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On a Wednesday night in Winnipeg, a small crowd gathered at the McNally Robinson bookstore to see David Bergen – live and in person – discuss his latest book, Out of Mind. It was the first live event that Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, had held since the pandemic took hold in March, 2020. Even though only about 35 people showed up – the capacity was 100 – it was one for the books: In-person events were back. At the end of that September evening, festival director Charlene Diehl (who has programmed both in-person and online events this fall) went up to the stage to thank the audience for coming.
“I’m not going to lie,” she told The Globe and Mail the next day, “I got all choked up. It’s sort of astonishing to be gathering again. I am kind of cautiously excited and also kind of a little jumpy about it, I guess. It’s going to take some adjusting to just be in the company of people again.”
For Canada’s literary festivals – many of which normally take place in the fall – this second pandemic fall has presented a conundrum. Last year things were clear: Online was the only option, other than cancelling. This year, things were murkier. What to do? Many are sticking with online only. But others, such as Winnipeg, are dipping their toes into the in-person waters once again.
We spoke with three of the country’s largest literary festivals about their different approaches. (Full disclosure, I am moderating events for both the Toronto and Vancouver festivals this month).
Vancouver Writers Fest: Subject to Change
Vancouver Writers Fest (VWF) artistic director Leslie Hurtig and her team – including this year’s guest curator Lawrence Hill – have gone in several directions: About half of their events are in person, back on Granville Island, which is the festival’s home. Some of those events are fully in person, with authors and moderators present, and the audience at 50-per-cent capacity. Others are hybrid events, with both in person and onscreen elements. Then there are the digital events – some live, a few pre-recorded – some of which will screen at a small cinema they’ve set up for anyone who wants to watch them with other bookish types.
“We’re certainly adding a new layer of complication this year,” says Hurtig, who became artistic director in 2017. “We’re basically running two separate festivals, one in person and one digitally. And it is the most challenging puzzle that I’ve ever had to put together.”
The most complicated of the event formats is the hybrid, where at least one author or moderator will be live in the theatre with an in-person audience, and an author will beam in on a large screen to join the conversation. The off-site author will be able to see both the audience and interviewer/co-panelists from wherever they are.
“This is a great experiment of ours,” says Hurtig, adding that she is grateful for her production team.
The decision to go back to live programming was made earlier in the year: With the vaccine rollout and a provincial plan to lift restrictions under way, there was great hope for the fall; VWF began to think about ways to do both in-person and digital events. “Of course, things didn’t happen the way we all imagined they would,” Hurtig says. “Sure enough, the pandemic rages on.”
But with vaccine passports and capacity limits in place, the team felt confident moving ahead with the in-person element. Audiences seem confident too; the hybrid events have sold out (to half capacity). The festival is also selling a virtual pass for the online offerings – and Hurtig reports that sales are brisk. This is good news for the festival at any time, but especially this year, when it has had to dip into emergency contingency funds.
Hurtig notes that this year’s festival theme is “Subject to Change.”
“I think it’s a wonderful play on words because it can mean so much, including, ‘please bear with us if our technology doesn’t turn out exactly as we thought it was going to.’”
Four Events to Catch in Vancouver (Oct. 18-24)
Live: What Strange Paradise: Omar El Akkad in Conversation with Mark Medley (Oct 22, 1 p.m.)
Theatre Hybrid: Unreconciled: Jesse Wente in Conversation with Tanya Talaga (Oct 23, 11 a.m.)
Streaming Live (and in cinema): Hunting by Stars: Cherie Dimaline in Conversation with David A. Robertson (Oct. 24, 11 a.m.)
Recorded Online: China Unbound: Joanna Chiu in Conversation with Doug Saunders (Oct 22, 6 p.m.)
Toronto International Festival of Authors: Can You Hear Me Now?
At the end of last year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), new director Roland Gulliver and his team were thinking about 2021. Specifically, how to balance in-person events with the online offerings that audiences seemed to crave. “But obviously 2021 came and essentially punched us all in the gut a bit in terms of our aspirations and what we thought the year would be,” he says.
Reading the writing on the wall, the TIFA team made the decision to stick with an all-online festival. It was more palatable than going through another cycle of uncertainty; 2020 saw them constantly having to adapt and respond to ever-changing circumstances and information.
While the online experience may not be the ideal, Gulliver is a true believer in the benefits – including the intimacy it can offer. He talks about an event with Margaret Atwood last year during which, when she started discussing her poetry, she flipped the camera and pointed it to her filing cabinet where all her poems are kept. Festivals can also have access to international authors who don’t like to tour. And to audiences outside of Toronto.
There can also be tech disasters, such as an event on TIFA 2020′s first day with authors Helen Humphreys and Kate Pullinger, when the system crashed as everyone went online. The issue was fixed – and everything is a learning experience. Like other festivals, TIFA has taken lessons from the 2020 emergency pivot and built on that knowledge.
Authors have once again been commissioned to write and perform a piece that responds to a question (2021′s is, “Can you hear me now?”). New this year: The results will be compiled in a Kobo e-book, available for sale.
While there was a more ad hoc approach last year to what was pre-recorded and what was live, this year the festival has made more deliberate choices. The multilingual events are all pre-recorded, so subtitles can be added and English-speaking audiences can enjoy talks in languages that include French, Tamil, Bengali, Japanese and Greek. TIFA’s performances are also being pre-recorded, allowing for more bells and whistles.
“We’ve all learned [to use] these elements of television production, but [are] trying to keep it as intimate and informal as a live conversation,” Gulliver says. “I think it’s a delicate balancing act.”
Four Events to Catch in Toronto (online Oct. 21-31)
Interview: A Space to Call Home: Kamal Al-Solaylee and Ben Philippe (Oct. 23, 8:30 p.m.)
Panel Discussion: Finding Truth & Reconciliation in Canada with Bev Sellars, Anne Spice and Kisha Supernant, moderated by Gina Starblanket (Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m.)
Original Commissioned Reading: Can You Hear Me Now? Shani Mootoo (Oct. 29, 12 p.m.)
Performance: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in Concert (Oct. 21, 8:30 p.m.)
Calgary Wordfest: Imagine On Air
When other festivals pivoted to online in 2020, Calgary’s pirouetted and pounced into the digital space with huge ambition and imagination. What had been planned as a five-day festival in fall 2020 to mark its 25th anniversary turned into a weekly online event they called 25@25, where 25 festival alumni chose an author they wanted to be paired with for an interview.
From there, Wordfest’s online offerings continued to grow. This year, the organization launched Imagine On Air, its own streaming channel with highly produced and entertaining content that goes way beyond talking heads on Zoom. Close to 200 segments are available on demand, from short clips to full-length interviews in the “Big Generous Brains” series. The content is lively and attention has been paid to production values: Artists were commissioned to make graphics; musicians composed music.
So when Wordfest began to weigh its options for fall of 2021, the team knew its online abilities were solid – while what was happening in Alberta seemed less so.
“We absolutely weighed the opportunities versus the potential chaos,” says Shelley Youngblut, Wordfest’s chief executive officer and creative ringleader (yes, that’s her title). But with the decision to go ahead with the Calgary Stampede (and attendance of more than 500,000), the disappearance of contract tracing and masking rules – and the appearance of the Delta Variant, “we had a feeling … it would be a very bad bet for us to consider going live.”
Rather than cluster events into a festival week, Wordfest is continuing with offerings throughout the fall, including 26@26: 13 conversations between two authors, such as Claire Vaye Watkins and Zoe Whittall discussing their new novels on Oct. 20.
And there are other virtual formats. Next week alone, there will also be an interview with Chris Hadfield, and the latest instalment in the festival’s “The Way We” storytelling series. “The Way We Nature” will feature four non-fiction writers – Clayton Thomas-Muller, Adam Shoalts, Suzanne Simard and Edith Widder – performing open-mic monologues about the environment and answering questions from a moderator.
Next year, Youngblut hopes to return to the in-person festival (called the Imaginarium) with other events throughout the year. But online is here to stay – not just in Calgary, but at these other festivals too.
“There is an undeniable intimacy that you get with the right author and the right host – or the right two authors – in online conversation that cannot be replicated in person. And that power, where you are literally almost inside their brains and you can see their spaces, they forget that they’re on camera – it feels so intimate and generous and real. It is way more powerful if done well than I had anticipated. And I don’t want to lose it,” Youngblut says. “These are conversations that you get at 2 in the morning in the writers’ lounge. And now people all over get to watch.”
Four Events to Catch in Calgary (online, ongoing)
26@26 Power Pairings:
Torrey Peters and Casey Plett (Oct 26, 7 p.m.)
Amitava Kumar and Jenny Offill (Nov 2, 7 p.m.)
Imagine On Air:
Jonathan Franzen (Oct 28, 7 p.m.)
Susan Orlean (Nov 11, 8 p.m.)
All times are local.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of David Bergen's latest book.