The idea of a summer festival brings to mind images of hundreds of bodies crowding around outdoor stages—the antithesis of what our COVID-19-hammered province is recommending right now.
Social-distancing measures have meant the temporary loss of major events like the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and the Vancouver Folk Festival. But not every celebration is shutting down this year. Some arts festivals have found new ways to celebrate this season—in the digital sphere, but in real-world new ways as well.
At Dancing on the Edge in July, instead of presenting 30-odd shows on-stage, the event puts on a curated mix of digital shows and five live performances in the courtyard and even the historic Firehall Arts Centre itself.
“One option was cancelling—and a lot of festivals have had to do that. I said, ‘How can artists still get money for their work?’ ” says fest producer Donna Spencer.
In the end, the four outdoor shows on a raised stage will allow for 40 people in “isolation-pod” groupings, entering directly from a back gate. Even more measures get taken inside, where Radical System Arts’ Shay Kuebler will combine solo works by seven dancers into a single, socially distanced piece on-stage before an audience of 30 carefully spaced viewers. The productions will also be streamed.
The programming has involved ample study of WorkSafe protocols and discussion with artists to make them feel safe.
The online roster is a mix of filmed work, new work edited and created in time for the fest by choreographers like Josh Martin and Vanessa Goodman, and live-streamed content. Amber Funk Barton is putting together a live Instagram “Dance Café” of eight artists.
“For me, I’m learning a lot, which is exciting…but when you’re working under pressure to support the artists and get it out to audiences and keep the momentum we’ve been building over the years, trying to see the way through this is pretty daunting.”
Similarly, the rEvolver Festival had to pivot quickly this year. It decided to cancel its regular event in May, rescheduling to launch the all-virtual e-Volver Festival from Thursday (June 18) to June 27. The idea was to inspire emerging and mid-career artists to create new work during lockdown, happening on multiple platforms and reflecting on what’s going on in the world at this moment.
“We spent close to a year developing the rEvolver Festival, and when we realized it wasn’t going to be possible, the number one priority was to figure out how to support those artists through this difficult time,” says Upintheair Theatre’s Pippa Mackie, who helped curate the fest. “We said, ‘Is there a way to empower artists to create something new that was actually tailored to be enjoyed digitally?’…It was not ‘How to do I translate my play to fit within my screen at home?’ ”
The resulting lineup features everything from live-action role play over Discord to a celebration of Asian drag artistry brought to viewers via Twitch and a one-on-one late-night call that takes place on your cellphone.
The artists had only six weeks to build their offerings, and tickets are free. Presenting the roster via a central website “front of house” has been a challenge, Mackie admits with a laugh.
“It’s been a total roller coaster,” she says. “Quite often in the theatre world the digital understanding is not why we got into theatre; we didn’t get into this to work on that platform,” she says. “But we also wanted to give artists the opportunity to carry what they learned here into their practice. We really do hope to give them a platform where they can experiment and also carry that forward.”
She hopes there will be lasting effects of this monumental effort of the past six weeks—with the knowledge that the arts might not look exactly the same when they come back after COVID-19. “I know everyone is so excited for when we’ll be able to gather in a theatre again, but I also want people to feel empowered to create in different ways,” Mackie says. “We wouldn’t have probably considered doing programming like this…but here we are doing it, and I’m so excited about the creativity coming out of this time—it’s vital. And who knows what will come out of this?”
Spencer, too, sees these early experiments having lasting importance.
“I want to do this not just for the Edge’s purpose but to see what we could do for salon-style performances in the Firehall’s full season,” she says, adding of her Edge experiment: “I think a couple of things that will come out of it: for future festivals we will look at what we can do online—work that we can actually set up to be live-streamed so it can reach beyond Vancouver, to raise the profile of contemporary dance, but also raise the profile of our artists.”
With that in mind, here are some of the highlights of, and updates on, these summer arts festivals and others that have decided to take the plunge amid the pandemic:
Indian Summer Festival
(To July 18 online) One of the first events out of the gate with virtual programming this season continues its lineup. On Saturday (June 20), join ISF’s Facebook and YouTube platforms to see artistic polymath and dreamy model Waris Ahluwalia, who’s worked with everyone from filmmakers Spike Lee and Deepa Mehta to designer brands like Gucci; he’ll also talk about launching his own House of Waris herbal teas. Also watch for its 5x15 Global Edition, on June 27 at 11 a.m., curated and hosted jointly by Eleanor O’Keefe (cofounder of the speaker series) and Sirish Rao (cofounder of ISF). They’ve altered the format for on-screen viewing, bringing on six instead of five international speakers to talk for 10 instead of 15 minutes each.
(June 18 to 27 online)
Faced with the cancellation of its May rEvolver Festival, Upintheair Theatre has gone digital, featuring the premiere of nine new performance works on every conceivable platform. Here is just a taste of the diversity amid the curated program. In Shay Dior’s House of Rice: In Rice-olation, 10 Asian drag artists conjure a sort of multimedia cabaret via Twitch. For all ages, Waterloo artist Ben Gorodetsky presents Yard Dances for Joy and Healing, including a raucous duet with his toddler son, Gus, filmed with multiple cameras in their back yard. (The work has a special Father’s Day performance on June 21.) And award-winning game designers from Quebec and across North America create and facilitate Strangers on the ’Net, which invites you to play the role of a teenager online in the ’90s.
Italian Day on the Drive for Courage
June 14 would have marked Italian Day on the Drive’s 10th anniversary, so in lieu of that massive outdoor gathering, the fest has launched a series of initiatives to keep the energy going. The campaign kicks off with an outdoor concert on the “piazza” at City Hall on June 26 to celebrate Italian Heritage Month—live-streamed to avoid crowds. Organizers promise to follow up sporadically throughout the summer with live music from rooftop patios and “moving-vehicle platforms”, inspired by Italy’s music and song coming from balconies and rooftops during the crisis. Italian Day will also be driving donations to Coast Mental Health’s fundraising initiative Spread Courage, Not Fear.
Dancing on the Edge Festival
(July 2 to 11, at the Firehall Arts Centre and online)
The festival ventures not only into virtual terrain, but into the new world of socially distanced live performance as well. On the Firehall Arts Centre’s outdoor courtyard stage, look for O.Dela Arts’ Olivia C. Davies presenting a new group work (July 8 and 10 at 9 p.m.) and Israeli-Canadian sensation Idan Cohen with Ne.Sans opera and dance (July 7 and 9 at the same time). Radical System Arts’ Shay Kuebler, meanwhile, puts together the work of seven soloists indoors on the Firehall stage, in front of 30 audience members, on July 10 at 7 p.m. Watch for all three to stream via the Edge website. Other standouts online: Company 605’s Josh Martin and Lisa Gelley reimagining a new work on video; Action at a Distance’s Vanessa Goodman working with Loscil/Scott Morgan on ideas of shifting surfaces; and the response.’s Amber Funk Barton curating eight solos via Instagram Live. Watch for other names like David Cooper, Ziyian Kwan, and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg across the extensive lineup.
Powell Street Festival Telethon
(August 1, 2 to 7 p.m., live-streamed via powellstreetfestival.com/)
Vancouver’s giant celebration of Japanese-Canadian culture has found a novel way to reimagine itself in the face of having to cancel its 44th annual gathering in and around Oppenheimer Park: it’s going to host a live telethon to benefit the Downtown Eastside. Watch for more announcements about the lineup, which will include live performances, highlights from previous festivals, appearances by festival vendors, and more. Proceeds will go toward the year-round DTES Community Care program, as well as to celebrations like the Hanami cherry-blossom event, Asahi Tribute Game, and Minori Harvest.
The celebration of francophone music had to cancel its June event, but has said it’s “working on alternative solutions to offer you professional concerts respecting all government safety instructions, even producing the concerts online”. More information will be released here in the coming weeks.
Vancouver Mural Festival
Having helped pull off an inspiring transformation of boarded-up buildings during COVID lockdown, the street-art celebration has committed to a three-week event bringing new murals to the city this summer. It will be accepting submissions from artists and expanding to new neighbourhoods; watch for more details to be announced here June 22.
Vancouver Fringe Festival
Initially scheduled for September 10 to 20, the fest now asks you to watch its website for updates, as it considers options that include new formats, postponement, or staggering shows. The event’s new executive director, Rohit Chokhani, announced that organizers have not considered cancellation to date: “We are exploring what is possible through discussions with our artists and production team.” The Fringe plans to announce details sometime in July.