in October — assuming the current festival run does well enough financially to afford it.
Bringing international troupes during the fall is actually a good thing, Schwab said. The groups will be able to tour local schools — which they can’t do during the summer — and help keep the energy around Folkmoot going beyond the summer festival.
“We are moving to a year-round programming cycle. We need to have performances in the schools and create interactive opportunities with the community,” Schwab said. “Just having performances isn’t enough any more. We want to have dinners and to do international movie nights and more engagement.”
Have smart phone, will travel
It takes 11 months of planning to pull off the 10-day Folkmoot festival.
The long to do list includes plotting out the schedule of shows and venues, drumming up ticket sales, training volunteers, lining up buses, hiring cooks and ordering food, cleaning and prepping the dorms.
This year, an overlooked job had to be added to the list at the last minute: ramping up the Folkmoot Center’s wi-fi and bandwith.
“So many people brought hand held devices and they wanted to email and watch YouTube videos and upload to Instagram,” Schwab said.
There would be a dozen or more performers at any given time sitting in the hallway outside Schwab’s officer door — one of only two wireless hotspots in the building — trying to use the Internet on their phones.
But the Folkmoot Center didn’t have enough bandwidth. The Internet connection slowed to a crawl, taking minutes to load a single web page, and often crashing first.
Schwab called in a team of electricians, and computer technicians to wire the Folkmoot Center and dorms with signal repeaters and more robust routers, and upped the bandwidth with the Internet company.
“We should have known, but now we are ready for it,” said Schwab, who just came on board as the festival director this year.
A dozen years ago, it was a novel step for Folkmoot to install a couple of computers with email capability in the hallway of a dorm. Performers lined up for a turn, often gathering around to read emails from back home.
This year, the obsolete computer terminal was hauled off when the new work was done.