Woody Keppel steers the 9th annual Festival of Fools

Red Trouser on Church copyBy Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

When Charlotter Woody Keppel takes the stage in Burlington during this weekend’s Festival of Fools, he will be wearing many hats. As co-founder and artistic director of the event, which celebrates its 9th year from July 29-31, Keppel understands how vital a citywide festival is to the social and economic health of Vermont. And as a performer Keppel is acutely—and reverently—aware of the important roles that comedy and spectacle play in our society.

“People are hungry for innocence,” the 25-year seasoned performer and creator of the popular Woody the Woodhead character says. “And the distinctly American art form of vaudevillian performance features characters with big hearts. Even if they are making provocative statements about society, which some are, the artists do what they do to make people happy.”

The festival features entertainers from the world of circus, vaudeville, comedy and music performing in 10 venues, indoors and out, throughout downtown Burlington. This year’s event includes more music than it has in the past and opens with a parade down Church Street on Friday at 5 p.m., led by Mayor Miro Weinberger and the spirited brass of the band Red Baraat.

Keppel, who has performed internationally, champions the inclusiveness and accessibility of the event. “We reach an incredibly wide demographic,” he says. “Old, young, rich, poor, everyone can participate in this festival. Sometimes ticket prices can prohibit some people from attending shows. But each day of the festival anyone can walk along and happen upon an act they’re not likely to forget.”

Keppel sites influences as varied as Red Skelton and Groucho Marx—“the first TV clowns”—and Marcel Marceau, the criterion inspiration for generations of physical performers. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Keppel first came to Vermont in 1981 from Boston, where he had been living at the time, to attend his first clown camp. “Bernie had just been elected mayor of Burlington,” he says, “and there was such bustling life and energy here. I thought, ‘This place is wonderful!’” He moved to the state full-time in 1990. In 1995 he settled in Charlotte, enchanted by its bucolic covered bridges, rolling farms and a break in his day-to-day rhythm. “I began to realize I needed to balance my work, which is energetic and people-focused, with solitude.”

Street performing (aka “busking”) is a centuries old tradition dating back to the Middle Ages when wandering minstrels and jesters brought entertainment to the villages and towns. There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture of the world ever since. Today, Burlington enjoys a reputation far and wide as being home to America’s premier busking, variety arts and music festival. “Word has spread,” Keppel says of the region’s hospitality. “Vermont audiences are appreciative, thoughtful and ready to have a good time. The hats are generous,” he says, referring to the stage-side tip containers that hold the performers’ livelihood. “And Burlington City Arts is regarded as caring for artists and performers.”

Doreen Kraft, executive director of Burlington City Arts, is Keppel’s neighbor in Charlotte. “There are a number of us who are implicated in the Festival besides Doreen and myself,” Keppel says. Zach Williamson, the festival manager, was born and raised in Charlotte. Jacob Edgar, who owns Cumbancha Records, represents two of the headline music acts—Daby Touré, from Republic of Mauritania, Africa, and Lakou Mizak, from Haiti.

After the Festival of Fools tips its hat until next year, Keppel will enjoy the quiet of his hometown. But before that time, the revelry will keep him busy. “We’re all in this to put as many smiles on faces as possible,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be with people you love, laughing.”

More info at vermontfestivaloffools.com