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The New Reality: Performers take art online to keep festivals alive during COVID-19

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WATCH ABOVE: Festivals have gone completely online due to COVID-19 this year, forcing performers to adapt and innovate. Elizabeth McSheffrey explains.

This is the 17th in a series of stories looking at the new reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Maritimes. You can find the full series here.

Everyone knows the show must go on — even if that means juggling fire sticks in front of a camera as many times as it takes to get the right shot.

In the last five months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many artists to rethink the way they share their craft with the world, including musicians and street performers who rely on the energy and applause of large crowds to fuel their acts.

Read more: Maritime drag performers go virtual to share and connect during COVID-19

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New Brunswick Summer Music Festival adjusts in response to Coronavirus

“The crowd is a huge, vital part of what makes that show special, so we’ve had to rethink when we make our videos,” said acrobat Kim Craig, one half of the dynamic duo that makes up the Winnipeg-based Street Circus.

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“So it will really be a unique year and a glimpse into each of the performers’ lives at home and just a different taste than you would ever get from any festival.”

Both the Halifax Busker Festival and the Halifax Jazz Festival have gone completely online this year, opting to record and stitch together most or all performance elements in advance, so there’s little more to do than hit “play” on the day of the actual event.

But the ease of streaming performance art on Facebook or Zoom doesn’t capture the complexity of putting on those shows behind the scenes.

“It was particularly difficult when we had the lockdown because here in Spain, there was a moment when we were not allowed to leave our homes,” explained Victor Rubilar, an Argentinian juggler based in Barcelona.

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Halifax Busker Fest Goes Virtual

“When we had World Buskers United Festival, I had to do it in my small kitchen, which is a very low, small space. I actually broke (some) stuff when I was rehearsing for the act; it made it a lot more difficult at first.”

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Since then, Rubilar — who holds several Guinness World Records for tricks with soccer balls — has been able to work out some of the kinks, including location. When he performs at the online Halifax Busker Festival at the end of the month, he said part of the show will come from an 800-year-old castle in Barcelona.

“It (The pandemic) has destroyed the street art form as of right now but not the artists,” he said with a smile. “The artists, we managed to adapt.”

Read more: Will coronavirus kill the traditional office as we know it?

Nova Scotia’s Mighty Mike Johns, a strongman born in Bedford, said the pandemic has been a “time of creativity” for buskers. He’s spent the lockdown twisting horseshoes with his bare hands and reinventing his typical street show to give online audiences something new.

“Some of the shows don’t change because once you get a show that’s solid live on the street, it’s very tough to mess around with it because maybe if you change a bit, people will come or go, and you don’t want to mess with the secret formula,” he said.

“But online, we’re all starting from scratch … This is not something I’ve ever done in a live show. You get to see me really out of my element, playing around.

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“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We’re being part of history here, the first-ever virtual shows.”

To find out what exactly he’s planning, he added, you’ll just have to tune in for his performance.

Nova Scotia-born street performer Mighty Mike is one of several artists who will perform online for the Halifax Busker Festival at the end of July. Mighty Mike now lives in Toronto.
Nova Scotia-born street performer Mighty Mike is one of several artists who will perform online for the Halifax Busker Festival at the end of July. Mighty Mike now lives in Toronto. Courtesy: Mighty Mike

Peeling back the curtain, event organizers say a lot of hard work and innovation went into changing the format of these festivals, which for years have drawn crowds of thousands to large venues throughout the summer.

In the case of the Halifax Busker Festival, event director Christina Edwards said tipping the performers was one hurdle and marketing the festival was another. To solve the tipping obstacle, she explained, a link to donate to each performer will pop up during the watch party, directing viewers to e-transfer, Paypal or a safe professional site called busk.co.

Read more: Coronavirus still keeping many Nova Scotia sports competitions on the bench

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On the marketing end, the festival created its first-ever teaser video, highlighting the spectacles viewers can look forward to when joining the livestream.

“We know people love the festival and are engaged online, so we had that as a definite bonus on our end when we realized we couldn’t do it the way we wanted to on the waterfront,” she said.

“I think how we marketed this is a little bit different and outside our usual box, so I think that’s expanded what we can do in the future.”

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FIN Atlantic Int’l Film Festival Goes Virtual

The online model has worked out well so far for the Halifax Jazz Festival, which opted to offer its performances free throughout the summer instead of billed events packed into a week. Attendance has been high, according to festival board president Andrew Killawee, and the musicians have responded well to pre-recording their concerts.

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“There was, especially for the first two shows that were done live, the rush of doing it in a studio with engineers,” he explained.

“The feeling I got from people was that by the end of the day, they had that festival feel like they just had a really energetic day of a lot of music and logistics to make it happen right.”

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Interviews, workshops and jazz labs on offer will be recorded and produced throughout the summer, he added.

For the schedules of both the Halifax Jazz Festival or Halifax Busker Festival — which runs July 31 to Aug. 2 — visit their respective websites.