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'We'd hoped that by September things would improve': Arts festivals grapple with the impact of the coronavirus

The organisers of three festivals spoke to us about how they’ve been coping – and what it means for the future.

Don't stand so close to me
Don't stand so close to me
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

YOU’VE SPENT MONTHS working on a festival – or you’re just about to start getting things in line for one.

There are lots of things to organise: locations, participants, audience interest, funding.

And then the coronavirus hits. No one knows exactly what’s going on, or what will happen. Restrictions are brought in, then removed. More, locally-specific restrictions are brought in. Still, no one knows exactly what the future holds.

That’s the situation Irish arts festival organisers and programmers have found themselves in this year as the coronavirus upended the culture landscape. For some events, taking advantage of digital options is the key to getting going – it has just been announced for example that GAZE, Ireland’s international LGBTQ+ film festival, will be able to take place this year thanks to the Irish Film Institute’s video on demand platform, IFI @ Home.

We spoke to the people organising three upcoming festivals – Culture Night, Dublin Fringe Festival and Red Line Book Festival – about how they coped. 

‘It was maybe a bit naive from our end’

Over at Culture Night, the organisers transformed an ‘offline’, in person event – known for getting arts lovers to throng city streets – into a mostly digital event set to take place on 18 September.

After 25 years, it’s the biggest upset to hit the all-island event, but it’s one that Aimée Van Wylick, its national coordinator, believes will inform how it’s programmed going forward. 

“[My company Boxroom Productions] works on a number of events around the year and covid has affected everyone,” says Van Wylick. “So it’s always been in the back of our minds. Although in let’s say in May, April, we had hoped that in September things would have improved and potentially the situation would have been resolved by then. It was maybe a bit naive from our end.”

When the newer guidelines were introduced, followed by the specific ones for Kildare, Laois and Offaly, Culture Night had to roll with the punches. 

The new guidelines did mean that specific cultural spaces can hold limited events, but also that private residences – which are often included in Culture Night – can’t. 

The team decided to move Culture Night into a hybrid space, using venues when allowed but mainly taking advantage of the digital possibilities. “The physical element is so important,” Van Wylick says of arts events, and it’s something she believes people are recognising more and more. 

“What has been really difficult across the board for events is that people have have been really trying to come up with a solution,” she adds.

They have been trying to work within the restrictions or find loopholes, but we have come to the conclusion that we are not going to look for loopholes anymore. Things can change again and again. The goalposts are changing constantly.

Culture Night decided to focus on online events, including ones that potentially have a physical aspect to them that people can do on a solitary basis.

It’s not all negative, says Van Wylick. “The online aspect is something that Culture Night has ever really produced in the past,” she says of the positives. “It’s an amazing way to build a legacy of content that people would be able to engage with outside of the Culture Night restricted times. Now people can access most of this content post Culture Night.”

In addition, she says people can access the international Culture Night content without having to travel to somewhere like Paris or New York. “It is bringing us closer in one way in terms of being able to connect with the programme and connect with things at the same time.”

Overall, Van Wylick says this year as “been really, really difficult for venues and programmers and local authorities.”

She says the guidelines from government were not always particularly clear. “It led to frustration from arts organisations,” she says. As Culture Night set out to interpret official advice, it found itself becoming “almost a resource organisation” to help inform arts practitioners and venues about what they can and can’t do.

“It put us in a completely different frame of mind, whereas in previous years you wouldn’t have thought about this once or twice, it is a given.”

Another positive for Culture Night is that the restrictions have made the organisers think even more deeply about access. “Of course there have always been difficulties for people to access Culture Night events on the night for whatever reason – perhaps a disability reason, transport reason – and that’s something hopefully in my mind that could be really added to the programme in future years,” says Van Wylick.

She hopes that even if the restrictions are resolved by next year, the online content element is something that Culture Night and other arts festivals continue with.

But when it comes to the future, the financial impact of Covid-19 is something that Van Wylick has been weighing up. “For us, Culture Night has always been free but it’s within this backdrop of covid and the arts sector really suffering that is something that potentially has to be revised,” she says. “It puts a huge strain on all arts organisations to put on content for free.” Culture Night is encouraging participants this year to donate to organisations who are registered charities and seeking donations.

The callout for next year’s Culture Night is due to begin in March or April 2021. “Who knows the way things have been going if there will be a clearer pic of how things will go,” says Van Wylick.

‘We went back to basic’

Ruth McGowan, festival director of Dublin Fringe Festival (5 – 20 September), says that they also had hoped there would be a quicker resolution the pandemic issues. 

There are 12 people at the Fringe HQ – working in a socially distanced fashion – with 19 different productions taking place at 8 different locations, as well as digitally.

In early March the Fringe organisers had compiled their submissions for shows. But by May they had to “set about unproducing the festival we had planned”.

Once they had dismantled the existing programme, they “set about beginning again”, which involved some work being made bespoke for the event. “I think one of the rules we set ourselves when we began remaking the festival was that we didn’t want to make anything that couldn’t exist within the full guidelines,” says McGowan. They also didn’t want “a facsimile of a performance”. 

For us, when we realised that we couldn’t do Dublin Fringe as usual – the 80 shows, 36 venues, busy dancefloors and foyers and running from show to show – we went back to the basic principles of the organisation: we asked the artists what they wanted to do.

These consultations led the artists to tell the Fringe: “Make a festival.” The artists then looked at the “possibilities and parameters” within the restrictions, and used them to build their shows around, says McGowan.

The resulting programme is in particular home to more intimate events, which are aimed at small group experiences. One, for example, is for people to do themselves on a rainy day; others are for people to do at home or with friends.

There is still a group element to some shows, thanks to the use of Zoom, or other online collaborative elements. 

However, the restrictions did lead to the cancellation of some shows. “We had been following the government advice and the global health advice and so we developed a programme of outdoor performances because we had been following all the advice telling us outdoor was safer,” says McGowan. They had planned four shows for an audience of 50 people, but these are no longer allowed under the current restrictions.

While this is “really disappointing for those artists and teams working on shows”, it does mean that the shows are already developed and could potentially be put on again. 

One question that this all raises is if it would have been easier to just cancel the event. “It definitely would have been easier to wait it out; but for us we are calling this edition ‘the pilot light edition’,” says McGowan. “That is about two things: about keeping the flame of creativity burning, getting artists and arts workers back to work doing what they do best -creating exciting revelatory experiences for audiences.”

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“You can’t hibernate an entire industry” and expect people to be there at the end, says McGowan. 

“People are really craving connection. It’s been a lonely couple of months,” she says. 

It’s been really extraordinary how our colleagues around the world and Ireland have been so quick to adapt and make it work. They are really dedicated to making it work within the arts industry.

“It was important to us at Dublin Fringe that when we reworked the programme that we still wanted it to have a space for joy in it and a space for new experiences,” says McGowan. 

‘People want something that’s approaching normal’

The Red Line Book Festival in Dublin (12 – 18 October) is getting ready for the announcement of this year’s programme. Its programmer Mark Ward says that due to all the various changes, they’ve effectively put together “about four different festivals”. They’ve since narrowed things down to one that will work under the current government guidelines. 

Their initial plans were “all blown out of the water” while programming got put on hold for a while. But as it became apparent that coronavirus “was not going away”, they began to put the festival together, and committed – like Culture Night – to creating a hybrid festival with both online and offline components. 

Ward, who works for South Dublin Libraries, says this year they want to tap into a broader audience who might not be able to make it to physical events. But at the same time, they consider themselves a community festival.

“We try to serve South Dublin and the local community by bringing top class writers to the community,” as he puts it. Many elements are able to continue as usual. For example, this year’s writer in residence, Keith Payne, has been holding physically distanced workshops. 

“People want something that is approaching normal,” says Ward. They’re using the area’s libraries for some of the events, but are aware that “anything could happen between now and the festival”.

“People are getting used to things being online but they are also getting tired of that, so you’re trying to balance that,” he says. “At the moment something in person is special – it’s out of the ordinary.”

Some of their plans for “grander things” didn’t come together, but at the same time they were able to tempt some big names who were newly able to make themselves available over the internet. 

“It has given us a bit more reach,” says Ward. Some people who had had to say no initially were able to change their mind. 

“I think we’ve learned a lot about what can be done and achieved.” Later this month they will announce the details of their 40-strong events, with around half being offline events.

Despite all the changes, they haven’t let up on their commitment to showcase “the very best in local, national and international writing”, says Ward. 

“I think it’s made you look at reaching your audience in a different way,” he says of the changes. “I think for a lot of festivals there’s no going back to not having an online component.”

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