The show must go on! Reimagining live performance during a global pandemic

A look back at how ATB stood behind Alberta artists during the strangest year ever.

By Alison Gates 18 December 2020 9 min read

Performers at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

As a long-time fan and supporter of the arts, ATB has a deep understanding of the unique personal and business financial challenges artists face, and has positioned itself to support them in all ways possible.

ATB’s Branch for Arts + Culture, which operates digitally across the province and has physical locations in Calgary and Edmonton, works to connect and strengthen the financial health of Alberta's arts sector by investing in social good and helping those who need it gain fair access to financial services.

Never before have these supports been more needed. Due to COVID-19, Albertans in the arts sector have faced significant hurdles that have exposed their financial vulnerability. Freelance workers in the gig economy, in particular, have lost work at every turn due to cancelled bookings. With no end of the pandemic in sight, many artists have felt uncertain about their futures.

Through it all, the Branch for Arts + Culture has been right there behind them, working with artists to identify their specific needs and find solutions tailored to them to help them navigate through a challenging time.

With the Branch’s support and a lot of grit and creativity, art sector workers across Alberta—independently and as a community—turned on a dime. They put their heads, hearts and talents together to find a way to bring joy to their communities from a distance. Creative muscles were flexed, new skills were discovered, hands were washed, and the results were nothing short of amazing.

Festival season faces uncertain future

To many Albertans’ despair, the month of April saw both Edmonton’s Fringe Theatre and the Calgary Folk Music Festival cancel their 2020 live events.

For the Edmonton Fringe Festival, this meant a negative $3 million impact to the organization, 200 staff without contracts and 1,600 performers in a lurch.

“Cancelling the 2020 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival was a heartbreaking but necessary decision,” said Adam Mitchell, Executive Director of Fringe Theatre. “Our priority is the health and safety of all Fringers, and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis demanded we take mindful but extreme measures. As a public gathering place where creativity thrives all year long, we did not make this decision lightly.”

The Calgary Folk Fest also suffered tremendous impact, having to turn away the more than 50,000 patrons who gather together each summer to be part of the folk community at Prince’s Island Park.

A previous years' Calgary Folk Fest

A previous years' Calgary Folk Fest

Calgary Folk Fest @ Home - Folk music…without the folks

As the weather turned warmer, Albertans were longing for the joys of summer and festival season. Feeling this, organizers, partners, performers and crews of the Calgary Folk Music Festival (CFMF) came together to re-envision the large, energetic event. With no time to spare, and despite monumental challenges, the team rallied to plan and kick-off the 41st annual Calgary Folk Music Festival on July 23.

Festival-goers were invited to shelter-in-place and enjoy the Calgary Folk Fest @ Home musical performances online with their folk music community. This shift in programming allowed CFMF and ATB to ensure over a dozen Alberta musicians had paid gigs.

"Bringing people together to share in musical moments and build community is at the core of what we do,” said Sara Leishman, Executive Director of Calgary Folk Music Festival. “We knew going into this pandemic that, above all else, our values are steadfast and that they have helped us navigate this situation and the road ahead.”

With a beer in one hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer in the other, fans enjoyed digital festival performances from, and insightful interviews with, their favourite folk artists...all from the comfort and safety of their homes and backyards.

This was an incredible accomplishment at a time when musicians were struggling to connect with their audiences and when Albertans needed a lift like never before. The partners joined forces to add some fun enhancements to the festival experience.

“Isolation Station Happy Hour” helped to take the edge off the isolation blues with a weekly online connection. This virtual gathering featured three artists each week with fans streaming the experience from home. Additionally, CFMC and ATB teamed up to deliver "Summer Serenades"; heartwarming tributes for 30 lucky festival-goers from some of Alberta’s most talented artists.

“ATB's support of CFMF and their belief in the power of music allowed us to take programming risks that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. This year we found ways to employ production staff and musicians to safely share their gifts with Albertans. We were able to create really magical, collective experiences, even while physically apart,” Leishman remarked. “That is what music does for us. It brings us together and breaks down barriers. The fact that we could create this festival energy, digitally, is a huge accomplishment that we are so proud of."

While everyone would have preferred to be together, enjoying the magic of live music at Prince’s Island Park, folkies knew it was a necessary sacrifice. But it was also an incredible success! Who knew staying home and doing the right thing could be so much fun?

A performer on stage at YEG Fringe Fest

A physically-distanced performer on stage at the 2020 Edmonton Fringe Festival

The Fringe That Never Was - “Tears, beers and tickets you’ll never use”

The Fringe Festival is an institution around the world, but it just may be the most highly-revered in Edmonton, Canada’s Festival City. That’s why the city was so devastated when organizers cancelled the festival. ATB—as presenting sponsor of the Edmonton Fringe Fest since 2013—felt the pain too. Everyone involved knew they couldn’t just stand back and let it happen.

Typically a multi-venue, multi-medium, live-stage festival, Fringe Fest 2020, dubbed “The Fringe That Never Was,” completely flipped the script. Organizers and the theatre community pivoted to take the event completely online; live streaming performances on FringeTV and partnering with community-funded CKUA Radio to deliver a nightly 10-minute radio artist spotlight.

“In just a few short months, we transformed our theatre spaces in the ATB Financial Arts Barns into broadcast studios. Our wizardly technical team quickly learned the ins and outs of live streaming and more than 100 artists helped us innovate the experience to deliver 11 days of digital Fringe,” said the Fringe’s Executive Director, Adam Mitchell. “And our unruly team of dreamers and schemers did what we do best: we returned to our scrappy, DIY roots and quickly reimagined wild and wacky ways to keep the spirit of Fringe alive and well.”

Hilarity ensured as ATB and Rapid Fire Theatre teamed up to delight festival-goers with “A Midsummer Day’s Improv.” Fringers tweeted their made-up show titles with #ATBimprov and Rapid Fire delivered a rousing scene from the play. ATB “played a role” by choosing the genre and giving a rating for each performance (cue the two old men from The Muppet Show).

Another highlight of the festival was the ATB Golden Ticket contest, a fan favourite for the past five years. Daily festival-related trivia questions were posted to Twitter and patrons answered for the chance to win a VIP package for the 2021 festival. To up the gift-giving ante and support local business, ATB added 39 mini-prizes to the contest—goodies and giftcards—all from small businesses in the Old Strathcona neighbourhood.

Looking back, Mitchell focused on the silver linings discovered amidst some very dark days. “Delivering a virtual Festival this last August allowed us to do what we do best: support artists and connect with audiences. And we learned so much in the process. The skills we honed over the past 10 months will shape the future of Fringe for years to come.”

In spite of the circumstances, it’s safe to say a good Fringe was had by all!

Brandi Sidoryk

One half of ATB's All-Albertan Concert, Brandi Sidoryk

An All-Albertan Concert - Songs for a Winter’s Night

As the most bizarre and challenging year in recent history draws to a close, ATB wanted to do one more thing to support Alberta artists and show its customers some love. So ATB teamed up with the National Music Centre (NMC) to produce an exciting, multi-artist, live-streamed music concert to air on December 17.

But, because it’s 2020, just when plans for the event were really taking shape, the heightened COVID restrictions came into effect in Alberta. So, like everyone else, ATB needed to pivot quickly to come up with an alternate plan. As the artists and production crew had already been hired, ATB decided to postpone the event instead of cancelling it. This meant everyone involved still got paid leading up to the holidays. Pushing the event out also put something positive on the horizon to look forward to.

Still working with the NMC, ATB decided to scale back and present Albertans with something simple and sweet; an intimate evening with the talented Brandi Sidoryk of Nice Horse and Robb Angus of The Dungarees, playing live from their home in Edmonton.

“National Music Centre is always thrilled to amplify the music coming out of our home province, especially right now,” said Andrew Mosker, President and CEO, National Music Centre. “Albertans need comfort and connection now more than ever—and music has the power to do that. We’re grateful to have a partner like ATB that shares our values of supporting artists and building community.”

Brandi and Robb delivered an evening of incredible music, energy and humour to a virtual turn-out of nearly 1,800 viewers. The show offered a much-needed reprieve for many Albertans feeling pandemic fatigue and a sense of loss around the upcoming holiday season.

That’s a wrap! ATB thanks the arts community for uplifting Albertans

Because of its rich partnership with Calgary Folk Fest, the Edmonton Fringe Festival and the National Music Centre, ATB was able to help ensure that more than 100 Alberta artists were paid for performances during COVID-19.

In addition to working together on events throughout the year, ATB’s sponsorship of NMC this year also went towards providing free admissions to Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre. This initiative was short-lived though, starting November 14 and ending when the new restrictions forced NMC to close to the public once again.

“Although life has been unorthodox for everyone since the pandemic began, our partners in the arts have worked hard to keep Alberta’s spirit up,” said Derek Stevenson, Strategic Leader for the Branch for Arts + Culture. “We witnessed, and ATB was proud to be a part of, some of the most heartwarming and intimate experiences throughout these events; all without being able to get together.”

ATB worked with and sponsored numerous other organizations throughout the year, including the Calgary International Film Festival, the Grande Prairie Street Performers Festival, the Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Edmonton Opera and many more.

Stevenson reflected, “These experiences were a gift for Albertans...we all needed them. I’m always amazed by the resiliency and creativity of Alberta's Arts & Culture sector, and I think we will all look back on 2020 with wonder and a deepened sense of community.”

Take THAT, pandemic!

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