'The atmosphere was electric': a deep dive into the return of literary festivals

'The atmosphere was electric': a deep dive into the return of literary festivals

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK last spring, literary festivals have either had to cancel their plans altogether, or quickly adapt to online models. However, in the last month or two some have returned to running as live physical events. The Bookseller spoke to organisers of a few of these events about the challenges they faced and how audiences have responded to being able to celebrate literature in-person again. 

In a normal year, Wimbledon BookFest is held over 10 days in October with an audience of 15—20,000 people from schools and the general public. This year, organisers opted to stage two five-day festivals to bookend the summer: Sunrise in June and Sunset in October. Festival director Fiona Razvi explains: "Given the guidance, we decided that summer would be the safest time and running two smaller events would be more appropriate."

Razvi and her team felt that holding a physical event was important as "it’s all about being in the room" for the festival's core audience. She says: "You can’t really bottle the magic of that unique opportunity to meet and hear from great writers and thinkers in person." Given that the festival is hosted in a pop-up marquee village on Wimbledon Common, the team believed it could "easily adapt our format to make it Covid-safe". For Sunrise, which ran from 9th to 13th June, the capacity of the main marquee was reduced to 40% of the usual audience capacity with social distancing measures in place. Demand for tickets was "exceptionally strong, with many events selling out". Overall, the festival achieved more than 80% occupancy with 4,000 people attending. For Sunset, which will run from 15th to 19th September, the capacity of the main space has been increased to 350 and the festival expects to welcome 6,000 attendees.

In terms of difficulties posed by hosting the festival in person, Razvi cites "changing government guidelines, self-isolating speakers, our booksellers being furloughed, and of course, much reduced income". To combat some of these issues, the team put lowest risk strategies in place, following government safety guidance before restrictions were lifted. They also brought book sales in-house as staff at usual book sales partner Waterstones "simply didn’t have the capacity to work with us this year". Instead, the festival introduced a model which saw books sold as part of the ticket price.

Measures were put in place to make Wimbledon BookFest's Sunrise Festival Covid-safe

The seating format at the festival’s venues was also adapted from long rows to seating in groups of four. Razvi says: "The audience loved it and won’t want to go back to the old style. It felt such a social experience, which is what people were yearning for." The festival also increased turnaround times between events to allow for cleaning of the venues and operated a "no physical ticket" policy. Events were filmed to allow the audience to watch them on demand.

Razvi praises the team for rising to the challenge of delivering the festival in these circumstances and "the risks we took that came off". One such risk was adapting a Frank Skinner event when he had to self-isolate at short notice, with the production team broadcasting him via Zoom in front of a live audience while host Samira Ahmed was on stage. Razvi says: "To do this on Wimbledon Common with no satellite was a huge technical challenge [but] it felt like Frank was in the room." A personal highlight for her was David Baddiel promoting his latest book Jews Don’t Count in an event with Empireland author, Sathnam Sanghera. "To have two different perspectives on Britishness, racism and prejudice, broadening the debate – well, it’s what book festivals are for."

The mood at Sunrise was "incredibly high", according to Razvi. She says: "Artists and audience alike were delighted to be back. People had clearly missed the stimulation of live events, and just loved being together again. Our audiences were so appreciative – it’s definitely enriched our relationship with them. I think it really demonstrated, more than any other time, the value of arts organisations in our communities." 

Highlights from the Wimbledon BookFest's Sunrise Festival, held from 9th—13th June

Hexham Book Festival hosted both the inaugural Gillian Dickinson Children's Festival and a reduced festival programme for adult audiences in a Spiegeltent in the grounds of Hexham Abbey from 2nd—11th July. Its organisers had received funding to deliver the new festival for young people in 2020 and 2021, but after the 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic, this was carried over to 2021 and 2022. As such, the team felt it was "essential" that the festival happened as a live event "as soon as was possible". Furthermore, feedback showed that its audience was "overwhelmingly in favour of a return to in-person events", says the festival’s director Susie Troup. 

Seating at the festival was limited due to social distancing measures and there were longer breaks between events to allow for deep cleaning. Troup says: "In general, audiences were appreciative, and tolerant of longer waiting times under the circumstances." She reports that, though audience capacity was limited, there was a high level of interest and "many events sold out within two weeks of going on sale". However, attendance was somewhat affected by audience members having to self-isolate, leading to refunds, and this even impacted on the programme, with a book-themed circus show having to cancel as one of the performers contracted Covid. 

Overall, Troup says administration costs for running the event were "much higher than usual" while box office income is lower. However, she regards the 75 events held and the 5,400 tickets sold as "an achievement", in addition to the successful launch of the Gillian Dickinson Young People’s Festival.

Poet Hollie McNish on stage at Hexham Book Festival

After delivering nearly 18 months of online events and creating a digital arts platform, the team at Harrogate International Festivals felt that it should host the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival "if we were able to deliver a live event, safely and within the guidelines", says chief executive Sharon Canavar. Challenges included delivering a year’s worth of work within four months and having higher infrastructure costs to make the event safe but lower ticket income due to restricted audiences. In the last few days running up to the event (which was held from 22nd—25th July), both staff members and author speakers had to drop out to self-isolate. Despite this, Canavar says: "On balance, we felt that as a live events organisation that the pros to delivering a live literature event far outweighed the cons."

Rather than relying on the goverment's original reopening date of 21st June, they worked to deliver the festival at 50% capacity "in order to feel like we could plan with some sense of stability". Several changes were made to the running of the festival, with almost all events moved into large tents. An event space that usually seats 700 people became a Digital Lounge where around 100 people could watch the live events on sofas. A large event arena was built to house the live events from the Theakston Stage, along with additional spaces across the hotel grounds for pop-up events and community spaces. Despite concerns about how these changes would impact on the audience’s enjoyment, Canavar feels it "actually lifted the event, creating whole new spaces to celebrate the festival in a safe environment, some of which we hope to keep for the future".

Another challenge was that there was no commercial insurance available if the festival had to close due to a rise in local Covid-19 cases, which Canavar describes as "the death knell for lots of festivals across the summer". She also laments the fact that the infrastructure to support live events delivery has been "sadly lacking". In fact, she compares the last year for festival organisers to "a good crime novel – guidance from government was tricky to define, there were clues but nothing concrete".  

Highlights for Canavar included "seeing the enormous live events tent go up, watching people arrive on site and seeing their joy in catching up with their friends". She praises the event’s supporters, sponsors, venues, authors and readers for "trusting us to produce the event only three days after everything opened up", as well as the team who made it happen. She adds: "Whilst the numbers were lower, the atmosphere was electric as people were delighted to be either on stage or part of the audience. As so many people hadn’t seen one another for so long, the magic of a live event as the lights went down in the auditorium made for both a poignant and distinct event."

Simon Theakston, Fiona Movley, Sharon Canavar, and Lee Child at the launch of the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival (credit: Mike Whorley for Harrogate International Festivals)

Though Primadonna Festival ran successfully in a virtual event in 2020, its founders were determined to host a physical event this year. Festival director Catherine Riley explains: "There’s something uniquely joyful and inspiring about being in proximity with other people who share the same passions, and we wanted to replicate the magic and intimacy of the 2019 event." The event, which ran from 30th July—1st August was held in a new, bigger venue, The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Riley reports that the number of attendees was similar to 2019 and that the atmosphere on site was "electric". She continues: “There was a real sense of elation that we’d been able to come together and share ideas and listen to such an amazing programme of brilliant talent.”

Preparing for the physical event and booking the infrastructure for it was "extremely challenging". Riley adds: "We knew there was understandable concern around safety as, even with the vaccine rollout, transmission rates rose and we were also at the mercy of the 'pingdemic'…but we’re so glad we went ahead and the stress and uncertainty now seem a distant memory." In terms of making adaptations due to the pandemic, facemasks were provided for the indoor areas but, other than extra cleaning provisions, the team "wanted to make the festival a Covid-free zone as much as we could". The most noticeable change came when author and Primadonna co-founder Kit de Waal had to self-isolate and hold her creative writing masterclass over Zoom instead of in person. Stella Duffy was added to the event as "a quite incredible interlocutor" and it "became a highlight of that day".

Riley describes this year as "a steep learning curve" for both the Primadonna team and staff at the museum, as it was their first time hosting a festival. She continues: "We learned a lot this year… about how we can continue to grow Primadonna while maintaining what makes it unique: everyone’s welcome, there are surprises around every corner, and there’s no hierarchy... We can’t wait to bring it back again next year."

Broadcaster and author Sandi Toksvig and actor Adjoa Andoh had a conversation about historical female drama at Primadonna Festival (credit: Leo Cackett)

Others agree that there were several lessons to take away from the return to physical literary festivals. Razvi urges events organisers to "listen to your audience". She expands: "Respect them and communicate with them and they will come with you. Also, trust your instinct and do not be pushed into decisions just because of what other people are doing. You have to do what’s right for your event and audience, because no two festivals are the same."