'We dodged a bullet, but of course it circled back around': literary festivals look beyond lockdown

Walter Marsh
·5 min read

When Sydney writers’ festival was forced to suspend its 2020 program just hours after tickets went on sale in March, it became the first of many local literary festivals and writers’ centres to battle distance, timezones and Australian internet connections to link housebound authors and audiences via podcasts and webcams.

As restrictions lift, many organisers have been quick to re-centre live programming. But somewhere between socially distanced book signings, contact tracing and a well-sanitised audience microphone, comes an acknowledgement that these festivals may never quite be the same.

“We dodged a bullet, but of course it circled back around and came to get us in the 2021 planning cycle,” says the Adelaide writers’ week director, Jo Dyer. After narrowly escaping March’s shutdowns, last week Dyer unveiled a “hybrid” 2021 program that retains much of the open-air festival’s pre-Covid model – with a few necessary digital workarounds.

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“It became clear that there was going to be uncertainty well beyond the dates you would normally need to commit to one direction or another. It meant screwing your courage to the sticking place and starting to map out how the festival might work.”

That means an overwhelmingly local lineup will take to the writers’ week stage from 27 February, with bestsellers Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville and Trent Dalton featured alongside two ex-prime ministers and emerging authors such as Victoria Hannan, Jessie Tu and Pip Williams.

But in a year of global disruption, Dyer was set on including international perspectives, recruiting noteworthy draws such as Arundhati Roy, William Gibson and Maaza Mengiste. Rather than roll the dice with air travel and hotel quarantine, they will address live Adelaide audiences via videolink.

In January, the 2020 Booker prize winner Douglas Stuart will also dial in to Carriageworks from New York as part of Sydney festival and Sydney writers’ festival’s Something to Talk About program. Like podcast feeds and digital writers’ festivals, it’s a model that has precedent before the pandemic – albeit in particularly unique circumstances.

“It was an incredibly moving event, and one of the highlights of the festival,” the former Sydney writers’ festival director Michaela McGuire says of Behrouz Boochani’s 2019 festival appearance, streamed live from Manus Island via “shaky WhatsApp video”.

“It was also one of the fastest-selling. That was really encouraging, knowing that audiences were willing to do something a little different. And, if the main attraction isn’t in the room, there’s still something really powerful about having a large group of audience members together, experiencing an event at the same time.”

Once an option of last resort, the living room live cross has been normalised by the pandemic, and looks set to become a more common festival feature as the gentler demands of videolink allow organisers to snare authors who might be difficult to coax to Australia due to time, geography and, increasingly, carbon footprint.

“Remoteness is a significant challenge for Northern Territory authors, booksellers, publishers and event organisers,” says the NT writers’ festival artistic director, Fiona Dorrell, whose October program was one of the first to return to a live setting. “For the festival, the expense of flying guest speakers and for audiences to travel even domestically has always been a significant challenge for us. Increasingly, we also consider our carbon footprint as part of the costs.”

“There’s a few authors every year who decline on the basis of their carbon footprint – there are also more authors than you’d expect who are afraid of flying,” McGuire reflects.

“People like Arundhati Roy and William Gibson, I’d invited them to every festival since I’ve been here,” Dyer says. “The fact they can do it from India and Canada respectively is, I’m sure, why they said yes this year. And that’s really great, and also offers possibilities for the future.”

For McGuire, who has since left Sydney to helm the 2021 Melbourne writers’ festival season, the experiences of 2020 mean audiences will expect festivals to be more adaptable in the future – and organisers will be more open to experimentation.

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“It has been really useful; that festival cycle from year to year is so crazy,” she says. “You don’t often have much downtime or cause to question the way that you’ve been doing things and why you do them. But this year has been about thinking about the essence of what makes a writers’ festival so important, and so cherished by so many people.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to continue business exactly as usual when there’s opportunity to do so.”

For the time being, even a relatively conservative “hybrid” model carries an element of uncertainty; Dyer’s theme for 2021, ‘Unstable Ground’, proved perhaps a little too prescient in November when South Australia’s short and surreal lockdown set in days before its originally planned launch date.

It was another sign that whoever ends up on the lineup, 2020 itself may emerge as the most talked-about page-turner at next year’s festivals.

Adelaide writers’ week runs from Saturday 27 February to Thursday 4 March 2021. Sydney writers’ festival runs from 26 April to 2 May in 2021, and is running a summer series of talks, Something to Talk About, on 16 and 17 January. NT writers’ festival runs from 20 May until 23 May 2021