Sarah Raine and Aileen Dillane

University of Limerick, Ireland.

As researchers interested in European music festivals, public spaces, and diversity, the past twenty months have been disruptive, challenging and at times emotional. Like the festival professionals we had hoped to work closely with during FestiVersities, we had to transform our plans, create new strategies of engagement and production, and to ask ourselves what really lay at the heart of the project, pandemic or no. Our emerging answer to this final question coalesces around the concepts of collaboration, shared practice, compassion, creativity, and optimism.

In attending the Irish Arts Council Pathways 2021 webinar series run between March and May 2021, it was clear to us that these five elements were threaded throughout both the intentions for and contents of the sensitively facilitated panel discussions. Curated and hosted by Dr David Teevan, (Festivals Advisor to the Arts Council) and under the stewardship of Karl Wallace of the Arts Council, Pathways 2021 aimed to provide a space for critical conversations between festival makers and their stakeholders. With festivals cancelled across Ireland and public events paused for over eighteen months, never has such a space been needed more, not simply to touch base and connect with likeminded people but also to find strategies to cope and, potentially, thrive.

In our research to date, we have noticed an increased level of communication between festival teams as they struggle to make sense of conflicting information, ongoing uncertainty, and a prevailing sense of care for their communities. Platforms like Zoom and Skype have become a lifeline, bringing together festivals – in Dublin and Chicago, Cork and Copenhagen, Limerick and Liverpool – as they reimagine their forms, processes, and function in a very new and different world. In the case of the Pathways 2021 series, participants in each seminar were warmly welcomed in by David and the panel team, and made to feel that their experiences and creative solutions to the challenges of COVID-19 were valued and of value to other arts professionals. Having “attended” many arts sector virtual panels and workshops throughout the pandemic, Pathways 2021 offered festival and arts professionals access to a wider and more diverse network. Equally important and new was the manner in which Pathways offered a space for both sharing everyday practices and for considering larger philosophical questions.

Inge Ceustermans of The Festival Academy pointed out (Session 1, March 10th 2021) that different people in different places experienced the impact of lockdown to varying degrees, but that many had used the opportunity to consider the efficacy of the digital festival platform, not just in communicating with older audiences but also in finding new ones. Such speculations were married with ruminations on sustainability and care, in particular of artists. John Crumlish (Galway International Arts Festival) asked attendees to consider “what happens when you take the place away” from festival experiences (Session 2, March 24th 2021). In a similar theme, Avril Stanley – the director of one of our FestiVersities festival sites, Body & Soul (panel 2) –asked, “how do you take the festival experience and the beauty of an area, create a narrative, and turn it into a story that has meaning?”. And in bridging theoretical questions and everyday practices, Ruth McGowan used examples from Dublin Fringe Festival to consider possible models for creating tactile, sensory and intimate audience experiences in digital spaces (Session 3, April 7th 2021). Each of the four panel sessions were well balanced in terms of art form, location, festival model and experience, including a wide range of arts festivals from across (and beyond) Ireland. For many of the attendees, the Pathways 2021 panels offered a number of creative, successful, and well-considered models for future practice and inspiration for Arts Council Ireland funding applications, as many of the represented festivals reported on previously funded events.

Pathways 2021 was unafraid to venture into terrain that is often seen as anathema to ‘creatives’, with Conor McAndrews from Accenture (Session 1) offering strategies from RND and future planning (typically applied to corporations) for the festival context in order to enable better decision making. The presentation focussed on grounding any business model in human-centric design, that ultimately had considerable resonance with the attendees, generating excitement about how to apply scenario-making for future resilience.

It was this seamless blending of arts industry, non-arts expertise, and scholarship that was particularly compelling in this suite of seminars. Common issues were highlighted and framed through research and theory, in addition to experience, by David Teevan, who (in Session 3), borrowing from Victor Turner (1969), summarised the focus of the festival as creating a space for “communitas”. A well-used term by scholars, but the (2012) work of anthropologist Edith Turner is particularly apt here: she views communitas as an “inspired fellowship” and an instigator of collective joy. Illustrated by the examples provided in Pathways 2021, both fellowship and joy persisted in the festival offerings of 2020 and 2021.

Reflecting on engaging with audience and performers, Pathways considered both the local and the global. Lorraine Maye (Session 4, April 21st 2021) talked through event examples that were rooted in local communities and spoke to the ways in which Cork Midsummer Festival had reimagined annual events during national lockdowns. Although creating the same levels of trust with local and international partners over Zoom calls was explored as an issue throughout the Pathways sessions, it was clear to see that many festivals had mindfully engaged with local and international audiences, partners, and performers in compelling and efficacious ways. 

In our own FestiVersities research, we are interested in tracking the ways in which issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have continued to thread through the activities and future plans of festivals during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was most clearly explored in Padraig Naughton’s (Arts and Disability Ireland) presentation, with Naughton observing that a movement online does not naturally translate into increased access for all (Session 3). Whilst few online performances have offered audio description, captioned events, included sign language interpreters, or organized relaxed performances, in our own research we have experienced festival platforms that do offer a range of access-focused personalisation options, to include those which support neurodivergent audience members. However, as Padraig made clear to us all, digital spaces and festival models offer both solutions and further issues in relation to access, and that we must all be careful to question our assumptions about who is included and excluded. And when the time comes to pivot back to live offerings, we should all be asking what elements could we maintain for optimum inclusion.

As any associated professional or research will attest, the role of the festival is multifarious; from providing an immersive and multisensory audience experience to acting as a seasonal employer. Most significantly for the context within which we all find ourselves this year, the festival as an instigator of positive change within society was clearly articulated by both the framing of the Pathways 2021 series and throughout the presentations. A pervasive and declared emphasis on supporting performers and suppliers by many of the festivals demonstrated a keen awareness of the difficult times that many have faced. In a similar vein, issues of sustainability were raised, with the pandemic period representing an opportunity to establish new practices and processes with reduced carbon footprints or that allowed festivals to establish more secure positions within wider arts ecologies. Amidst all the continued uncertainty and worry, it was heartening to be immersed in a community that looks forward to not only a post-pandemic world, but a world of increasingly mindful and considered festival production which places collaboration, sharing practice, compassion, creativity, and optimism at its core.

References

Turner, E. (2012) Communitas: The anthropology of collective joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Turner, V. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.