CULTURE

Don’t stop the music: How Covid has changed the game for festivals

By Lusanda Luthuli and Karel van der Vyver 19 October 2020

Stilt walkers at the Rocking the Daisies Music and Lifestyle Festival on October 6, 2013 at Cloof Wine Estate in Cape Town, South Africa. The festival offers the best live entertainment, lifestyle exhibitions and gourmet food. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times Shwlley Christians)

Covid-19, physical distancing and restrictions on confined spaces have upended events and gatherings. Is this the end of the festival as we know it?

2020 – Virtual reality

Festivals are a big part of the South African cultural scene, from music to theatre, art or food. With much of the year lived under stringent Covid-19 restrictions, many transferred parts or their whole programmes online, creating virtual spaces for people to connect, while others had to cancel. How did organisers adapt to this reality and what does the future of festivals look like?

The National Arts Festival in Makhanda, in the Eastern Cape, runs for 11 days and draws thousands of visitors to this small university town, but on 17 March 2020, the festival’s CEO Monica Newton announced that the festival would move online.

“It was a whirlwind! We had less than 100 days to reimagine all the elements of a 46-year-old live festival – with a new team in place,” she says.

This meant a deeply uncertain and stressful environment to work in, especially since filming was near-impossible during Level 5 and 4 of the lockdown and left the festival’s organisers with only two weeks to produce and film the material needed.

Yet, they kept going: “We had a very warm response from both the public and our artistic community. When we announced the festival was going online, it was a small bright light in a gloomy sea of cancellations and theatre closures. Artists’ livelihoods were wiped away overnight, so it felt good to be creating something that served as a vehicle for many of them to continue working and creating.”

Since people were stuck at home, Newton says, they needed “something to look forward to and something to escape into”.

Valuable lessons were learnt, but more so, inspiring insights about the resilience of South African artists: “We also learnt that artists are ready for anything. Their ability to adapt and experiment was extraordinary and many artists built a lot of profiles through the online space… and we managed to reach new audiences in South Africa who may not otherwise have been able to come to the live Festival”.

The Afrikaans Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) also had to be cancelled at the last minute due to Covid-19. To mitigate against their losses, the organisers took it online, with a virtual gallery, a short film project and a series of music events.

These events presented numerous opportunities. The virtual art exhibition was especially instructive, admits the artistic director of the KKNK, Hugo Theart: “The virtual exhibition was an experience in itself. From a curator’s point of view some artworks will not work in a virtual world, but a virtual gallery opens other possibilities.”

Theart worries about the oversaturation of the online market but hopes that the balance between live and online will soon be restored. Regardless, he hopes to incorporate the online aspect into future festivals, allowing it to become one of the many mediums that make up the KKNK.

As South Africa slowly eased its lockdown, some festivals took novel approaches. The Encounters Film Festival launched with a somehow nostalgic drive-in premiere of the political documentary, Influence, in Kyalami, Johannesburg.

Encounters Film Festival launches with drive-in screening of Influence

In contrast, AfrikaBurn and Rocking the Daisies were postponed to 2021, as the organisers didn’t think they would work online.

Looking ahead, what are the changes?

With level 1 regulations, theatres are now allowed to operate at 50% capacity, outdoor events can welcome up to 500 people while indoor events can accommodate up to 250, how are festivals preparing for the months and year to come?

“I think more event organisers will be focused on having more boutique- type events. Since we can’t do really big festivals anymore, our budgets have been cut down dramatically. We’ll be focused on promoting more local acts and organising smaller but cool events,” says deejay, founder of Ubercool events and curator of the Durban Street Food Festival, Georgios Krestos.

“I think the whole layout of the festival experience will change. We still have to wear masks and sanitise and even small things like going to the toilet will be different.”

The safety aspect of festivals will also undergo some change, he says.

“I think there’ll be a safety division that focuses on sanitising people, screening and getting access into festivals. A whole new area of festivals will be developed.”

Founder and event organiser of Same Sex Saturdays (SSS), Andiswa Dlamini, says people value social spaces and events more than ever.

SSS is a safe space for members of the LGBTQI+ community which has events in small venues in Johannesburg and recently Durban, with limited tickets on offer per event.

“For me personally, no mask means no entry; and you have to have a temperature below 38. We have tried to keep to the venue percentage capacity and made sure that we have taken people’s details down. At the end of the day people that aren’t feeling well or have symptoms have to keep others safe by staying at home,” she says.

Newton is hesitant to commit to an in-person festival next year noting how difficult it is to plan anything under current circumstances. “We are hoping that a live festival will be possible, and we are working towards one even if it will look and feel different within the limitations of Covid-19. We have, however, retained many of the online elements and we want to include this as a new dimension to every edition of the festival. As we watch countries all over the world enter their second wave, we are reminded that we need to be ready for anything.” ML/DM

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