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The show must go online

By Admin User on April 29, 2020

With the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak, everything that hasn’t been canceled has been adapted somehow. The cancelation of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is a huge loss for artists globally, as it is the largest festival of it’s kind in North America. Many artists from around the world rely on income they receive from performing at summer festivals. Nextfest has changed to an online format to continue to provide emerging artists with an opportunity to show their work in Edmonton. Ellen Chorley, Festival Director of Nextfest Arts Company, joins us to share how Nextfest will unfold digitally.

What changes for the festival to go online this year?

“This our 25th year running the festival, and it’s primarily a live performance festival. Last year we had two main performance venues that played for all eleven days, as well as additional visual art venues around the city. So, all of that is now going to be on an online platform. So, basically we challenged all of our artists that were already programming to the festival, most of whom are doing live work, to change their performance into something that could be accessed online or digitally. So that means that a lot of artists have had their pieces turned upside down, because they really have to start thinking about how they want to reimagine that. And of course, when you do a live performance with more than one person, there’s an element of rehearsing together in the same room so how do we start doing that? So our goal is to provide performances every night of the festival for 11 days and have artists show the work that they’re trying to show, but in a digital or online form.”

You kind of touched on this already, but with all of these big changes, what are the things that we can expect that will stay the same?

“You’re still going to be seeing art exclusively from emerging artists, so the mandate of the festival is to promote, share and elevate emerging artists in every artistic discipline. How we define “emerging artist” is within the first 10 years of their professional careers. So you’ll most likely see artists age 14 to 30 but there’s no age cut-off.”

What has the response from artists been in terms of involvement?

“They’re so enthusiastic! I expected people’s brains to explode in front of me when I explained what was going to happen, but everyone was really eager to continue to be able to work on their pieces. As you’re probably aware, a lot of things have been canceled over the next little while. Fringe was just cancelled and I as an artist myself have had a lot cancelled over the next little while. It can be very jarring to be thinking about something that you’re working on and then all of a sudden you don’t have a platform to do it anymore and you don’t know when you’ll be able to do it. I think a lot of the artists were so excited for this opportunity to continue to work on their pieces. Also, to do it in a different form so that they can share it with more people. One of my playwrights said, “I’m really excited about this because my dad’s in Newfoundland and now he can see it.” So I think that there’s going to be really cool sharing elements all over the country, and maybe even all over the world, that our artists now have this opportunity to do. Across the board there’s so much enthusiasm and joy for this so it’s been such a great experience for me.”

Are you seeing the same comparative numbers of performers and artists as in previous years?

“Usually we see anywhere between 500 and 700 artists. I honestly don’t know if we’ll see that many this year. Many projects are sort of keeping the same amount of people involved; so we might get up to that same number as well. The other thing is, we’re also offering artists other ways to engage with the festival. They can do one-on-one mentorship platform meetings with mentors from the artistic community here in Edmonton or can attend workshops so they also become one of our artists, doing those things as well. So, it might be very possible that we’re going to have as many artists as we’ve had in other years.”

In making these plans, I know you said you’re planning your schedule now, maybe you can describe some of the challenges that you’ve come across getting started here?

“We asked our artists to reimagine their projects and we said, “yeah we also need to know right away!” So we keep figuring out what that looks like also how we can support artists by helping them figure that kind of stuff out. So that’s been a bit of a challenge. And then I think the biggest challenge overall (which we’re trying to solve) is we’re just doing a lot of research right now about what kind of online platforms, we can use. So we’re looking into a whole bunch here. Zoom was sort of the first front-runner but now we’re looking at that more as a way that we might do our workshops. Then we’re looking at performance based streaming platforms like Twitch, or stream lab, and that kind of stuff so that meant a lot of workshopping and a lot of learning that we’ve got done in the last little while. I’ve learned so much I feel like a Luddite. I could send an email and I could make a PDF, but I had to learn so much in such a short time about all these other platforms. It’s been really exciting and a very new challenge for my skill set.”

How much of Nextfest has always featured some pre-recorded or video components?

“We have a film curator, then we also have this really great thing that I will definitely miss with this online version. We have something called Nightclubs, and what they are, they’re sort of like pop up performance parties. You come to a party, and then performances pop up around you, there’s installations, there’s film running on screens, there’s multi-disciplinary work happening, there’s music and experimental stuff that you could interact with and all that kind of stuff. So, film has been kind of part of Nightclubs and film curation is part of Nextfest. A lot of performances will also include digital or online elements as well just because that’s been sort of a trend in theatre and music. So yeah, we’ve definitely had that sort of stuff before but this is sort of a new realm.”

For those performers that are going to be doing it live, how does someone perform live show over the internet?

“I have no idea. I think something that we’re starting to learn too as well with webcams is that doing a performance (and let’s just say as an actor because my background is in theatre) if I wanted to do a one person show for on stage, I would have to make my performing big enough to fill that theatre, right? So that the people in the back row could see my emotion and hear my voice and that type of stuff. But if you are doing a one person show in your living room to a webcam, that’s going to look gigantic, right? So, I think that what the artists are learning, is that if they’re doing a one person show, it might be that they’re sitting in front of a webcam, you know, 20 centimetres from the camera, and it’s all very quiet and streamlined and small. So that might be something that we find we might get some more filmic style acting that we don’t get when it’s live in a big theatre. That might be something interesting. You might see things that have been reimagined to take place in people’s kitchens or in their living rooms or in their bedrooms, and we might sort of get that in the set. I think that might be really interesting too.”

How is an audience is going to be attending online?

“Because it’s online, it’s going to be completely free. So, the hope is that we can make the festival as accessible as possible. The only thing is you need to have something to watch it on (your phone or your computer) and you have to have Wi-Fi. So, those are sort of the two things that you’re going to need. And then, the hope is that you just go to our website, every night you go to  and it tells you how to get to our streaming platform, either to be a link or to be right embedded into the website depending on what we can do. And then you just get the party with us all night. It will be a real mix of things, there’ll be a dance piece, and then there’ll be a music video, and then a short play reading, some poetry, stand-up comedy, every night can be really different. The only thing that makes any night the same is that it’s all emerging artists.”

Audience interaction is a big part of live performance, right? What is that going to look like?

“We have been playing with the idea of having a bit of a chat function. Or, allowing artists to say within their performance, or after their performance, “if you have feedback, you can send it to me.” At this point I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to go at all. There are lots of types of performance that are very interactive. If you look at Washington spoken word performance, part of that is snapping along and agreeing with words that they’re saying and it is a two-way street between the audience and the performer. So it’s going to be different to see how that’s going to look. I actually don’t know if I know the answer, but I guess we’re all going to learn together.”

One of the things for Nextfest, I understand, is that social aspect of it. You mentioned the online mentoring or online workshops. But what are some other ways to still offer that social networking aspect of Nextfest?

“We’re toying with what we can do to figure that out for sure. we’ve got an idea of having sort of a daily check in for folks to pop in and just talk to people and that type of stuff. And then I think a large part of that social aspect is attending workshops. I know a lot of folks in the past couple of years have really connected with folks or met folks at workshops. So I think that’s really the biggest way to do it socially this year. And then our hope is that folks will also engage with us on our social platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that type of stuff. Hopefully they’ll be talking about their experience either reading or what they’re watching and then we’ll get a dialogue going that way as well.”

During this unprecedented pandemic, why is it so important that Nextfest continue? Or in your own words why are arts, and providing this resource for young artists, essential services?

“Well, there’s lots of ways we are essential. I think the biggest thing about art is that it allows us to practice empathy. And right now, because we’re interacting basically only with screens, It’s very difficult to do that. So, I think it’s really great that we have this opportunity to engage with art. I’m feeling like my empathy stores are a little bit small or a little bit not so filled up. That’s just because we’re in such an uncertain time that it’s hard to know and each day is different and we’re all sort of experiencing grief.

I know that we’re all experiencing this but artists I think were probably the first people to lose all their gigs. And that’s the way that we pay our rent and buy our groceries. And so to allow the festival to continue we were also allowing ourselves to pay all of our artists the amount that we were going to pay them. And for a lot of people that’s going to be their rent for June or their groceries for June and that’s a really exciting thing.

So, of course now, the Canadian government has announced that there are ways to apply for relief for artists. So, leading up to that a lot of artists, because they had a few online gigs or they’re teaching a little bit online or something like that, they weren’t able to apply for that money. So finding out that the festival, that they plan to work at and get paid at, is still happening is so important to them. So I think that’s a really special thing of this time, to be able to tell a bunch of emerging artists that their work is valid and their work is going to continue and they’re going to get paid for their work. I think that’s a really special thing, and I think that is very, very important.

The emerging arts community is the next established arts community. So, If they die out we’re not going to have all that art for years because they’re going to be gone.”

Thanks a lot for your time, Ellen.

The show must go on, as they say, and this year Nextfest moves into uncharted territory. Ellen and her team continue to work to develop an online platform that suits all the needs of both performers and audiences. Artists can still apply to perform online via the Nextfest website.



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