Back at it again

Winnipeg festivals make a comeback this season

The Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, like other local festivals, is returning to in-person events, but the province’s ever-changing approach to COVID-19 is a potential stumbling block. (Supplied: Leif Norman)

After two years of sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear whether or not they could be hosted in person, festivals all over Winnipeg will finally return.

Local festivals like Folk Fest, Comedy Fest, Jazz Fest and Fringe Fest pivoted and tried their best to entertain during the COVID-19 pandemic amid public-health restrictions. Now that Manitoba’s restrictions have been lifted, they were given the green light, and organizers are rushing into planning mode.

“I think just coming out of, you know, the last two years, it’s not going to be the traditional festival as we knew it. There’s probably going to be a bit of a transition year,” Chuck McEwen, the executive producer for the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, says.

“Our goal is to have a fully in-person festival and provide all of the same performance activities indoors and outdoors as we last did in 2019. We may even add a few new activities.”

Most of the festivals have been preparing for their big comebacks, and some, like CURRENT Winnipeg, are excited to finally host audiences for the first time. However, this also means learning to deal with the logistics of operating in person during a pandemic.

One of the barriers these festivals have had to face is the ever-changing restrictions from the province.

“For two years, things have been locked down with theatrical venues closed. In the fall, restrictions were lifted such that we could do sort of a small, scaled-down festival with ... limited seating and that kind of thing. And now the province has opened everything back up, so that theatres are (at) 100 per cent (capacity),” Dean Jenkinson, the artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, says.

Not only have theatrical venues opened and closed periodically throughout the last few years, but mask mandates, proof of vaccination requirements and gathering limits have caused these festivals to reevaluate their program structure and how they could bring everyone together once again, safely.

“We learned a lot from the last two years, where we were able to innovate and move online to continue to showcase our amazingly talented Winnipeg artists to a new and diverse audience. This kind of innovation and learning has led us to a new yet familiar place where the focus is on music and the joy of discovery,” Laura Friesen, Jazz Winnipeg’s marketing and communications manager, says in an email to The Uniter.

What these festival organizers want most is to reconnect with the communities they created prior to the pandemic.

“We’ve gone through a strategic review as an organization, and this year’s festival signals a return to our jazz roots and the core ethos that jazz embodies,” Friesen says. “In short, we’re going to highlight the best of jazz and are looking forward to reconnecting with our community to celebrate the start of the summer.”

One thing is for certain: the expansion of digital programming, which some festivals like the Fringe Festival continue to offer, has made local events much more accessible. Those who don’t feel comfortable in large crowds, people who live out of province and others can now enjoy festivals wherever they have an internet connection.

Published in Volume 76, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 7, 2022)

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