Britt Festival volunteer Mike Freeman, waiting in line to see a recent concert, talks about chair height restrictions. - Denise Baratta photo

Dancing divides Britt fans

Perched on a hilltop with panoramic views of the Rogue Valley, Jacksonville's Britt Festivals has drawn locals and tourists alike to its summer concerts for nearly 50 years.

Concert attendees say going to the outdoor concert venue is a unique experience because of the scenery, the intimacy of the setting and the ability to bring your own food and wine on the grounds.

Not everyone agrees what goes into the perfect experience, however, and one topic — dancing — is sure to bring out strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

During a live chat July 14 with Britt Programming Manager Mike Sturgill on the Mail Tribune Web site, one patron identified as "George" said volunteers at the Devil Makes Three concert in June 2008 threatened patrons with expulsion or arrest if they didn't stop dancing after the band gave the audience permission to dance.

The dancers can block the view of some audience members, who then put the Britt staff in the unenviable position of choosing between the dancers and the non-dancers. With an audience of up to 2,200 on the hill, there's no easy way to get a consensus.

"If 20 percent of the crowd, say, wants to dance, and the other 80 percent wants to sit and watch the show, we are kind of stuck," Sturgill replied in the Web chat. "There isn't a real great solution in terms of being able to dance and still see the band."

There are no official rules prohibiting dancing at Britt, but because of the height of the stage and slope of the hill it's difficult to dance without blocking the view of the stage.

Dancing guidelines depend on the performer's wishes as well as the type of music, said volunteer head usher Carolyn Trottmann.

For instance, folk singer Ani DiFranco, who performed at Britt July 2, wrote in her contract that she didn't want any restrictions on dancing during her concert, Trottmann said.

At the beginning of each concert, the head usher sits down with the other volunteers, usually about 40-strong, and goes over the performer's contract and the ground rules.

Even when dancing isn't allowed on the lawn, patrons can go to a designated strip on the sidelines to dance without impeding anyone's view. What is and isn't allowed often depends on whether there are complaints from seated patrons about not being able to see, said volunteer usher Mike Freeman.

"We try not to kill the vibe," Freeman said.

"We do have a lot of shows and a lot of different audiences," said Angela Warren, Britt interim executive director. "We have some patrons who want to dance and some who just sit quietly and listen. We try to balance the experience for everyone."

While Britt occasionally gets sideways with some patrons over dancing, it's hard to find complaints about its policy of allowing people to bring in their own food and drink, something that is a rarity at most concert venues.

At McMenamins Edgefield, a 4,500-seat outdoor concert venue in Troutdale, no outside food and alcohol is allowed through the gates. The Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend prohibits outside food and alcohol, while the 5,000-seat Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene allows patrons to bring food but no alcohol.

In Jacksonville, bringing a picnic with wine or beer is part of the Britt experience. Britt has even held competitions for the best Britt picnic basket, said Angela Warren, Britt interim executive director.

"That's one of the things that makes Britt so special," said Medford resident Teresa Stumpenhaus, who attended the Cowboy Junkies concert on July 18. "You see people putting a lot of time and effort into the dinner they bring here."

Ben and Wendy Couture, of Seattle, said they sometimes coordinate their trips to a family vacation house in Ruch with shows they want to see at Britt.

"It's good music and a very intimate atmosphere," Ben Couture said. "I like it that there aren't a lot of rules. You can bring your own food."

But every venue has its own set of rules, some of which ruffle feathers.

Neil and Jennifer Brashnyk, of Portland, said the $14 ticket they had to buy for their 2-month-old son, Finnley, to go to the Cowboy Junkies concert gave them pause.

"We didn't think that was the greatest idea," Jennifer Brashnyk said.

"It's cheaper than a baby sitter, but I still think that's a lot for a baby," chimed in Medford resident Rachel Owings.

Owings said regardless of what's playing, Britt is a jewel in the valley.

"It's nice to be there on the hillside no matter who is playing," Owings said. "If there was ever a time to go to Britt, it's now because of the economy. None of us want to see it go away."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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