20 Sep 2020

'New normal' working well for literary festivals

From Standing Room Only, 4:16 pm on 20 September 2020

Literary Festivals are back - but not as we knew them. The pandemic hasn't put a stop to traditionally popular writers festivals, with three in the next few weeks - in Christchurch, Nelson and Wellington. But a big line-up of international guests just can't happen, and these were often the main drawcard for book lovers.

Maybe that means local writers, who can struggle for cut- through in a Festival programme, will be able to get more attention.

Lynn Freeman talked to Word Christchurch Writers Festival director Rachael King - it opens on 28 October - and with Claire Mabey who runs Verb Wellington, which opens the following week.

Rachael King, Literary Director of WORD Christchurch

Rachael King, Literary Director of WORD Christchurch Photo: Matt Bialostocki

Assembling a programme is a long-term endeavour, with months - if not years - put into it. And King says the pandemic has meant stripping all the plans back to basics, then rebuilding them.

"We did have an international programme with 20 international authors confirmed, so it was a bit of a panic at the beginning of lockdown when we realised that it wasn't going to go ahead.

Behrouz Boochani

Kurdish-Iranian author and refugee Behrouz Boochani, who spent six years at Australia's Manus Island refugee detention centre will speak at the Word Festival in Christchurch. Photo: Behrouz Boochani / Hoda Afshar

"We thought we've got to put together an all-new New Zealand festival with a very uncertain budget - we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen in terms of our finances. But we just carried through with a lot of optimism, we started programming a smaller event - though it's actually only ended up being two-thirds the size.

"And we've managed to attract some fantastic New Zealand writers who'd be right up there in the spotlight. And in terms of internationals being a drawcard - we've seen no wain in ticket sales since we launched our programme; Our first day we had the biggest ticket sales we've ever had in a festival.

Although bypassing the international names wasn't their first choice, the new pandemic- adjusted plan has been turned out to be "a dream come true", King says.

The now always-looming threat of short notice alert level changes meant the 700 person-capacity James Hay theatre was knocked out of the Word plans.

"We had to take into account things like cancellation fees, not only from the venues but also from Ticketek, who are tied to those big venues in Christchurch, they charge a huge amount of cancellation fees. It's really ridiculous," she says.

"So we just had to make sure that we were in venues where we wouldn't be hit by those big cancellation fees. We're in The Piano, which is our largest venue and has 320 capacity, we're also in Tūranga [library] and Little Andromeda and the Christchurch Art Gallery."

"When we relaunched the programme, we set the capacities at level 2 levels, so that's 100 in The Piano, but a lot less in the smaller venues, to allow social distancing."

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Poet Kate Camp will read from her latest collection, How To Be Happy, Though Human, at the Verb festival in Wellington. Photo: supplied / Grant Maiden / VUP

In Wellington how has Verb's programme been adapted?

"Our programme has always been quite focused on local writers and the independent publishing community with our lit crawl, which is kind of the centrepiece," Mabey says.

"We did have some internationals lined up, who obviously can't now come. But there's been really no trouble at all coming up with a programme - we're really close to selling out some of our key events. And we've done the same [as Word], we're only releasing Level 2 capacity at this point."

"But also there's just so much talent and incredible publishing that's happened this year, I think audiences are ready to celebrate that."

Attendees going to the central event, the LitCrawl on 7 November, will have access to a one-night lineup of little art galleries, second hand bookstores and small bars, which will be "more intimate than normal", Mabey says.

The day-time programme will take place at Wellington central bar Meow, which offers lots of space for distancing, and the National Library of New Zealand, where a plan is in place to pivot between different sized spaces, if needed.

Both festival teams are also working collaboratively with Pukapuka Talks at the Nelson Arts Festival (20 to 28 October) on programming and publicity.

King says safety for guests is being considered very carefully, and for anyone anxious about coming out, the Word festival has for some years already posted podcasts of their events after they take place, and will do that again this year.