Theme Camps and the Lottery: What Happens Next?

Will this year be a lonesome experience without the interactivity of theme camps?

This Thursday, March 8th, is the deadline for all ticket-requesting theme camps to submit their placement questionnaires. If you are not requesting, tickets placement questionnaires are not due until April 26th.  Theme camps who register early may be entitled to a portion of the 10,000 tickets that Burning Man retroactively set aside for mutant vehicles, theme camps, volunteers, art installations and performance groups. This ticket allocation is a last ditch attempt to ensure that camps, volunteers and artists make it to the Burn this year. After the “epic fail” of the Burning Man Main Lottery, most theme camps don’t have enough tickets to get both their core crew and their infrastructure to the playa. In this climate of dire uncertainty, how do theme camps feel about the prospect of Burning Man 2012?

At the February 15th Theme Camp Forum hosted at BM Headquarters, Burning Man announced that 50% of theme camps receiving tickets have already been pre-selected based on data from the last ten years. Theme camps not pre-selected will have to submit an application convincing BMorg of their positive on-playa impact. The criteria for choosing which theme camps get tickets are: history, demonstrated community benefit, LNT and the 10 principles. The amount of tickets each chosen camp receives will depend on early arrivals, tear-down crew, LNT members and core members needed to run camp. Burning Man Placement will then divvy up tickets accordingly but most likely only 50% or around 500 camps will benefit. Will chosen camps take the offer from Burning Man, or has the current unrest bred by the lottery debacle caused them to concentrate on other events this year?

According to an anonymous “long-time participant who has worked very hard with a lot of departments and volunteered several thousand hours (literally) on Burning Man projects,” some camps are opting out this year. “We just lost a camp this morning (March 5th) that was planned for over 150 people. Their organizers were so bitter that even when offered the possibility of directed tickets, they thought long and hard and still elected to decline. We’re still in negotiations with three other camp-shards, but the anger and resentment remains palpable. We’ve lost some of our members forever.” For some, the 10,000 ticket response from BMorg was too little too late and the original PR slip ups did not help matters.

Many camps are facing the current ticket challenges with a positive yet realistic approach. Since 2001, Pancake Playhouse has gifted about 13,000 pancakes on playa each year. They use of about “500 pounds of pancake batter, 15 gallons of syrup, 60 liters of propane, and you-don’t-want-to-know-how-much water” every Burn making sure the hungry masses are fed. Despite the current ticket situation, they are optimistic about their ability to provide pancakes on playa this year. Although their 20-30 person camp only had a 25% success rate for tickets, they are hopeful that BMorg will come through, enabling enough “cakers” to make it home. However, the lack of tickets poses a different type of problem for camps like Pancake Playhouse who provide an on-playa service. Kat DeBurgh from Pancake Playhouse offered this perspective, “One concern we have is that with tickets in scarce supply, and with no new theme camps being allocated tickets, there will be a shortage of other interactive camps this year. That will increase demand on the camps like ours who provide a service. We have limited capacity – while we’d love to feed every single Burner our delicious pancakes, that’s just not possible. And it’s sad that there will likely be fewer first-time theme camps, which bring an amazing energy to the city. Our favorite neighbors last year, Barbarella Barber Shop, were veteran Burners who had created a brand new theme camp. We don’t know if they will be returning, and we don’t think there will be others like them this year.” The current ticket situation will definitely put new theme camps at a disadvantage but hopefully the most determined will ensure that their vision becomes a reality.

Syd Gris is from Opulent Temple, one of the largest art and music theme camps at Burning Man. Their camp gifts the playa “a space for sacred dance” and many burners spend their nights grooving away to the world music that Opulent provides. Syd had a similar response to the ticket fiasco. “Like most camps, only about 25% of our returning members got tickets in the lottery. Even before the announcement regarding the 10,000 [tickets] set aside for theme camps, etc, we never doubted we’d be there. 2012 makes our 10th camp in a row, so we’re set on making it special. I don’t know yet what they’ve allotted us to buy, but I’m confident it will work out. I am concerned about tickets for artists who want to play our stage, but we’ll see how it pans out.” Although large sound camps seem to be “saved” by the 10,000 BMorg allotted tickets, the status of adequate artists to rock those stages is largely uncertain. In a community that’s usually crawling with DJs, performers and musicians, will this be the year when many fledgling artists get their “big break”, filling in the hole left by un-ticketed veterans?

The Black Rock Beacon is a self-funded and self-produced “daily newspaper for Black Rock City.” They are always open to new volunteers, but core elements of their paper require their veteran crew of 15-20 people. Many members of this core crew already shoulder several responsibilities and the added weight of fewer camp mates would definitely affect both the paper and the camp. According to Mitch from the Black Rock Beacon, the paper will definitely be on playa this year but what lies beyond that is uncertain. “We’re going to be okay for 2012, but after that, who knows? It’s going to be hard to get people to pay their annual dues if they can’t come –many of us miss a year or two here and there because other things pop up, but that’s different than being told that Black Rock City doesn’t have room for you. We also have only one person who can fix our presses when they don’t want to work. We have a couple who store our equipment in their garage and drive it from Seattle every year and the rest of us don’t live in Seattle. So, if any of them can’t come, we have a huge logistics problem.” Lack of capable crew members will inevitably damage many camps especially those who fully function under the “20% do 80% of the work rule.” Los Angeles based Burner Issac Suttell, of the Black Rock French Quarter, put it perfectly on the Burning Man sub Reddit, “Burning Man always presents new and interesting challenges each year. This year it’s personnel roulette. Spin the wheel and watch all your volunteers go away.”

Theme camps like The Black Rock Beacon, Pancake Playhouse and Opulent Temple may have some difficult decisions to make in the future if Burning Man is unable to find an adequate solution to ticket distribution. For now, most camps will continue to manifest tickets, hoping to acquire them through BMorg, STEP, friends, acquaintances and ultimately, the magic of the universe (The Playa Provides!). The changes to the ticket system have already made a lasting impression on the hearts of most burners but the question still remains, what type of impact will it make on playa?

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