Festivals go digital as the coronavirus intensifies social distancing

The National Arts Festival, due to run from June 25 to July 5, has become one of many events to announce that it is abandoning its usual programming this year and going digital due to the continuing spread of the coronavirus. 

It is the latest and the largest festival to do so following the president’s announcement of a ban on gatherings numbering more than 100 people, leading to the cancellation of many cultural and sporting events. 

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, festival chief executive Monica Newton said: “We are looking at a whole range of different options at the moment, with one option being the presentation of work via a website as well as a channel-based platform. We’re telling artists, ‘Don’t worry about how unformed the work is, et cetera. We will relook at the proposals and look at setting up the appropriate venues [to restage work] and the best ways to present it.” She said that for the festival, as an entity that looked at how to creatively stage and present artistic works, this could be seen as a continuation of that mandate.

With about 100 days to go before the gathering, Newton said the festival had now been forced to look at work that may not be fully formed, “work about process” or work that could be live-streamed or reformatted in different ways. 

Given the remoteness of the interaction that the situation calls for, many of the dance and theatre pieces may end up falling off the programme, Newton said. “Absolutely, a lot of the work of the live arts festival will not be presentable in this new format. Music is easy to conceptualise as a livestream, the difficulty with theatre is that it may not translate as well, and theatre and dance are a huge part of the programme.”

Newton hoped the festival, which brings in roughly R90-million to Makhanda every year and about R300-million to the Eastern Cape province, would have recovered in time for next year’s edition and perhaps would have been introduced to new audiences due to the digital move.

Another festival grappling with the ban on gatherings of more than 100 people is Durban’s Time of the Writer, which had to turn away several writers who had already made their way to Durban for the week-long festival, which was due to kick off on Sunday. 

“Everything is cancelled according to how the programme stood,” said event publicist Mzwandile Ntsele of iSupport. “There will be nothing in the physical sense of going to venues. Schools are closing on Wednesday so the whole thing is upset in terms of a physical programme.”

Ntsele said the organisers were putting together a virtual programme to kick off by Wednesday but “who is able to participate depends on who has a good internet connection. If there is something live planned as part of the new programme and if the connection is bad it upsets things even more. It is uncharted territory, so you don’t want to have too many glitches.” In an effort to minimise these, Ntsele said the festival would be pre-recording interviews and that “some panels where possible”.

Osmic Menoe director of the annual Johannesburg-based Back to the City Festival (which has been postponed) said the fallout in the entertainment industry as a result of the virus would be “top down …  [and] after this we are in for another meltdown another because companies and sponsors won’t have the finances to support the arts. It’s like we are fighting a war on two fronts. There is the oil price and then there is the virus.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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