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Students take Eaux Claires from field to festival

| Alison Wagener

Yesterday, Jason Jon Anderson finalized the build plans for the 2016 Eaux Claires music and arts festival. Today, he and his student team will venture out to the festival grounds and mark where art installations, stages and other structures will be temporarily erected. On Saturday, they’ll start building.

For two days, the 16 acres of festival grounds will host 55 bands performing on eight stages for more than 20,000 people. Anderson and students on the Event Production Crew will be behind the scenes running nearly the entire show.

And by four days after the festival, it will all be gone again.

This isn’t the first time Blugolds have been integral to the festival’s success. In February 2015 those coordinating the inaugural festival reached out to Anderson, assistant director of conferences and event production at UW-Eau Claire, to ask if UW-Eau Claire would be willing to host festival-goers in its residence halls for the weekend. But by the end of the conversation, they let Anderson know they were struggling to find well-trained technicians to serve as stage labor.

“I said, ‘Really? Because we have 65 of them who already work here for me in that capacity,’” Anderson said. “It lead to a meet-and-greet in March 2015, and they realized the students in EPC are real technicians and really a well-trained crew.”

Since then the Eaux Claires festival has become a rich source of summer employment for students across the UW System; innovative collaboration between music festivals and universities; unprecedented opportunities for Blugolds; and some unbelievably impactful high-impact experiences.

Last year’s 65 student workers has grown this year to 75 participating from around the UW System, with 43 coming from UW-Eau Claire. Anderson said the increase in students participating is necessary, considering the growth of the festival in general.

“This year actually was designed bigger. So there are more art installations, larger stages and more bands. So this is definitely a bigger year,” Anderson said, later adding, “We’re managing this year's stages all by ourselves. Last year we had one art installation. This year, we physically have four side stages that we’re managing, plus an art installation. So we’re up to five performance venues that are solely campus-run out of eight.”

Anderson said that students will be staffing the other three stages as well, but will be reporting to a professional technician instead of himself. Other students will also be working in bar operations, general operations, the box office, artist relations and artist runner positions.

Anderson and the students will additionally provide full support for the Phil Cook preview concert held the night before the festival at The Lismore downtown.

Letting college students run a large-scale international festival isn’t a good idea — or at least that’s what everyone in the industry thought until last year. The inaugural Eaux Claires festival was the first campus-produced music festival ever. And for that reason, its success has been groundbreaking.

“I think we’ve seen a dramatic shift now, that other festivals are watching us, thinking, ‘How do they do that? That’s intriguing.’ It’s an international festival on the international stage that last year garnered a ton of press,” Anderson said. “So we’ve actually changed the trend of how festivals are planned. If you partner with a campus that has all of this tremendous infrastructure and access to well-trained students who want to be involved, and you can adequately pay those students … it’s an ultimate win-win partnership.”

Students and alumni who worked at Eaux Claires last year are eager to return. Several of them coming back will no longer be with the Event Production Crew, but with the full-time positions they’ve gotten as a direct result of their work last summer.

“So I think it’s a giant wheel, and it continues to evolve how we get students involved and make this an educational outcome,” Anderson said. “It’s not just a music festival. There’s so much more. There are so many things to be learned by it.”

While the students who are part of the Event Production Crew are from majors across campus, Anderson said he hopes the growth of student participation in the festival could someday lead to the creation of a production degree at UW-Eau Claire, something he believes would attract a significant number of incoming students.

“I don’t know that we have made the jump yet, that I hope we make, which is that students start coming to UW-Eau Claire because they want to be involved with the festival,” Anderson said, later adding, “What I’m hoping is that we create a production-specific program, then that recruitment funnel will become very defined. We will see the festival serve as an anchor for us.”

Production degree aside, Anderson said that for the students who had the opportunity to work behind the scenes at Eaux Claires last year, the experience was undoubtedly inspirational.

“It’s clearly leading to a pathway that allows them to see that the world is so much bigger,” Anderson said. “And when you take a bare field and you cover 16 acres with a festival, and you say, ‘Wow, I built that,’ you can’t help but think of what’s possible and dream bigger.”

Photo caption: Members of UW-Eau Claire's Event Production Crew work at the 2015 Eaux Claires festival.