GŴYL 2021 | INTERVIEW
The latest example of making lemonade from lemons, where lemonade is neat looking online events and lemons are a global pandemic, arrives on the first weekend of March and brings together four Welsh festival big hitters. Noel Gardner spoke to the people behind Gŵyl.
Last year was supposed to be a good’un for all the organisations involved in Gŵyl 2021. Festival Of Voice, devised by the Wales Millennium Centre but held across Cardiff, was on the brink of announcing its third biannual autumn programme and the intention of going once-yearly hereafter; FOCUS Wales, spread throughout Wrexham’s venues in a similar fashion, had its biggest lineup to date for May. Other Voices, a music and arts happening which began in an Irish chapel and hopped across the Irish Sea to Cardigan, had a successful 2019 debut to follow and the Aberystwyth Comedy Festival, active since 2018, was proving a tidy autumnal sibling to the more established spring weekend in Machynlleth.
All four were eventually nixed, of course, but in the meantime pragmatic steps were taken. After weeks of initial planning, then months of filming and other groundwork, Gŵyl 2021 is the result: some three dozen performances by acts drawn from Wales and further international climes, representing all four fests involved and broadcast over two days. You’ll find all relevant info at this link… well, not all of it, because a representative from each festival gave Buzz added background and opinion, so read that as well please.
How long has Gŵyl 2021 been in existence, from the initial idea to filming/recording and beyond?
Dilwyn Davies, Other Voices: At the beginning of the pandemic, all four festivals were planning to hold their usual physical editions in October 2020, but by May it became clear that this would be impossible. After discussions with Welsh Government, our shared major funder, we decided to come together to create this new online festival as a partnership between the four of us.
Originally we were aiming at October, when our physical festivals were supposed to happen, but it became clear that time and the scale of the challenge were against us. It took some weeks to develop the idea, the format, to raise funds and bring other crucial partners on board. And then we began to have creative conversations with artists and our creative teams, all whilst navigating furlough, lockdowns and uncertainty. We also had to ensure that filming and recording was completely safe for everyone involved.
Why have these four festivals, specifically, joined forces? Is geography a factor – it’s not quite north/south/east/west, but they’re nicely spread out.
Neal Thompson, FOCUS Wales: We felt from the beginning that a good spread, geographically, was really important and the fact that the festivals represent north, south, mid and west Wales is a bonus to that. The real idea behind the event is to celebrate and to showcase what Wales has to offer across all of its communities – we decided to try and create something together that could be greater than the sum of its parts, and hopefully we’ve achieved that.
Is there one act, or collaboration, from each part of the chosen lineup which has been made possible because of this situation?
Dilwyn: The collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Irish violinist Aoife Ní Bhriain [pictured above] has been created specifically for Gŵyl 2021. Neither artist had met before although they are similar in many ways: two classically trained virtuoso musicians who have also been fearless enough to explore musical soundscapes well beyond their classical backgrounds, and also symbolise the cultural and linguistic ties between Wales and Ireland.
Neal: We’re really excited to share the performance Neck Deep drummer Dani Rain has done for us for the festival. It really shows what Dani has to offer, in terms of talent and as a writer and performer in his own right.
Graeme Farrow, Festival Of Voice: The programme Jukebox Collective have put together, which highlights emerging artists from the grime scene here in Cardiff (though not only grime) is brilliant. There was a really strong visual concept behind it so the films look cool. It’s a good example of where the digital format works – though some of those artists might have featured in the physical Festival Of Voice, they might have got lost in the schedules and mix, whereas this amplifies their voice and they sound awesome.
Henry Widdicombe, Aberystwyth Comedy Festival: The Size Of Us is a new radio production with some of Wales’ newest comic voices. It’s the type of programme that just wouldn’t have been commissioned under normal circumstances, and we were thrilled to be able to bring our knowledge of the Welsh scene to the table to get these young and distinct voices heard.
Do you think there’s potential to treat the ‘digital festival’ format as a credible option in its own right in years to come, or would you rather consider it as a stopgap borne from necessity and get back to actual human interaction as soon as possible?
Henry: I think you’ll see more hybrid events that add value to both forms – a greater acceptance for live events to be shown digitally, and more thought given to doing this so it has a greater impact. And I envisage remote artists also playing a larger role in live events. What the pivot to digital has shown is the vast audience that want to attend live events but don’t for an array of reasons, and equally with artists who can perform at events that they otherwise wouldn’t have. In many ways it has made things more accessible, ironically.
Graeme, the Festival Of Voice 2020 lineup was never actually announced in the end – will any of it be carried over to 2021?
Graeme: That is correct. There are some artists in Gŵyl such as Arlo Parks [pictured] who we had programmed and were ready to announce last year. Look at her now! We are looking at how we might do a festival in November – what we can carry over and how best to present work this autumn, then be back full tilt in 2022. We had got to a stage where we were thrilled about the long weekend format we had developed, using WMC and Cardiff Bay as a unique festival site. And we are learning a lot from Gŵyl 2021 and this format, too.
Remembering the earlier months of the pandemic, the Wales Millennium Centre was especially forthright about potential closures. When they said it may remain shut until Easter 2021, it seemed almost unfeasible… but it’s been proven right and then some. Why do you think you called it correctly?
Graeme: WMC has a big theatre and is a big cultural campus, with up to 1,200 people working on site when we are busy, so we had a lot of thinking to do. Of course we had a crystal ball out and were taking advice and working very closely with Welsh Government. We called it well but not correctly – nobody did! We thought September 20 and then quickly revised that.
It has been like pinning a blancmange to the wall trying to predict opening dates. What we had to do was be flexible and creative and plan for contingencies – we focused our energies working with young people and communities, and working out how we could best support artists through this, and coming out of this. For example, we’ve just launched a new Creative Associates programme and turned our windows into a community gallery.
At this point, would you be ready to reopen as soon as it’s permitted to do so or are there further considerations?
We will be ready, but we don’t know what that looks like yet as we can’t flick a switch and bring 1,200 people back into the building. There may be conditions around mask wearing, distancing, how people come in and out of the building, COVID passports or whatever. We will keep our ear to the ground and react when we have the right information from our government in Wales.
Gŵyl 2021, online, Sat 6 + Sun 7 Mar. Free to view. Info: www.bbc.co.uk/gwyl2021
words NOEL GARDNER photos ALEX KURUNIS [Arlo Parks] / JENNIE CALDWELL [Catrin Finch & Aoife Ní Bhriain]