BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
The last time the Sydney Eisteddfod cancelled its festival was during World War II. Now, in the face of a global pandemic, it’s cancelled for a second time in its 86-year history.
The festival traditionally hosts more than 300 events every year, at which 35,000 Australian artists come together to celebrate and showcase their skills of music, dance, and acting across all ages of life.
But this year, the opportunity to perform is taken away from these artists — and as a consequence, the Sydney Eisteddfod is left without any income.
The absence of ticket sales, entry fees, and merchandise will be a problem for this arts organisation until February 2021, when it plans to open entries for next year’s festival. So in the meantime, it is aiming to raise $100,000 in donations so it can survive COVID-19.
Though it’s a dire situation for the eisteddfod — as with many arts organisations and initiatives — there have been some changes that signal hope in a challenging time. The team has shifted to offering online programs, and they’ve been met with a hugely positive response from our creative community.
We chat with Sydney Eisteddfod chairman Noel Cislowski AM about where things are placed for the organisation during COVID-19, and how the team is keeping in good spirits as it adjusts to the changes.
Noel, thanks for taking part in this interview during what must be quite a stressful time for Sydney Eisteddfod. Tell us a bit about how you’ve coped during the pandemic — what changes have had to be made to Sydney Eisteddfod so far?
After the initial shock of lockdown, cancelled venues, school and studio closures, I think we very quickly re-oriented our thinking to focus on our performers and teachers, and how we could maintain their interest and commitment in spite of all the uncertainties.
Realising that many individuals and families could be facing tough times financially, we put a huge effort into communications and refunds. At the same time, we had to cancel 18 venues across Sydney, 88 adjudicators, as well as accompanists. In addition, we had over 100 enthusiastic volunteers who assist with staging and audience management – they were hugely disappointed not to be called on.
With social distancing requirements and the need for people to stay home, and work from home where possible, we adapted our business processes to be online. From there, we developed the idea for ongoing communication with performers who themselves were confined to home but still keen to polish their performance skills.
You’re facing more than six months of having no income. What is this going to mean for Sydney Eisteddfod, and what are the risks this brings about to your organisation and the people who work with you?
Along with many other arts organisations who have had to cancel their program and face an uncertain future, we had to make the decision to cancel the 2020 Sydney Eisteddfod. However, we are fully committed to making 2021 bigger and better. The experiences of these past few months have demonstrated what’s possible online and how we can incorporate some new elements and ways of doing things in the future. Fortunately, we have been able to keep our core staff with the assistance of JobKeeper support.
The last time your festival was cancelled was long ago — in World War II, in fact! What do you feel will be the flow-on effects of this year’s pandemic cancellation? That is, how do you feel this will affect the performers of Sydney into their future careers, as 35,000 Australian artists have now lost a vital opportunity to perform and compete in person?
Our approach has been to turn this into a positive! We see 2021 as a great opportunity to celebrate coming out of the pandemic, and we will be introducing some new events and ways of showcasing performances.
Considering how large this operation is, it’s admirable that you’re shifting to online. These programs offer a rapid response to a dire COVID-19 situation.
These programs provide an opportunity across all the art forms – instrumental music, dance, singing, and speech and drama. Every week, 10 performers present their performance for viewing by audiences all over the world. What a great opportunity for performers to continue to strive for excellence and to have an audience, which may be virtual, but has already proved to be global.
You’re now fundraising with a goal of $100,000 to enable performers to access the Sydney Eisteddfod online. This gives an important example of the way administrative costs, including website facilitation, can be just as important to an arts organisation as fees associated with its creative talent, such as performing artists and directors.
Yes, a well-designed website and the ongoing technical support is critical. We do need money as we don’t have any income — and we won’t have any until about February next year when entries begin to be received for 2021. So, we are urgently looking for partners, donors, sponsors who understand the importance of all art forms in the community and the need for effective, professional administration.
The online dimension of our work underscores the great value of public performance for personal development and excellence. Donations and financial support for the online dimension help to make this possible.
For those who may like to take part in Stage At Home, what do you hope they’ll get out of the experience as performers or audience members?
At a personal level, performers develop confidence in presentation and have the opportunity to develop the technical aspects of presentation – sound, lighting, use of space, management of time, the effect of colour, importance of appearance including clothing, costume, props, makeup, and so on. Because they can watch their performance many times, they are able to reflect on and learn from the experience.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share with the Australian arts community?
Yes. This is the time to be positive! Things will get better and we need to make sure we are well prepared. What we have learnt in this phase can inform how we use technology, and how we continue to adapt to changing circumstances while keeping our enthusiasm for all art forms. Sydney Eisteddfod team is doing just that.
Visit the Sydney Eisteddfod website to show your support or tune in to its new digital initiatives during COVID-19.
Images supplied. Credit: WinkiPop Media via Sydney Eisteddfod.