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‘Incredibly proud’ Darwin Festival wraps after Covid challenges

Darwin Festival Artistic Director Felix Preval

Darwin Festival has wrapped after 14 nights of events despite the challenges of a snap lockdown midway through the festival.

“We’re so incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to deliver these last few weeks, against all the odds,” said Darwin Festival CEO James Gough.

“When you’re staging a major event during a pandemic you have to have a whole alphabet of back up plans. But I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how many of those plans we’d go through – literally all of them!”

The festival was held at a time when almost every state went into lockdown at some point.

In the immediate lead up to and during the Festival, there were at least eight changes to the Northern Territory’s border restrictions, which affected staff, artists and the supply chain, not to mention visitors to the NT, all trying to make it to the Top End.

All in all, these border closures meant 78 changes to performances over the Festival’s run with nine new shows programmed, five additional performances added, eight postponed, 17 rescheduled and 39 cancelled.

Darwin Festival Artistic Director Felix Preval said it was “like trying to wrestle wind”.

“Every day bought something new.” Preval said. “We had so many program scenarios happening and every day we were on the phones to artists and managers in different states looking for shows that would be suitable replacements.

“It was the ultimate example of ‘the show must go on’, but we also had to keep the integrity of the program and deliver a Festival we would be proud of and audiences would love.”

Despite the challenges over 30,000 tickets to Festival shows were sold, with 84 performances sold out and more than 35,000 people attending Festival Park.

“There were occasions where we announced a brand-new show on the day of the performance, and by evening it would close to sold out,” said Preval.

“We’re so lucky to have such supportive and engaged audiences here in Darwin. They put a lot of trust in us that we’ll be able to deliver something they’ll love.”

Gough guided the team, measuring risk against strategic vision while at the same time overseeing the Festival’s rigorous COVID management plan to ensure a safe environment for all.

“We had successfully staged a homegrown Festival in 2020, and that taught us a lot,” said Gough.

“We already had a super detailed COVID safety plan in action, so when new restrictions were added after the lockdown, it was easy for our team to pivot and successfully apply these new guidelines.

“New restrictions weren’t the ideal way to close the Festival. But it was just another card in a long list of things we’d been dealt, and it certainly wasn’t going to bring audiences down. Everyone was just incredibly grateful and excited they could get together at all, given what’s happening around the country.

“We had such an incredible team who went above and beyond to deliver the Festival. We had 105 staff, 92 volunteers, over 450 artists and countless suppliers who worked day and night to make sure Darwin got a vibrant and exciting Festival. I can’t thank them enough for all they’ve helped us achieve.”

Percival said the current challenges make presenting a festival “close to impossible”.

“Looking to the future, it feels imperative that a federally funded insurance scheme be established to help underpin the enormous financial risks involved,” he said.

“Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine how live performance and festivals, in particular, can continue in this environment.”

Darwin Festival will return in 2022 from 4-21 August.