Home > Features > Shannon White, new Executive Director of the TRF, has big plans for Fort Wayne’s flagship festival

Shannon White, new Executive Director of the TRF, has big plans for Fort Wayne’s flagship festival

Reconstruction underway. Patience required.

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


It’s a bright and sunny morning in mid-May, and members of the local media have gathered in the Fort Wayne City Commerce building to hear a major announcement from the Three Rivers Festival. Near the front of the room stands “the Admiral,” a recently revived TRF mascot bobbing and waving amiably at the attendees. The Admiral, in fact, supplies practically the only sound in the room — the steady whirr of a small fan providing fresh air to the poor TRF employee inside the costume, preventing her from passing out.

In contrast to TRFs of the recent past, the 38th edition of Fort Wayne’s flagship summer festival has some buzz about it. Well, buzz may be over stating the case somewhat, but there is anticipation, curiosity, a little bit of excitement. There’s a newly appointed director, and perhaps more importantly, something close to an acknowledgement from the TRF organizers that maybe the festival has lost a little of the cachet it once had as an event. So, with interest peaked, new director Shannon White steps to the podium and announces the musical headliners for the 38th Three Rivers Festival…

Kicking it off on Saturday, July 8th: internationally-acclaimed Beatles cover act 1964: the Tribute; and Herman’s Hermits featuring Peter Noone.

And a week later, July 15th, the penultimate night of the festival: the Village People.

Okay. No one was expecting Aerosmith, but you could almost hear the chatter in offices and break rooms all across the city when the headlines (“It’s Fun to Play at the Tee, Arr, Eff!”) broke the next day.

The Village People? So, Peaches & Herb were busy?

But to be fair, as anyone who attended a middle school Roller Dome party in the late 70s can attest, the Village People can be a heck of a lot of fun. Disco may not have the same near universal appeal as the Beatles, but when you’re up for dancing, “Blackbird” just ain’t going to cut it. And hey, if “YMCA” works for the 7th inning at Yankee stadium…

Shannon White, who started as Executive Director of the Three Rivers Festival in January, says the reaction was pretty much what he expected: a puzzled expression, followed by a slow dawn. “Two or three second later, the light bulb goes off and they think ‘boy, that’s really going to be a fun show.’ Not just to listen to, but to watch everyone else that’s going to be there.”

And the other headliners? Actually, with 1964: the Tribute, Fort Wayne is getting the #1 Beatles’ show in the world, a dead-on accurate recreation of the Beatles throughout their history, from the clothes and instruments through the gestures and accents. For Herman’s Hermits featuring Peter Noone, White says they’ve already had a lot of calls. “This festival needs to appeal to everyone,” White says. “I wanted something for the baby boomers in there, and I really hadn’t seen a lot of programming for the baby boomers in the last couple years.”

He adds that he would have loved to have had a rock act, but some of those bands cost quite a bit, and he thought that ticket prices in the $30 and up range might not be whgat Fort Wayne is looking for from a brand new Executive Director.

It’s been sort of a trial by fire for White. He says that everyone has been very helpful and supportive, but essentially, he jumped into the 38th annual TRF about half-way through the process. Planning for the TRF usually begins early in September; White arrived in Fort Wayne in January. “So this year, I don’t want to say I’m playing it conservative, but… I’m playing it safe, so to speak.”

Beyond the headliners, the 38th annual Three Rivers Festival features a renewed emphasis on music of all styles. There are going to be over 50 other music performances, mostly local artists, going on this year, including jazz during the lunch hour everyday except Wednesday, and a second stage in Headwaters Park hosted by WBTU that will feature acoustic, bluegrass, and country music. Thursday and Friday will feature an enormous line up of local bands that you’ll be able to enjoy for just $5 each day.

Part of White’s professional background is in music event planning, including a stint as manager of Rock Crusher Canyon Amphitheater in Crystal River Florida (“One day I’m doing Ozzfest. The next day it’s Nora Jones”). White says that not too far in the future, he’d like to bring different types of events to the festival. But for now… “The focus for the next couple years will be on the music. Music is the common base for the Fort Wayne community. We can’t necessarily say that same thing about theater, or dance, or the arts. Once we get a very good music festival going, that’s when we start inserting art performances, theater performances, dance performances in there, and really make this a cultural icon for the Fort Wayne community.”

There will be arts events, too, like Art Alley, a two block expansion south on Barr street where local and regional artists can exhibit their work. “I know I want to expand that part of the festival, because it’s really important for people to be able to turn corners,” White says. “They need to feel like they own the street.”) Arts United has also created a performing arts stage.

Talking about the Three Rivers Festival is a strange thing. There’s a perception throughout Fort Wayne that the festival is going downhill, that it doesn’t draw the crowds like it used to. The facts don’t necessarily bear that out — it’s still the second biggest summer festival in Indiana — though Tony Burrus, President of the Board of the Three Rivers Festival, concedes that there might be some drop off. “I’m sure there has been a decrease in attendance due to the fact that there are numerous festivals throughout the year, and people are going to be a little more selective about where they spend their entertainment dollar,” he says. “But overall, I think the crowds are still coming out for many of the events, both paid and free — the parade, the children’s fest at IPFW, the fireworks, of course, food alley. I guess the rides at the festival midway there on the west side of Headwaters (park), we still see a steady incline of participation there.”

Still, when you’re as likely to run into as many people who boast about having skipped the TRF as having attended, there’s definitely a problem. These days, there seems to be a different attitude at the Three Rivers Festival organization. They seem to have listened to some of the complaints. If the entire tone from the Three Rivers Festival organization sounds as though there’s a little rebuilding going on, you’re right on the mark. “Yes, we are trying to rebuild,” White says. “Why? Because I think the festival has been somewhat stagnant the last few years, and the moment an event starts to become stagnant, it’s downhill. The festival needs to be constantly reinventing itself. There needs to be a major addition or major event every other year.”

And by rebuild, some of that means to bring back a few of the older events that seem to define the Three Rivers Festival for many people. The waiter/waitress competition this year is part of that effort; in 2007 it’ll be the return of the Bed Race. “We heard for the last 3 or 4 years — from the public, from editorials, other sources — that these are things people would like to see,” says Tony Burrus. “They are very popular, so we will try to facilitate that.”

Burrus sat on the selection committee that chose Shannon White for the job. From a pool of over 80 initial applicants, the committee narrowed it down to 20, and ended up interviewing 12 of those. Burrus adds that he thinks the emphasis on music this year is positive, and indeed, that may be the overall direction the festival goes in the future. “We’re actually undertaking a strategic plan, reviewing what we should be doing, taking input from our own board and from the general public,” Burrus says.

White adds: “I want to add some new events, but if people want an event back, and there’s no reason why we can’t do that, I say bring it back. People wanted waiter/waitress and the bed race, so we’ll bring those back.”

But don’t hold your breath for the Raft Race. “I personally would love to bring back the raft race,” White laughs. “I do think there are… multiple liability issues, though, so I do not foresee the raft race coming back anytime soon.” (Burrus also uses the phrase “liability issues” when I mention the Raft Race).

Raft race or not, White has big plans for where he wants to take the Three Rivers Festival. There are already more stages planned for 2007, more events, and an expansion of Art Alley… In five years, ten years, White says he wants the TRF to encompass music, art, theater and dance, to show off Fort Wayne’s talent and bring additional events and acts to Allen County residents. “My goal within several years is to have this festival be on the same level as Taste of Chicago or Summerfest,” he says. “I just hope the community has patience, because we’re trying to get the festival to be bigger and better, and we can’t do that within a year.”

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