Local artists, digital streams taking centre stage at outdoor festivals

Must the show go on? Organizers still in wait-and-see mode over large outdoor gatherings

Bard on the Beach’s production of As You Like It in 2018. The theatre company may be facing limited capacity if actors take to the stage this festival season

There are some people who can squeeze fun out of anything, says Nate Sabine.

But putting on a music festival where a sizable barrier divides the stage from the crowd while guests can only dance in small groups within designated areas, well, that registers as a dud, according to the director of business development at This Is Blueprint Management Ltd.

“It’s bad for the brand, it’s bad for the guests, it’s just not going to be good,” said Sabine, whose company operates clubs and bars across Vancouver, including Fortune Sound Club and the Colony chain of pubs. It is also known for promoting concerts and operating the annual FVDED in the Park music festival in Surrey.

“We’ve waited this long. If we have to wait another couple of months or something, then let’s just do that and do it correctly,” he said.

The annual music festival has drawn thousands to Holland Park in years past and is currently scheduled for July 9 and 10.

But like other big outdoor events slated for the summer – a period by which all British Columbians should have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, should they wish – Blueprint is still in wait-and-see mode while it hopes for the all-clear from provincial officials.

Bard on the Beach, the annual Shakespeare festival that takes over the waterfront in Vancouver’s Vanier Park each year, had to cancel its performances in 2020 as the pandemic tightened its grip.

Claire Sakaki, Bard’s executive director, said her organization is hoping to make a call close to the first week of May about whether the show will go on this year.

In the meantime, her team has been examining various financial models to see if a summer festival is viable at reduced capacity.

One of the festival’s theatres can hold 750 audience members, while the second theatre can hold 250.

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds would not be possible with physical distancing required, and Sakaki said presenting an all-digital festival is also under consideration.

“Given the response that we had last summer, I’m optimistic that people will also engage with us if we continue with more of our online programs that we have done all this past year,” she said.

The TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, known for taking over a mix of outdoor and indoor venues each summer, will host all of this year’s 100-plus shows indoors due to concerns over health and crowd control.

The festival hosted nearly 500 gigs in 2019 – the last year it was held – and drew 590,000 guests.

“We are prepared for the possibility that we might be able to have extremely modest audiences, but it is looking more and more likely that there will be no live audiences in attendance at our events,” said Rainbow Robert, the festival’s managing director of artistic programming.

Instead, the jazz festival will be delivering digital content to ticket-buyers as shows are – for the most part – streamed live.

There will be a few international streams from artists based in Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago and Philadelphia, some of which will be offered free to the public.

But the uncertainty surrounding travel and the ability to lock in international artists to visit Vancouver for what might be limited indoor crowds have been sticking points for organizers.

“We had to make a call to not even include any other touring artists from Canada because we had to take the safety of those artists, and of our technicians, and cultural workers and venue personnel into account,” Robert said.

The result, she said, is that 2021 will be more weighted towards showcasing local artists than any other jazz festival before it.

Sabine said FVDED in the Park is also considering going digital if large outdoor gatherings don’t get the green light this summer.

“Live-streaming an artist from L.A. and, frankly, paying a boatload of money doesn’t make sense. We’d rather support somebody local.”

Sabine added that this year’s festival will also be more weighted towards local artists than ever before because of travel uncertainty.

But if an in-person gathering at Holland Park goes ahead this summer, FVDED might still feel a little different outside the gates.

Blueprint is considering implementing rapid testing on guests, which Sabine said might add 5% to 10% additional costs to ticket prices.

“That’s not too crazy to me to come spend [additional money] and feel secure about going to this event,” he said.

– Tyler Orton