‘Feast offers people an opportunity to tell their story’
Attending her first Picnic in the Park at Feast Festival was like a homecoming for Tish Naughton. Now, 16 years later, she is spearheading a push to breathe new life into South Australia’s annual queer arts and culture celebration.
Feast Festival CEO Tish Naughton: 'It’s a celebration of queer culture, which is everywhere.' Photo: supplied
“Everybody’s coming out journey is different,” says Feast Festival’s new CEO Tish Naughton, explaining that growing up in the Adelaide Hills, she knew she was “different” but didn’t know quite what that meant.
It wasn’t until her latter teenage years that she met a group of queer friends and realised she had found her people. Attending the Picnic in the Park at her first Feast in 2007 was another lightbulb moment.
“My experience was that it wasn’t common; there weren’t gay people everywhere,” Naughton says.
“And so when you walk into Picnic, it’s like – there are gay people everywhere! And it’s colourful and friendly and it was just like Christmas. So many of my friends back then referred to Picnic as Gay Christmas or Queermas and it was just so affirming, I guess – like you’re not alone and there’s a whole community out there.
“It was really important to me… so it fast became my favourite day of the year.”
Picnic, for the uninitiated, is the most popular event in the Feast program. The family-friendly day has moved around different parks over the years, but regularly draws a diverse crowd of around 3000 people, with a range of entertainment and stalls. It is also one of the few events in the open-access festival that Feast runs itself, and has been given a significant revamp for 2023.
Karen from Finance will be one of the guest drag artists at Marys in the Park.
This year, the Picnic in the Park will take place in Rundle Park/Kadlitpina on the opening weekend, from 11am-7pm on Sunday, November 5. On the Saturday of the same weekend in the same park, gay bar Marys Poppin and In the Dark Events are hosting new 18+ event Marys in the Park, which is billed as “South Australia’s first loud and proud pop music festival”.
Naughton – who is working with new staff and a “revitalised” board at Feast – says a key reason for moving the Picnic to the start of the program is that it gives festival artists an opportunity to promote their events.
“We [previously] had the major event at the end, and what typically happens is that people bump into each other and everyone has a really good time but because it’s at the end you can’t go and see a show together.
“Moving it to the front then means it’s an opportunity for artists and event organisers to promote their shows. So you bring everyone together, everyone gets excited for the festival, and then you can go and see a show together.”
In addition to a showcase stage where artists and event organisers can give a quick taste of their programmed show/event, Feast has increased the number of events at the Picnic, with Naughton saying it has responded to feedback from festival-goers and tried to cater to a broad range of tastes.
As well as new kids’ activities – such as a drumming workshop, petting zoo and photo-booths – there will also be acoustic music, lube wrestling, interactive adult games including a handbag toss, the dog show, tattoo parade and DJs.
my goal this year has been to reconnect with the lost demographic and reach the new demographic
Presenting the Picnic in the Park back to back with Marys in the Park means the organisers can share infrastructure costs. Marys in the Park – which will feature musicians including Ricki-Lee and Natalie Bassingthwaighte, as well as drag artists from RuPaul’s Drag Race USA and Down Under – also enables Feast to tap into a different demographic.
“The people who go to Marys and are on the list for In the Dark events are typically a younger crowd and those people aren’t as affiliated with Feast,” Naughton says.
“I find it’s more where you are in your coming out journey rather than an age thing. Anyone who has come out in the last five years isn’t overly aware of Feast Festival, so my goal this year has been to reconnect with the lost demographic [people who stopped attending the festival] and reach the new demographic, which is people who don’t know we exist.
“I have listened to the feedback… so my goal has been to breathe life back into it and bring back what people were missing.”
Vonni, pictured here with the 2023 Feast program, will host the Feast Festival Night Roofclimb at Adelaide Oval. Photo: supplied
A renewed focus on marketing Feast has been another priority for the new management team, with this year seeing the return of a more eye-catching, A4-size program.
Show highlights include Lesbian Love Stories, “an intimate cabaret performed by three lesbians and a rockin’ pianist” which sold out at Victoria’s Midsumma Festival and World Pride in Sydney, and a new live show by comedian Christian Hull titled ONLY FANS: A Journey of Self Discovery. The duo behind “TikTok sensation” Rainbow History Class will be presenting a live show that promises a fun and fascinating romp through queer history, and will also take part in the Feast Comedy Debate (which, like the Comedy Gayla, is run by Feast).
Christian Hull is back at Feast this year with a new comedy show.
Naughton also mentions two events being presented by sexual health organisation SAMESH: Kweer is an exhibition at Diverse-City featuring queer content found in Marvel and DC Comics from the 1950s through to today, while Bloomin’ Fabulous is both a runway event in the Botanic Garden’s Bicentennial Conservatory and an associated exhibition of botanic-inspired costumes by Adelaide-based makers.
More broadly, this year’s Feast events range from a night-time roof climb at Adelaide Oval hosted by Adelaide drag icons, and an adults-only event at the SA Museum titled Big (and Little) Wang Theory (which will see Annabel Crabb host an expert panel discussing “the wonderful world of the penis in nature”), to a Queer Wedding Expo and roller-derby events.
For Naughton, who took over as Feast CEO in April this year, running a festival is something of a career pivot. Before starting at the organisation, she managed her own mortgage-broking business (Black Sheep Finance) for a decade, and also owned and operated several Karl Chehade Dry Cleaning franchises.
“Business is business, right?” she says of the transition to her current role. “It was the same to go from mortgage broking to dry cleaning – yes, your product is different… but everything else is the same, doing bookkeeping, doing marketing, understanding a customer cycle.”
One major challenge with an arts and culture festival is that the sector relies heavily on grants and philanthropy, with artists and event organisers often struggling to break even.
While Feast receives multi-year funding from the State Government, Naughton says additional support would enable it to assist artists in presenting shows – and also, perhaps, bring back a festival hub.
The Hyde Street premises where Feast still has its offices was previously known as Raj House and had a short life as a year-round “queer arts and cultural hub” in 2016-18, thanks to support from the State Government and the City of Adelaide. Naughton acknowledges that having a hub somewhere in the city for the duration of the two-week festival would be helpful both in terms of visibility and providing affordable spaces for artists.
“That’s something I would love to do, because I know from speaking to some of the artists that finding a venue is one of the hardest things, and the queer venues tend to book up.”
Rainbow History Class‘s Rudy Jean Rig and Hannah McElhinney.
Some may question whether there is a continuing need for a dedicated queer arts and culture festival, when LGBTIQA+ people have become more visible in wider society and queer artists regularly present work in other events and festivals. Naughton, however, is adamant that it is a vital part of Adelaide’s festival landscape.
For one thing, she points out, the world hasn’t changed quite as much as we might think – “I’ve never experienced as much homophobia as I have since I’ve been in this role”. And Feast offers a platform for the full gamut of queer shows, as well as community events which this year range from a forum about the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project to an all-ages Rainbow Families Disco and a “Neurospicy Queer Quiz” celebrating neurodiversity.
“The range of shows is for everyone… It’s not a queer festival only for queer people,” Naughton says.
“It’s a celebration of queer culture, which is everywhere… this is a way for people to get involved at a deeper level and see shows that talk about some of the issues. That’s what a lot of the shows do; some of them do it through comedy, some of them do it through cabaret.
“Everyone has a different story to tell and there’s no blanket, ‘this is what it’s like to be trans’, ‘this is what’s like to be a lesbian’… Feast offers people an opportunity to tell their story through whatever medium, and that visibility will always be important.”
Feast Festival runs from November 1-19, with the full program available online.