The Five Things You Need to Know When Planning an Online Festival

The team at IJAD Dance spent the last few months developing and delivering a live-streamed festival as part of their Open Online Theatre programme.

OOT is a virtual venue developing and showcasing new work at the intersections of performing arts and technology; training artists to rethink their practice to make work specifically for live-streaming, via the art of sensography, which is the practice of choreographing work for live-streaming via multiple cameras to multiple devices. Artists receive training from professionals in film, editing, business, social media and sensography.

The programme culminates in the OOT Festival, where the participating artists can showcase their work live to audiences around the world.

Work from our most recent festival reached people in 16 countries and 59 cities!

Planning an online festival is a huge undertaking; it comes with a lot of challenges and requires dedication, cooperation and lots of love.

Here’s what we learned developing the OOT Festival during the pandemic.

  1. Build a space for process, questions, trust and support

Open Online Theatre began with the ambition to offer a programme that would support artists to bring them digitally alive in their work practice, aiming to create two concurrent existences: one for the digital realm; the other for their physical space.

The programme should provide:

  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Toolkits
  • Time
  • Community
  • Experts & Mentors

These tools and our respect for two golden rules – privacy and support – gave the artists a good grounding in what the programme was about. They soon started interacting, getting support from each other and the workshop leaders. We witnessed an outpouring of generosity and a boom in collaboration.

While the interpersonal nature of the programme was important in creating the right space, the other vital strand was technology: The Open Online Theatre programme includes the opportunity to deliver workshops and co-creation sessions as well as performances in our OOT Festival showcase.

These sessions are all delivered via our bespoke Open Online Theatre platform.

We could have chosen to use existing streaming and events technology, but we felt it was important that OOT had its own home and its own identity.

  • Be fluid and adaptable, nothing is personal, it’s ok to be unsure

Our objective for OOT was to create a space where all the artists could be together, and share their experience of all elements of the programme.

From day one this was challenging and challenged by the artists: For example, two of the participants were unable to meet for workshops in a space in London as we originally planned. We adapted to become online and geoplaced, making sure everyone received and understood the information and course exploration without being physically present. We were always available to answer questions and hear concerns.

We achieved this by making all the exercises and practical explorations fluid between the physical participants and the virtual ones; we had the project manager and the whole team involved by walking the space with their laptops, tablets and mobile phones. Quickly everyone in the room – and those that were many miles away – adapted to this with openness, flexibility and agility. 

  • Know your team and your collaborators

We had a team of 49 professionals working on the Open Online Theatre (OOT) Festival. They all brought something different to the project. We knew them all well and enjoyed working with them – we held each other in a safe space to work and communicate.

We even engaged a COVID-19 health and safety production manager to navigate the complex health and safety rules, which was a great investment, as we had someone on board who could act diligently and professionally and share accurate information with the team, enabling us to make an informed decision about the feasibility of going ahead with the festival.

That was also the time that I had to harness my enthusiastic and optimistic boundary-pushing nature, as putting on the festival involved a moral responsibility from a health and safety COVID-19 point of view!

  • Focus on your North Star 

Keep an eye on the objective, on the thing you have planned for, while keeping a finger on the pulse of what is happening around you. 

Throughout the autumn, OOT artists were offering workshops and co-creation sessions, IJAD was hosting roundtable discussions and there were artists’ Zoom meetings, all of which kept the mood positive.

The glimpse of the New Year ahead came with optimism. Our plans for the festival in February were taking shape. We’d decided to host panel discussions, and everything was looking good as momentum built.

When Boris Johnson announced stricter lockdown measures at the beginning of January, we questioned whether we could go ahead. We had already postponed the festival once from its original date in November, but we had a theatre and we had a very strong call of duty. We had momentum, we had engagement, we had support and – best of all – we had mutuality,  

We spent a lot of time waiting for government websites to publish updates, talking to colleagues in our industry and some dance bodies.

Everything and many were telling us to wait. Organising the festival was very heavy going as we needed to have a lot of things in place. But we decided internally that we would keep on preparing and only if the worst happened would we cancel.

  • Covid taught us: Be kind, be sensitive, be grounded and be flexible.

After many more meetings and clearer government guidance, we decided we could go ahead with the festival. However, it was not entirely our choice and we did speak to our artists to make sure they were happy.

But more problems soon arose.

  • One of the artists contracted Covid.
  • Two of the technical team were unable to return to the UK due to stricter laws around travel and quarantine.
  • One of the artists is over 70, so was unable to travel or be in the theatre.

With our North Star always in mind, we spent a week re-imagining how the festival would work, developing a whole new ecology where we could support all five artists from the theatre, whether or not they chose to be physically present.

The OOT ecosystem our hybrid tech sensography team – supported several different performances: One with two performers where one was in New York and one in London; another was collaborating with Amazon Alexa; another filmed from a kitchen in Milton Keynes, with different cameras editing live from the theatre; and one recorded and presented with live material from Lebanon.

It goes without saying our team was dedicated, focused, and more than anything committed to the arts. There was so much wisdom, kindness and 100% support involved in this project.

This was a collaborative team effort – we built a family, a family that will always be able to work together.

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Image credit: Katerina Sfaellou

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