With artists no longer able to travel freely across Europe post-Brexit, and with no sign of the Covid pandemic abating, Francesca Hegyi explores the challenges of trying to stage an international festival in the UK.
In March 2020 we cleared our desks and left the Edinburgh International Festival offices thinking we would be back in a month. Little did we know that, over a year later, we’d still be working from home after cancelling the International Festival for the first time in its 75-year history, in a world that has quite possibly changed forever.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge the Edinburgh International Festival has faced. While we always plan for different scenarios, the complete cancellation of the festival was only ever the remotest of possibilities. The process of unpicking an entire festival at great speed and with great care is really difficult. A festival is not only a joyous event for audiences to experience, it represents people’s jobs and livelihoods.
The cancellation of the 2020 International Festival posed a challenging question about identity. When your entire raison d’être is to put on a festival, what is your purpose when that is taken away? Knowing our industry was one of the worst affected, we decided our job was to work out how to employ as many arts sector workers as possible. We created employment for over 500 freelancers through the My Light Shines On programme, which featured a series of digital performances and an outdoor lighting project, illuminating empty arts venues across the city.
Changes in working culture
We continue to feel the impact of the pandemic in the day-to-day operations of the festival. Along with thousands of other organisations, our staff continue to work from home with no fixed return date, often in difficult circumstances. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a spare room or their own computer. We have tried to make sure that everyone has access to the IT equipment they need so they can work remotely, or we have opened up the office for those who can’t work from home comfortably.
However, no amount of IT equipment can replicate the immediacy of face-to-face contact. It is really hard to support employees who are struggling when all of our communication is mediated by a screen. I imagine that the long-term impacts of this prolonged period of isolation will manifest themselves in the months and years to come, reflected by the increase of mental health, stress and burnout issues that the industry is witnessing at the moment.
We are only just beginning to understand the potential long-term impacts on how we will operate in future years. We are acutely aware that we can’t go back to the way things were. Although no one would have chosen this path deliberately, we have learnt things throughout the past year that we will take into the future. For example, perhaps being present in the office five days a week isn’t necessary and we can build in a better work-life balance to the festival long-term.
Welcoming our congregation
Looking ahead to the 2021 festival, we had to predict back in December, when things were looking really bleak, whether our audience would feel comfortable returning to our venues. Even in a typical year, most of our audience travel from Edinburgh or Scotland, so this year we expect our audience to be overwhelmingly local. We love our traditional venues across the city and we cannot wait to return, but this year we took the decision to create a series of outdoor venues as we felt it gave us the best chance of being able to stage a live festival. We want to create an environment that is safe, yet also warm and welcoming. After all, the essence of a festival is about congregation, a shared moment of connection and appreciation for the work.
Removing the obstacles to touring
The challenge we expected to face in 2020 was Brexit. However, due to travel restrictions, our 2021 programme is primarily made up of Scottish and UK based artists, so we haven’t yet felt the full impact of Brexit.
Anything that inhibits the ability for artists to come and perform – and the finely choreographed movement of equipment associated with that – has the potential to be incredibly damaging for the festival and for the whole industry. What was previously a relatively simple exercise will now involve a huge increase in paperwork, planning and uncertainty.
This country wants to be seen as an open and welcoming place to experience the world’s best culture, so we must urgently find a way to remove any obstacles both for overseas artists visiting here and UK companies touring across Europe. We have to work together to crack this as soon as possible because it is a major problem for the industry.
As August draws nearer and we look forward to this year’s festival, I find it impossible not to draw parallels between the challenges we face now and the origins of our festival. In 1947, the International Festival launched with the aim of using culture to unite people and contribute towards the recovery of society after the horrors of the World War Two. Described as ‘the flowering of the human spirit’, the organisers recognised the power of the arts to nourish our souls and to build bridges between nations. I truly hope we can capture some of that spirit with the return of live performance across the city this year.
Francesca Hegyi OBE is Executive Director of the Edinburgh International Festival
Edinburgh International Festival will be held from 7 - 29 August 2021