Homegrown success; how Darwin Festival beat the Covid odds

This year’s Darwin Festival was a standout success by every metric, but the fact that it happened at all is testament to the talented team that ensured it went ahead in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The festival, known this year as DF20 Homegrown, ran from August 6-16 and saw 98 per cent of ticketed shows sold out, despite the NT’s borders remaining shut to its biggest markets of NSW and Victoria.

In March the festival team led by acting CEO James Gough and artistic director Felix Preval were busy preparing to trump last year’s festival which saw record attendance. And then Covid-19 hit.

“We had about a month working out what the pandemic meant,” said Gough. “But from March to June we had a bit of lead time to work things out unlike other festivals. But the first thing we had to do was un-produce our 2020 program.”

That program was until that point seen through an interstate and international lens, both in terms of performers and audience. But that had to be turned on its head as the borders slammed shut.

“It was interesting because you don’t think about un-producing a festival unless there is a financial risk,” he said. “Having that much notice, and with the success of 2019, it was quite an exercise.”

Darwin Festival artistic director Felix Preval (middle left) and CEO James Gough (middle right).

Gough says that while “everything was on the table” the last option was to cancel altogether.

“One of our strategies was to work out what programming online could be adopted live, which was an interesting way to adapt quickly,” he said.

“This led to the DF2020 homegrown program to really pull that back and shine a light on content which meant we could go ahead with that event planning perspective.”

Darwin Festival board member and Darwin Convention Centre GM Peter Savoff says the focus on local performers was more than just a token gesture.

“They weren’t just the same well known artists from the NT,” he said. “There is a lot of emerging music and theatre and this gave them the opportunity for the first time to be seen on a much larger stage because the publicity that was generated by the festival was both national and international, with the festival being one of the few in the whole world able to proceed.”

Some of the highlights of the Festival that came out of that new focus on local talent included Streets of Darwin, where local musicians performed an original song each inspired by their neighbourhoods, and a new dance work, North of Centre, a three-part performance that explored the diversity of the Northern Territory.

But to get to this point the organisers had to work closely with the NT Department of Health to ensure the Festival’s Covid safety. This included creating a space that could be extended or contracted to allow for the required social distancing of the number of attendees at any one time, in addition to rethinking the layout from table settings through to spacing out the digital art.

“We were confident but we were continuously managing risks – that you hope don’t eventuate,” said Gough. “But they are always there. We learnt a lot about epidemiology and public health.”

But despite the risks, challenges and fact that they were one of the first festivals in the world to go ahead during the pandemic, it was “an extremely successfully festival with a totally local line-up”.

Photo: Elise Derwin.

“We had really strong numbers and the community was really supportive and behind us,” said Gough.

“So in a way we were both surprised and really grateful. It could easily have been…you just don’t know. The uncertainty – you are opening the gates to a festival park and expecting people to turn up on their trust in your event.”

Savoff concurs that despite all the planning “nobody knew what to expect” when the Festival opened.

“I think it was testament to our community really embracing interaction again,” he said.

“Community festivals and events have never been more welcome, with all the attendees realising it was a real privilege. That was why by and large everyone was so observant of how they needed to behave. It was a very supportive and compliant local community.”

Photo: Elise Derwin.

Gough and Preval have signed on for next year’s Festival which they hope will build on this year.

“What this year did do is allow us to test things and think outside the box a little bit,” said Gough.

“Creating space is a great thing in event planning, if you can really adapt and think quickly, change things, try things you wouldn’t normally do, that was the opportunity out of this year that the festival took.

“We will definitely apply that to next year’s festival and ongoing. But it’s not over yet, we are continually watching what’s happening.”