20110831-ABIZcover-0103Lisa Stafford, Dana Baker, Anne Darrah
The femmes of Festival International

When the last weekend in April rolls around and downtown transforms into the most celebrated cultural event in the region, one has to wonder how year after year, the five days of Festival International are fused with a transcendence that only festival goers could comprehend.

It’s no surprise that the force behind the famed festival comprises a group of women working year-round to balance both long-standing traditions and new elements introduced every year to the hundreds of thousands of people who gather at FIL, one of the largest free Francophone music festivals in the world.

Whether it’s fundraising, grant writing, securing contracts for world-renowned musicians or creating the visual effects that draw people to every corner of FIL’s music stages, Women Who Mean Business honorees Dana Baker, Lisa Stafford and Anne Darrah are behind the scenes ensuring that “nothing you run into at festival is an accident.”

“A lot of people have a perception that it’s just a fun job, and it is,” says Stafford, FIL’s programming coordinator. “I can’t imagine a more fun and rewarding job, but it’s a business just like every other business. The part that people see is the five days of fun. People always ask, ‘What’s your real job? What do you do all year?’ We’re a very small staff. It takes all year to get it done.”

Baker, FIL’s executive director, started as the festival’s marketing coordinator in June of 2000. A little more than a year later, she was named the youngest person to ever serve as executive director of the nonprofit, and she’s been overseeing the festival’s overwhelming growth ever since.

“We walk a fine line,” Baker explains. “For a while we grew too fast. We had to slow down; we want it to be comfortable. You have to make it smart, so everyone feels the balance. Right now it’s not about quantity but quality, just refining things as a whole.”

Unlike Baker, whose background in public relations and marketing led her to the job, Stafford was a legal field professional turned stay-at-home mom who got involved with FIL largely because of her sons’ early ties to the French Immersion Program.

For the past 13 years, Stafford has been a full-timer on FIL’s staff whose job description includes, among countless other duties, signing and coordinating the hundreds of international musical acts that travel to Lafayette every year.

“There’s a lot of networking, lots of people I’ve gotten to know over the years who book other festivals. You have to stay in constant contact with them,” Stafford says. “This office has really become a conduit for young artists, helping to steer them. We’re all a lot more experienced in the music business than a band just starting out, and they call for help. You give it when you can. Some of the bands who played our main stage are doing so well internationally.”

Anne Darrah of New Iberia, who along with her husband owns Darrah Design + Marketing, is the woman behind every visual aspect of the event. Festival contracts with Darrah’s design company annually for the graphic design and visuals, but Darrah has been a friend of the festival since 1993 when she served on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

All three of the Festival WWMB honorees were volunteers of FIL before they began working there.

For Darrah, her work with Festival, her company’s second largest client, means “being a part of something that has such a dynamic effect on Lafayette; it’s turned into a touchstone about what this city is. It’s known internationally, and to bring a visual aspect to that festival is important. It always sounded great. I wanted it to look great, too. Bringing all these colorful graphics, having a unified look, yet still trying to represent a lot of different parts of the world. Part of it is funneling people into certain areas to add to the beauty of downtown that already is.”

And though meticulous planning and paying close attention to detail are both integral to the task at hand, a festival of this size also “takes a lot of muscle.”

“We don’t wait around for some guy to come around to ask them to pick up a table and chairs,” Baker says.

Like any job, tensions run high at times in the FIL office that occupies a small space at the former City Hall on Jefferson Street. But even when “it turns into a madhouse, it’s always a thrill.”

“It’s a season of Festival,” Darrah says. “We’re all really proud of what we do. It’s such a positive event. It has a huge economic impact on Lafayette and the surrounding areas. At the peak of what Lafayette has become, it’s filled with culture. It’s such a happy event. We work really hard all year long, but it’s special to be a part of something that has no downside.” — Heather Miller

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