As cultural festivals go digital, organisers aim for global reach, hybrid online-offline presence in future
Migrating online for an event anywhere in the world now allows for more experts to be roped in for a global audience. However, the constant challenge for everyone is to stay ahead of the curve, make formats interesting, and program in-depth interactions that are as personal as possible.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has forced each of us to do, it is to adapt. We find ourselves doing a lot of what we have done earlier, but with a different approach. Take the wide range of cultural festivals we have been regularly attending. Not surprisingly, many of them have migrated online this year, like the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest, which concluded on 22 November. Similarly, Bacardi NH7 Weekender took place on 5 and 6 December, while the Bangalore Literature Festival, though scheduled to be on-ground with a limited audience between 12 and 13 December, will be streaming all their sessions live via Zoom.
Several festivals have leveraged technology to reach their audiences, and have evolved with newer formats and spin-offs of their flagship events. In April, Teamwork Arts, organisers of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, kick-started JLF Brand New World, an online literature series. This was followed by their other virtual initiatives such as the Jaipur Literature Festival's 'Words are Bridges', celebrating language-based literature.
Organisers of the annual Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa launched Serendipity Arts Virtual (currently underway till 21 December), among other projects earlier this year. This online initiative features curated projects, performances, workshops, talks, engagement-based initiatives and discourse around the arts.
Therefore, several events have gone online, generating a new experience for festival organisers who are now curating for a virtual audience.
Leveraging technology for a virtual audience
Speaking to a range of organisers, it is clear that taking the online route was a natural step forward. As with anything new, there were glitches in adopting and adapting to technology, but the learning curve has been short. With audiences also figuring out the ropes of a virtual existence quickly, taking events online has been an interesting exercise.
Take music for example – the pulsating energy of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender went online for the first time this year, after 10 annual editions on-ground. “We did not compromise on the immersive experience of the music festival even though it was conducted digitally,” says Manish Chandnani, vice president at OML Live, OML Entertainment Private Limited. “The festival featured a global chat where audiences could address everyone on the live stream. With the spotlight feature, audiences could upload 15 second videos of themselves enjoying the festival. There were fun bar games and an option to invite friends to private virtual parties,” he adds. The organisers tapped into their communities and content creators to align their social media outlook with the festival’s themes of shared happiness and fun.
While those were the efforts made towards increasing interactivity in an online music show, the organisers of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2020 (RSTF2020), which took place in the last week of October, worked things a bit differently.
“All plays in RSTF2020 were pre-recorded and streamed through our ticketing partner,” explains Samyuktha Manogaran, programme associate. “Of the six plays that were a part of the festival, four were pre-recorded, one was live, and one was recorded at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru, before the festival commenced. The directors shot in various ways — some used Zoom, while some filmed the entire play at a venue and gave it to us. One of our directors had one actor placed in our Bengaluru auditorium and another in Delhi. The actor in Delhi was projected onto the seats in our auditorium and the whole thing filmed. It was like a video within a video for the audience watching,” she adds.
With the ongoing Serendipity Arts Virtual, each curated project has been conceptualised keeping in mind the Internet as a site. “This meant rethinking our use of space and audience engagement,” says Smriti Rajgarhia, director at Serendipity Arts Foundation and Festival. The curators at Serendipity Arts Virtual have independent sites that explore their projects further, and give audiences a chance to revisit the projects.
Several such projects — such as Amitesh Grover’s 'The Last Poet', a multi-layered endeavour with theatre, film, sound art, creative coding, digital scenography, and live performance, and Veeranganakumari Solanki’s 'Future Landing', which looks at a web portal as a virtual studio, activating itself through viewer involvement – use the help of coders and other digital technicians. "The behind-the-scenes process and testing is almost as exciting as the project itself,” Rajgarhia says.
Neev Literature Festival for Children based in Bengaluru has completed three annual editions. In August 2020, they decided to go online and turned the festival into a year-long event. “We have had children from across the country in our book clubs and also in some panel discussions,” says Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, co-founder of the festival. “Fluent readers love this format, and we see names that are regular in attendance. Our speakers have appreciated the attention to detail in the structure of the event and engagement. One of the things we have been doing is a conversation between a global and Indian children’s literature expert. The last one with Emily Drabble of the Book Trust, UK and Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books, India, was a journey for both, through books across time and space. Emily finished that discussion wanting to get into Indian children’s literature, which is not yet globally accessible. Who knows, this might just be the way to get that started,” she says.
While this may be one of the happy outcomes of a festival going digital, it has been interesting to see how this step has widened the scope of events in ways one may not have perceived earlier.
Greater participation and tech challenges
Organisers of festivals are quite unanimous in their opinion on getting larger global audiences for their events, now that they have chosen to go online, albeit while being heavily dependent on technology.
“At the Front Lawn venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, our maximum audience was approximately 13,500 people,” explains Sanjoy K Roy, managing director at Teamwork Arts. “On JLF Brave New World, we have been reaching an average between 29,000–32,000 (people) per episode, with front runners at 80,000 and 120,000. While we continue to celebrate our festivals geographically in London, New York, Toronto, etc., going online has allowed us to expand to countries and places we had no presence in”.
But, he adds that technology has been a challenge. It does not matter if you are in Gurgaon or New York, what matters is the strength of your signal. “We have had the most challenging times ensuring that different time zones come together, from Australia to the USA, and everywhere in between. Our speakers and colleagues have been up at all hours, recording, matching times, and making this impossibility possible. There have been times when the moderator has dropped off mid-sentence and I have had to step in with little knowledge of the speaker's work, pretending all was well,” he explains. This is an issue other organisers have echoed as well.
The Bengaluru Poetry Festival too went online this year, but they chose to go the asynchronous way. This meant invited poets recorded videos of themselves (individually or in a group video interaction). These videos were then edited and released online through the festival's website and social media platforms at the same time on the day of the event. “Going asynchronous significantly reduced the anxieties and challenges that would have come with having a live online festival,” says Subodh Sankar, co-founder. “But going online did not open up avenues with the audience as much as it did give us the opportunity to invite a large number of poets of Indian origin that live outside the country. In a normal year, with the budget constraints and logistical challenges, we could not have imagined inviting so many overseas voices to this festival. This format allowed us to do so, and in helping their voices reach an audience that is primarily in India,” he says.
The Bangalore Literature Festival will go live on 12 December with its ninth edition. Earlier in June, the WorldLit digital platform was launched with many interesting conversations involving international authors like Sophie Hannah, Deborah Moggach, Tracy Chevalier, Pico Iyer and others. Their live sessions had hundreds of people tuning in. “For this year, going by current registration numbers, we expect audiences of over 5,000 joining us on the livestream. 2020 is the ‘Year of Zoom’, and we have embraced it. We are enabling audio and video QnA with authors, which is a great way to interact for those joining online,” explains Srikrishna Ramamoorthy, co-founder of the festival.
At the end of the day, what most organisers seem to agree on is that going online has come with several learnings. Many believe that they will work towards a hybrid of online and offline versions of their events henceforth.
Migrating online for an event anywhere in the world now allows for more experts to be roped in for a global audience. However, the constant challenge for everyone is to stay ahead of the curve, make formats interesting, and program in-depth interactions that are as personal as possible. While there is no taking away the joys of a physical event and the sights, sounds and interactions it comes with, going online has undoubtedly opened up several new avenues.
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