How One Arab Arts Festival Transformed Itself to Save Its Season

/ 26 Jun 2020

How One Arab Arts Festival Transformed Itself to Save Its Season

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has made the future for many artists seem uncertain at best, one organization is quickly adapting to meet the unprecedented challenges head-on.

The Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, a nonprofit organization that has been bringing Arab culture to the British public since 1998, was able to ensure compensation for its performers this summer and is charting new territory with its effort to move nearly the entire festival online.

The festival receives support from the Arts Council England and the Liverpool City Council. Its program manager, Jack Welsh, and its marketing coordinator, Laura Brown, plan the events at least a year in advance. It was around February of this year that they realized the Covid-19 crisis would affect their plans for July.

“We were just about to enter the stage in which we would confirm everything and start exchanging contracts with artists,” said Welsh. “We had to look at our existing program and start to think about how it could be translated digitally.”

A few events had to be canceled. The popular Family Day, at the iconic Palm House in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, was one. Family Day normally attracts about 4,000 people to the glass-domed Victorian structure, with free family-focused activities like storytelling and face painting, and live dance and music performances inside.

The digital transformation, however, has allowed the organizers to flex their creative muscles and explore different ways of moving forward with the many activities they engage in year-round, including workshops. The most recent one came in the form of a parent-baby “dabke” dance session, held on Zoom. The free workshop, led by the Hawiyya Dance Company, introduced families to the traditional Levantine folkloric dance.

“That’s one example of how we’ve adapted,” Welsh said. “We’ve been really reimagining what we can do with the space we’ve been given.”

Coping With Logistical Hurdles

The maritime city of Liverpool, in northwest England, is famous as the hometown of the Beatles and is a hotbed of culture, boasting more museums and galleries than any other city in the United Kingdom after London. Seeing event after event canceled in the vibrant city was beginning to weigh heavily on residents.

“I’m creating a lot of digital assets—illustrations, animations, previews, trailers—to help tell the story of the festival, especially to those who may not have encountered it before,”

Laura Brown   Marketing coordinator at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival

“People felt rather down, as culture is a massive part of day-to-day life here. Summer in Liverpool is such an incredibly creative time,” Brown said. “One of the challenges we have had to face in the past is securing a venue; there is something happening every single weekend. Programing in the physical realm can be quite the nightmare because you are up against events that attract thousands. So being able to tell people that we were going to offer them something was wonderful.”

The festival is also hoping to reach audiences in countries beyond the United Kingdom this year. “I’m creating a lot of digital assets—illustrations, animations, previews, trailers—to help tell the story of the festival, especially to those who may not have encountered it before,” Brown said.

The situation has also meant that the dialogue between artists and organizers is more crucial than ever. A single online presentation, such as the dabke workshop, often necessitates several dress rehearsals with tech teams to troubleshoot any potential issues and to ensure that the artists are comfortable.

“One of the things many people don’t realize is that it isn’t as easy as an artist going onto Facebook or Instagram live and launching a performance,” Brown explained. “Not every artist has the ability, the confidence, or even the broadband connection to hop onto social media platforms and perform.”

Lisa Luxx and Dayna Ash are two LGBT+ poets of Arab heritage who will participate in an online event at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival this year. They will share their own poems on queerness, identity and longing, with nods to the history of Arab lesbian culture. (Photo: The festival website)
Lisa Luxx and Dayna Ash are two LGBT+ poets of Arab heritage who will participate in an online event at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival this year. They will share their own poems on queerness, identity and longing, with nods to the history of Arab lesbian culture. (Photo: The festival website)

Choosing the Right Platform

Additional complications stem from the need to organize across different time zones, social media demographics and audience-specific platforms.

“Digital platforms are similar to venues in that they attract different audiences,” Brown explained. “Our programs are audience-led and quite broad in terms of art forms and mediums, so we tend to attract a wide variety of people. Those who go to our Family Day might not be interested in Arab cinema, for example.”

While a single physical setting might be sufficient to host a variety of performances, digital events are less amenable to a one-size-fits-all approach.

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“For music, we are thinking of using Facebook Live, as it’s easier to watch and easier for the artist to control,” Brown said. “For panels, you want to be able to see everyone’s face, so something like Zoom is ideal.”

Equally important to an effective and engaging performance are length of time and structure.

“My background is in radio,” Brown said. “Hour-long programs would be divided into four increments, and the content would be adjusted accordingly. Audiences like to know what they are going to expect. For panel events, for example, the moderator would say ‘Five-minute intro, 30-minute talk and 20 minutes for questions.’”

Digital Advantages

The move to an online setting, while fraught with its own challenges, has removed some previous barriers, such as the need for visas when bringing in performers from abroad.

“One of the events we have programed for the digital festival is something that couldn’t otherwise happen geographically,” Welsh said.

In terms of access, the digital transformation has also proven to be an advantage. People from the Middle East, for example, who were not previously able to come to Liverpool, are now signing up, and the organizers are already wondering how they will engage this audience in the years to come.

“Doing online events from home is a strange experience because it’s so much harder to check in on the audience or to feedback energy with them. On the other hand, however, it’s so much more intimate. They are being let in on a quiet version of you.”

Lisa Luxx   A British-Syrian poet

They hope that what they are doing this year is not a one-off. “We’ll hopefully have all our live events again at some point, but we do still want to keep the digital component,” Welsh said.

The Show Will Go On

While the festival is most well-known for its large Family Day, the organizers plan to host a wide variety of online events that appeal to a range of tastes, including talks, literature presentations, poetry readings and musical performances.

The Hawiyya Dance Company will be returning, this time alongside El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, for a series of discussions on the folkloric dabke, a medium through which the artists explore themes related to social justice and cultural identity. Also in store are a series of short films from female Arab directors; a personal history/memoir writing workshop with acclaimed Palestinian-American poet and author Ibtisam Barakat; and a presentation of “poemfilms” as part of the project Yemen in Conflict.

Audience interaction will play a key role in recreating the festival atmosphere. “We will be having question and answer sessions to connect audiences and artists,” Welsh said.

A Performer’s Perspective

Lisa Luxx, a British-Syrian poet who will be appearing alongside Daynah Ash in a performance titled “Grinding Saffron; a night of poetic lesbian sisterhood,” shared her artist’s perspective on the unique circumstances of this year’s festival.

“Doing online events from home is a strange experience because it’s so much harder to check in on the audience or to feedback energy with them. On the other hand, however, it’s so much more intimate. They are being let in on a quiet version of you,” Luxx said.

“You have to keep them at their screen, also, when they could be easily distracted. In terms of preparation, it isn’t so much about costume or fanfare or memorization, but more about mentally warming up to the idea of letting people into my home, to hear me sit down and speak from my stillness to theirs.”

In the midst of an evolving situation, it will be interesting to see how the art world adapts to the new normal. For the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, ensuring that the show goes on is top priority.

“Creatives have no idea what the sector will look like in twelve months,” Brown said.

Welsh agreed. “The reverberations of this situation will just echo and have impacts in ways we can’t anticipate,” he said. “Artists across the world have been hit so hard. That our funders have been able ensure that we can support our artists has been immensely valuable.”




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