Among the COVID-19 critically-hit sectors, are the cultural and creative sectors. According to respondents to a survey ARC Research and Consultancy carried out in March 2020, the worst-hit within these sectors were the performing arts (live performance), film and media.

With ARC’s international networks inspiring conversations through digital platforms to react to the repercussions from this pandemic, we are slowly, cautiously and collectively trying to overcome the challenges that this pandemic created.

ARC’s online meetings with the European Festivals Association have seen several different working groups and processes so far. Many festivals, especially those taking place in March and April, had to cancel. Other bigger festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Festival which takes place in August, also had to cancel this year’s edition, due the dimension of their events.

The effect of  cancellations is, of course, devastating, not only for the production of the festival itself – with the whole chain of those involved (artists and technical professionals) being practically out of work – but also for the economy of the cities where these festivals take place.

Challenges have come in various shapes and sizes. The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s Medinea network (of which ARC is the Maltese member), is coordinating an Erasmus+ project.

The festival had to repatriate a group of young musicians who were in a residency session in Hammamet, Tunisia when the international lockdown suddenly happened.

The repatriation process was an extremely difficult and unprecedented experience which was made somewhat easier by the positive attitudes of the young musicians who were placed very suddenly and unexpectedly in very challenging circumstances.

There is, however, a positive side to all this, evident in the ways that festivals and performances are being reimagined. The Hay Festival, usually located in the magical setting of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, turned digital, with a comprehensive set of instructions on how to participate.

The hope is that the current uncertainty created by the pandemic will lead artists and creative professionals to search for the best ways to generate exciting and interesting new work

Its artistic director, Peter Florence, created an opportunity out of a problem by bringing together a line-up of personalities that would have probably never appeared in one festival line-up. Another example is by Noord Netherlands Toneel (NNT), one of the four largest theatre companies in the Netherlands.

One of the interesting novelties they have created is the virtual Nite Hotel, which can be experienced on their updated website. Young director, Eline Arbo, is currently rehearsing a theatrical reading which will be performed online from June 12-19 in the Nite Hotel.

In Malta, there has been a move to opening up, with new behaviours and protocols needing to be put in place. Guidance measures on workplaces for museums and other cultural places, as well as for indoor cinemas and theatres, have been published on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s government portal.

An interesting experimental initiative in Malta was the online performance Il-Kċina ta’ Connor, created by Tyrone Grima, Malcolm Galea, Elaine Falzon and Matthew Muscat Drago.

To follow the effects of new initiatives generated by the COVID-19 situation, ARC is currently carrying out research on this particular project, supported by the Arts Council Malta’s COVID-19 Special Fund. ARC followed the rehearsals and performances and sought feedback from the production team and the audiences.

After-performance discussions were also extremely interesting as relevant perspectives emerged, including whether the future of live performances is in any way conditioned by the pandemic, and whether the experience of live performance is something that cannot easily be reproduced online.

Whatever the perspective, there was agreement that performance is not something that can be stopped by a pandemic. It is important that artists find innovative and creative ways to reinvent themselves.

Finding new ways in which these performances will keep both production and audiences safe is another theme that was addressed.

Current immediate challenges with online performances include the issue of creating projects without the appropriate professional digital skills and facilities which will result in an overall lack of quality. Related to this is the fact that the experience of online performance needs to include the feeling of performing live for live audiences.

The human dynamic between performer and audience is difficult without seeing, hearing and feeling the audience around you. The hope is that the current uncertainty created by the pandemic will lead artists and creative professionals to search for the best ways to generate exciting and interesting new work which will in turn contribute to the reimagining of the cultural and creative sectors.

Davinia Galea is managing director at ARC Research and Consultancy.

ARC Research and Consultancy services creation, practice and production within the cultural and creative sectors. We aim to promote development and sustainability of the cultural and creative sectors and facilitate connections with local, regional, national and international entities by means of collaboration, participation in networks, policy research and cultural initiatives. ARC has recently joined Culture Action Europe as its first Maltese member, in recognition of the need for reinforcing collective dialogue.

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