A Summer of Reinvention

By Cristina Schreil

Outside Lands. (Josh Withers)

Torpedoed by COVID-19, big festivals may be scratching the surface of a paradigm shift.

The poet William Carlos Williams once said, “In summer, the song sings itself.” In 2020, this actually seems the reality, with the usual melodies from large outdoor festivals silenced by the coronavirus pandemic. After a hushed springtime across the Bay Area’s cultural landscape — with concerts, events, conferences and other big gatherings canceled or replaced by livestreams and online content — summer also sees postponement.

Prioritizing health and safety, big festivals usually marking the season are pushed until 2021. (Zooming out, this includes national staples like Coachella and Bonnaroo.) Reports already suggest that festivals slated for autumn will shutter, too.

Something feels antsier about this. After sheltering during the initial coronavirus wave, now is the time when people are itching for gatherings, the outside world and live entertainment. Some postponed festivals are still intent on celebrating in some way, relying on virtual tools and media in lieu of in-person experiences. Going virtual, however, takes problem-solving. For one, channeling the vibe of a live festival — sunshine, its lawn-lounging rituals, that sensation of music from mere feet away thrumming through the air — into a living room is tricky. Can that sensory magic really translate on-screen?

This is the very question with which organizations are grappling.

“How do we re-create the experience of listening to Joshua Bell play the violin 10, 20 feet in front of you with the vineyard glowing in the background?” mused Tessa Edwards, director of growth and philanthropy for Festival Napa Valley. “Those are pretty powerful experiences to re-create. … How do we continue to share the power of music, even though we won’t be having these 10 glorious days that we present every summer?”

Joshua Bell.

The 15th Festival Napa Valley, originally slated for mid-July, planned to feature top artists like Jennifer Hudson, violinist Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez for an audience of 10,000-plus. So far, sharing the power of music amid canceled concerts has been done by posting archived concerts and private streamed new performances. Two alumni of the festival’s Blackburn Music Academy virtually united 126 past and present Festival Napa Valley musicians in a slickly edited performance of Verdi’s Va, pensiero chorus. Trying to bottle that vineyard experience, fans can re-create food and wine pairings designed by wineries, under the festival’s website section, “Notes for a Brighter Day.”

This echoes many festivals’ 2020 pivots from existing solely as performing arts organizations into generating online content and at-home experiences. Edwards says it’s brought opportunities. For one, Festival Napa Valley is nurturing its virtual platform, particularly for arts education initiatives. It’s a chance to digitally adapt and innovate to connect with younger audiences. That’s especially key to performing arts’ future, she adds. “This moment is helping organizations make a shift that is going to have to happen anyway.”

Halting the regular rhythms of wrangling live performances opens up space to explore. “When we work on live events, big events, you’re on autopilot,” Edwards says. “But here we are with this moment where, all of that stripped away from us, [we can ask], What are we going to do with this? How are we going to still fulfill our mission?” she notes. “It’s really breathed new life into our program.”

Other long-running festivals are leaning into their digital game. The Mendocino Film Festival put up a Virtual Cinema Series on its website; two new films will release each week until July 31. SFFILM Festival is sharing its entire 2020 program online. Last month, San Francisco Pride commenced with a suite of fully virtual celebrations.

Macy Gray.

Also innovating is the 83-year-old Stern Grove Festival. 2020 promised to be a year of new offerings across 10 weeks, with lodestone headliners like Billy Ray Cyrus, Macy Gray and Hanson, plus the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Symphony. The season has gone virtual, with new “Best of the Fest” programming. Each week sees new playlists of historic footage released on KPIX-TV. More content will be on the festival’s social media channels and website.

Festival Board Chairman Matthew Goldman is in the fifth generation of the family behind the festival. He paints its annual presence as comforting and reliable. To evoke that sense this year, they’re leaning on social media to consistently connect with fans. Themes also anchor each week’s concert, including broadcasts titled Celebrating Women, Soulful Sunday and World Music Day.

“I think the advantage to our virtual offering is we potentially might even have a greater reach,” says Goldman. “To some degree we have physical limitations to the amount of people that can consume our content every Sunday [in typical years], just by virtue of physical boundaries. But now, with virtual, we could be even more global.”

A fascinating place to find big-picture thinking is the Bay Area’s Burning Man community. Burning Man announced in April that its famously immersive in-person experience would transmute into virtual happenings. In many ways, the gathering is more daunting than channeling a big festival online: They plan to re-create Black Rock City in “The Multiverse” — a virtual Burning Man, held wherever burners are located. Can this work? How could Black Rock City, which draws so many it’s visible from space, migrate meaningfully in an online realm?

Answers lie in delving deep. Organizers and artists are probing beyond merely substituting an in-person experience to seeing how they can amplify Burning Man’s core values.

Burning Man.

Burning Man is quite different from a typical events production company, points out Steven Raspa, associate director of community events. He’s seen many innovate around coronavirus cancellations, and what’s resulted is a wealth of shared ideas and information on how to bring certain things online. It’s not easy: People must consider how to adhere to certain principles, such as decommodification. There’s also concern over internet trolls disrupting the spirit of the event. However, he notes, the global Burning Man network’s focus on community building and human relationships — the basis for the main event — is stronger.

“This moment offers you an opportunity to really have you question: What is your real mission in the world and how can you do it best?” says Raspa. “In some ways, this could be a new frontier.”

Raspa says trying to replicate what would have unfolded in-person could mean disappointment. Yet, artists are framing this as a social experiment toward new dimensions. For example, some have re-created Nevada’s Black Rock City in a digital hive like format, reimagining the utopian sprawl as a honeycomb; clicking on each chamber opens different content. Others have fashioned a simulated flight to the moon. Yes, it’s hard to re-create the event’s traditional spontaneity and natural surroundings. But, whimsy and connection are still possible. An upside to virtual, Raspa notes, is the ability for on-the-spot reactions to presentations via chat functions.

On a larger scale, Raspa adds, they’re also considering how to improve their operations for the long term. He suggests other events could use this time for that, too. “All of our in-person events are suffering, but in some ways the bigger and harder work is accelerating.”

Bay to Breakers.

The Scoop

Here’s a list of Bay Area/Northern California summer events that have gone digital or been canceled or postponed.

Outside Lands: Canceled

Alameda County Fair: Canceled. Find virtual events on its website.

Bay to Breakers: Postponed from May 31 to Sunday, September 20.

Bottle Rock Napa Valley: Rescheduled from May 22–24 to Oct. 2–4.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music: The Santa Cruz festival has canceled its 2020 season, but has plans to offer virtual content. Check its website for more.

The California Roots Music & Arts Festival: The Monterey festival has been rescheduled for October 9, 10 and 11.

California State Fair: Canceled.

Contra Costa County Fair: Canceled.

Country Summer: The music festival at the Sonoma County Event Center Fairground was postponed from June to October 23–25.

Frameline Film Festival: Postponed until Fall 2020; a virtual festival June 25–28 presented queer short films on its website.

Gilroy Garlic Festival: Postponed to July 2021.

Half Moon Bay Ol’ Fashioned 4th of July Parade and Block Party: Canceled.

Marin County Fair: Canceled. Find virtual content on its Facebook and Instagram.

Mendocino Film Festival: In-person events postponed to 2021. Online, there’s a “Virtual Cinema Series” with two new films released every week until July 31.

Oakland Art + Soul Festival: Canceled, with virtual tributes posted on Facebook @ArtandSoulFestival.

San Francisco Jazz Festival: Canceled.

San Francisco Pride: In-person events were replaced by online programming the last weekend of June.

San Jose Jazz Summer Fest: Postponed to August 2021. Find live-streamed concerts Monday and Thursday on its website.

SF Silent Film Festival: Postponed until 2021.

Solano County Fair: Organizers are posting virtual performances, contests and more online.

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