Revellers and partygoers have little idea of the work that goes into putting on a festival. Jesse Meadows goes behind the scenes of this month’s Quest
"Festival work is not glamorous,” says Zarah-Louise Roth, Quest Festival’s workshop coordinator. We’re sitting at Hanoi Rock City on a Thursday night, surrounded by giant plywood triangles that volunteers are painting purple, orange and green — the colours of the Khong Sao Stage.
There’s glitter everywhere. The back room — a former handpoke tattoo studio — has been converted into storage for festival materials, which grow by the day as participants help to cut, glue and paint everything piece by piece.
“Having a place like this where we can paint freely is really rare,” says Cat O’Brien, head of the stage’s design team. Unlike the other stages at the festival, Khong Sao isn’t just about music — it’s a place for workshops and art exhibits, so Cat has invited festival-goers to help her build it. Rather than turning up for a weekend to dance, she wants attendees to feel like they’re a part of the festival, too.
“When I was first recruited, it was just a community space, a really small area. It wasn’t a stage. And as I kind of got to understand the brief and the story, I really pushed to make a stage that represented the mountain god. As it developed, it started to get bigger and bigger, and it’s become like a main stage now.”
Battle of the Gods
This year’s festival is based on the Vietnamese myth of the battle between the mountain god Son Tinh and the sea god Thuy Tinh, somewhat of an origin story for the Ba Vi mountain range that surrounds the campsite.
The official Quest headquarters can be found in a house tucked away off Tay Ho Street. Whatever can be assembled there is done downstairs in the workshop — the rest is transported to Son Tinh Camp in trucks two weeks before and built on-site by a team of 20 — double the eight people who built last year’s festival.
Upstairs in the kitchen, the table has been converted into an office — six people sit glued to laptops with spray paint, festival flyers, cigarettes, empty take-out boxes and stacks of invoices piled between them. The coffee pot is never empty, and a three-legged dog wanders about the house, providing necessary stress relief.
Natalie Smith, the performance producer, sits at the table, headphones on, Excel spreadsheet open.
“We have many balls that we juggle, and it’s about not dropping any of them,” she says. With a background in organising outdoor performing arts festivals, she’s in charge of Quest’s non-musical art, like contemporary dance, aerial silks, fire spinning and drag performances.
“There are lots of different things [planned], but they’re all very much about bringing the people that come to Quest together,” she says. “So, for the Quest parade, everybody in costumes, drumming, weaving in and out of the festival, picking up people as we go along, we should end up with the entirety of the festival in one space.”
Zarah sits on the couch at her laptop. The Berlin native has years of festival experience behind her, but this is her first Quest. She’s planned nearly 30 workshops, from tarot to body marbling to kung fu. Her crisis today is finding fluorescent feathers, and cellophane that she can use to make giant glow-in-the-dark jellyfish. She pulls a strip of plastic out of her bag.
“This is a sample? No. This is a trash bag.” She shakes her head in frustration.
Finding materials in Hanoi is difficult. Quality wood is expensive or non-existent, so the team has innovated with bamboo and nearly 400 shipping pallets.
“A lot of it is just zip-ties and staples,” Tyler Purdon, the build manager, says. “But each year, the goal is to make a better festival and a better process.” Much of his job is managing creative yet unrealistic expectations.
“One thing I really wanted to do was completely curtain the stage,” Cat says, “which would have been hundreds of metres of fabric."
Tyler pointed out that would cost VND7 million, breaking the budget. “That’s why you start early, so you can work out the kinks,” he says.
Nguyen Linh, the festival coordinator, sits at the kitchen table every day doing that — pricing surge protectors, handling poster orders gone wrong, making sure all the bilingual signs are correct, and endlessly emailing.
“She’s known as the festival ninja,” Natalie says. “She has the big, overall picture. Linh is very much that go-to person [on the team].” She was also one of the only women on the team in 2015 — something the organisers wanted to change this year.
“Quest needs to be balanced out. If it’s just a bunch of guys talking in circles, you’re not getting anywhere,” Tyler says.
“It’s based on your personality, not your gender,” Linh asserts. “I keep telling myself, just keep [working], and if people see that you are working hard, they will try to work harder, too.”
There are two weeks left until Quest, and back at HRC, most of the Khong Sao Stage has been painted and sealed.
“I still need to make a chandelier, wrap, tarp, and label everything, make a load-in and a load-out plan, build a bamboo wall to go behind the DJ booth, and get loads of frames,” Cat says, as she draws in the geometric lines of her plywood mountains with black marker.
Next to her, Liv Ferrari is painting the signs that will mark the festival’s stages, bars and workshop areas. She spreads water across a plank of wood, and drips acrylic paint over it. The colours swirl together like magic.
“[The best thing about Quest] is the fact that it’s so small-scale,” she says. “You see everyone’s ideas, and for months, they’re coming together, and then suddenly the week before, it all just comes up amazing.”
It’s true, dancing in a national park with all your friends is fun. But my favourite part of Quest is building it together.
Photos by Jesse Meadows