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Commentary: St. Louis is home to a fine variety of festivals

Nancy Kranzberg

In March I attended the True/False Documentary Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. The festival takes place yearly at the end of February or beginning of March. What a unique and festive atmosphere with each film featuring music before the film and contemporary pieces of sculpture all over town. The festival was founded in 2004 by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson and draws thousands of people from all over the country.

I started thinking about the derivation of the word festival and one of the definitions said unrestrained joy and that the word usually referred to a day or period set aside for a celebration and started way back when with celebrations of a religious nature. Now the modern definition usually refers to food festivals and art festivals as well as religious festivals and even though the trip to Columbia was well worth it, you don't have to travel that far because there are great festivals right here. Let's just take a look at some of the art festivals in and around St. Louis. 

Of course we have our own St. Louis Film Festival which is under the umbrella of Cinema St. Louis and presents the finest in recent international, American independent and documentary films. Cinema St. Louis also presents the Classic French Film Festival, the LGBTQ or Q Fest, has presented Children's Film Festivals and has dozens of other programs related to film. Chris Clark, Artistic Director of Cinema St Louis says, "Cinema St. Louis promotes cross cultural understanding of the arts through cinema.” 

St. Louis also has other film festivals not connected to Cinema St. Louis such as the Italian Film Festival, The Jewish Film Festival and the African Film Festival sponsored by other organizations.

The Missouri Botanical Garden hosts numerous arts festivals. The Whitaker Music Festival hosts free concerts every Wednesday night throughout the summer. Not only does the Whitaker Music Festival present up-beat bands, it supports St. Louis Arts and Parks to promote common heritage and celebrates diversity. 

Also presented at the Garden are the three day Japanese Festival which includes Taiko drumming and other performances, the Chinese Lantern Festival with gorgeous glowing lanterns representing the ancient Chinese tradition and there is even a lighting of the menorah to begin the Jewish celebration of lights for Chanukah.

This past May the St. Louis Storytelling Festival presented its 38th year of stories to celebrate the ancient art of storytelling. It's the largest free storytelling festival in the world and has won numerous awards for its innovative and masterful celebration of storytelling as well as its outreach to the St. Louis metropolitan community. The festival is a part of the University of Missouri Extension's Community Arts Program which promotes and fosters community and economic development through the arts. 

In May, the city of St. Louis again celebrated its world-renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams with the 2nd annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis in multiple venues across the Grand Center Theater District. "The magic of the other" is a thread through all of his hundreds of plays, poems, stories and essays. Some of us fear and reject strange people and ideas. Williams understood that by confronting and embracing the other, we can be elevated and mysteriously transformed. This is not just the magic of theater--it is the magic of the other explains TWFSL, Executive Artistic Director, Carrie Houk. 

Joan Lipkin presented through her Uppity Theater Company, "Briefs"--a festival of short LGBT plays that highlight political and social events. 

And most of us know about the Shakespeare Festival presented yearly in our beautiful Forest Park and directed by its fearless and extremely creative director, Rick Dildine. Dildine says the mission of the Shakespeare Festival is to celebrate both Shakespeare's language and the artists he has inspired. The festival produces over 250 public performances annually for over 100,000 patrons and students. Its Shakespeare in the Streets program invites St. Louis neighborhoods to tell their own stories. 

The St. Louis Bach Society brought back The St. Louis Bach Festival. Dennis Sparger, the director reminds us that J.S. Bach has influenced every later genre of music including jazz, soul and even hip-hop. The Bach Festival recently presented "Bach at the Bistro,"  "Coffee With Bach" at the Sheldon and more. 

There is the "Big Muddy Blues Festival "presented yearly on Laclede's Landing and Jim Widner of UMSL is responsible for a yearly Jazz Festival. Widner brings in hundreds of jazz students from middle school to college age to St. Louis to perform, attend clinics and learn from the pros.

St. Lou Fringe, headed by Matt Kearn, bolsters cultural identity in St. Louis by providing a support structure to connect independent performing arts with accessible, affordable showcase settings for audiences. Fringe showcases theater and dance, storytelling and spoken word, burlesque and acrobatic, visual art and more in a one of a kind pressure cooker of artistic expression. St. Lou Fringe has been named "Best Theatre Festival" and "Best Theatre Surprise" by the RFT, one of the "Nine Intriguing US Fringe Festivals" by CNN, and one of the "Fifty Essential Summer Festivals" by the New York Times. 

Across the river, Belleville, Illinois boasts of its annual Wine and Jazz Festival in the historic town square around the beautiful fountain.

As the song says, no use to sit alone in your room come hear the music play--come blow your horn and celebrate at one or more of these festive festivals in and around the town.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.