Columbia Festival of the Arts brings it home

The 27th annual Columbia Festival of the Arts brings eclectic entertainment to Howard County from June 13 to 28. This year's edition also has a thematic title, "Bringing It Home," that calls attention to the festival's hometown status.

There are at least a few reasons why the festival seems to be taking stock of its place in the cultural life of Howard County. Starting at the top, Nichole Hickey, who has been the festival's executive director for the past 10 years, is retiring after this year's festival. Her replacement, Todd Olson, an actor, director and playwright who has spent 11 years as artistic director at American Stage Theatre Company in Tampa, Fla., takes over in August.

More than administrative changes prompted such reflection, however.

"Rather than (being) contrived, it was natural and right" to go with the "Bringing It Home" theme, Hickey said.

As she was putting together this year's schedule, Hickey said she noticed there were home-related ideas percolating through a number of festival bookings.

This was overtly the case with the Chicago-based Griffin Theatre Company, for instance, which will read excerpts from letters written by and to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in "Letters Home." It will be performed Friday, June 27, at 8 p.m., at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

Also directly relating to the word "home" is the five-man a cappella country group known as Home Free. The 2014 season finale winners of NBC's "The Sing-Off," Home Free performs Saturday, June 28, at 8 p.m., at Jim Rouse Theater at Wilde Lake.

And, nothing underscores the hometown vibe like the free Lakefest Celebration kicking off the festival June 13, 14 and 15. Hickey cited local performers such as the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble and Deanna Bogart as examples of performers with a strong local identity. There are numerous other bands performing, as well as such activities as an Invitational Fine Arts and Crafts Show, Circus Juggle Zone, and Model Yacht Racing.

One performance group that's likely to be a lakefront favorite this weekend is hardly local. Australia's Strange Fruit combines circus, dance and theater skills in its shows.

Hickey's ability to bring such a group from Australia to Columbia speaks to one of the ways in which the festival has been able to weather lean financial times and continue as a hometown tradition. Hickey was able to coordinate this Columbia booking with Strange Fruit's other American and Canadian summer festival tour stops, thereby reducing some of the costs incurred by each venue along the way.

She also cites an upcoming ticketed program, "The Intergalactic Nemesis: A Live Action Graphic Novel," as an example of how she works with other presenters around the country to coordinate touring schedules. This program combining actors, a classic radio drama format, live sound effects and an original piano score takes place Friday, June 20, at 8 p.m., at Rouse Theater.

Stretching festival dollars as far as possible is essential, because there have been fewer dollars to stretch. Looking back over her total of 12 years working for the festival, Hickey said that the festival had a $1 million budget in 2002 and this year has a budget of $700,000; in-kind services have remained at around the $250,000 level every year. In 2002, the festival had four full-time employees and this year Hickey is one of two full-time employees; part-time and contractual employees, and, of course, volunteers have always been an important part of the festival labor force.

Copyright © 2019, Columbia Flier, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad