Festival Blog by Lyndsey Fineran, Literature Festival Programme and Commissions Manager at Cheltenham Festivals. Photos provided by The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival / Still Moving Media
Like many festivals, the Covid-19 developments in March and April threw everything up in the air for us. In a normal year, Cheltenham will play host to around 1,000 writers from all over the world and welcome c.140,000 ticket buyers to a buzzing Festival village in the centre of town for 10 days of conversation, performance and connection. How do you even begin to replicate that when travel is still highly restricted and mass gatherings may be the last element of normal life to resume?
We watched spring and summer festivals across the world move their operations entirely online (and with great admiration, I may add, as who could have envisaged producing digital festivals at the drop of a hat this time last year?) but the over-arching feeling in our team was to see if we could try and safely re-enter the physical space come October.
Autumn would mark almost half a year since the first Covid restrictions which meant 6 months of entertainment through a screen, 6 months without sharing a space with each other, 6 months without live audience laughter, applause and face to face connection.
Cue weeks of modelling, remodelling and scenario-planning to arrive at a truly unique hybrid festival offer: 120 events running live on our stages to a physically distanced audience simultaneously filmed and broadcast for free online to a worldwide audience.
Add in 20 pre-recorded digital sessions with writers based overseas to preserve (and indeed broaden) the programme’s international scope and over 40 specially created sessions with children’s authors so schools could create their own festivals in-house and we had our 2020 model. writers based overseas to preserve (and indeed broaden) the programme’s international scope and over 40 specially created sessions with children’s authors so schools could create their own festivals in-house and we had our 2020 model.
It was a bold plan. No other festival of our size was aiming for a physical version this year; many of the speakers and audiences we hoped would join us hadn’t taken part in a live event since March; numerous publishing houses had assumed authors wouldn’t be ‘on the road’ at all this year.
It was a real testament to Cheltenham’s reputation in the industry and the many rich and mutually-respectful relationships built over our 70+ years that so many authors and performers joined us in this leap forward for the sector (a considered leap, but a leap all the same).
We corresponded openly with writers about how things would run this year; shared with them our contingency plans (running venues as closed studios should live audiences no longer be allowed; pivoting entirely online should a full lockdown come into force) and ensured that our communications were thorough but never overwhelming.
Likewise with our audiences and patrons: it felt like the trust, respect and goodwill was there from our many years at the heart of the town’s cultural scene and we were open and clear with everyone about our plans and the steps needed to get there. It was important that both talent and audiences felt part of our thinking and that it was a journey we were making together.
Then once we had our plan, it was an enormous organisation-wide effort to make it a reality.
Our Operations team who would usually have their workloads full with author hotel and travel arrangements suddenly also added one-way audience flow systems, sanitising schedules, track and trace arrangements, dressing room rotas , pre-event book signings and more to their wheelhouse. , pre-event book signings and more to their wheelhouse.
Our Marketing team had to rise to the challenge of communicating to audiences the multiple new ways of attending the Festival this year - not to mention designing an entire new microsite and related systems to host the digital content alongside our Production team, who were now simultaneously running a professional broadcast schedule and a packed live event series.
Our Development team had to bring patrons and existing sponsors and partners along on the journey, as well as attract new ones in a tough climate in order to make it all possible.
Our Education team has to completely rethink the way they delivered their programmes.
The list goes on.
And even after watching these immense efforts and seeing a festival take shape in spite of all the challenges, there were still many questions and unknowns. Would it feel flat? Would having audiences spaced out and wearing masks feel sterile? Our usually jostling Writers’ Room feel empty? A programme almost a quarter of its size feel thin?
I can honestly answer ‘no’ to all of the above. I feel we kept the quality and breadth of the programme, despite its smaller size; I felt every conversation I had in the Writers’ Room was meaningful and full of heart and as for audience atmosphere feeling sterile, absolutely not. You only had to hear the rapturous first live applause on opening day to know that the enthusiasm, spirit and goodwill would carry us through.
Fast-forward 10 days and we’d featured over 300 writers, welcomed more than 7,000 live audience members and had over 200,000 people watch us online across the world (with thousands more now subscribed to the Cheltplayer for catch-up viewing), had over 32,000 children experience our school packs and achieved a media reach of more than 22million.
We supported our core, local audiences with safe live events while reaching new ones with our online offer; we supported the books industry and provided in-person book sales at a critical point in the publishing calendar; we facilitated personal connections between writers and readers that are so vital and I feel we gave the literature festival world and broader live events sector a boost of courage around returning to the physical sphere.
There’s a nice symmetry to being the world’s very first literature festival, and one pioneering a new format for these extraordinary times.
As author Andrew O’Hagan said of the festival: “I think it’s been an act of bravery as well as creativity…it’s actually brought us forward this year and given us a little bit of hope.”
And as I write this on the cusp of a 2nd lockdown in the UK, and likely a hard winter ahead, I’m so immensely grateful to have that dose of hope to carry us through.