It is a sad fact that the pandemic has changed so many lives, negatively impacting many people and creating feelings of fear and a “separateness” from others for so very long. Much longer than expected, and the pandemic still rages. In some way or another, the pandemic has affected everyone’s lifestyle, our habits and needs, to a greater degree than anyone expected.
The pandemic has affected the Community Festival in ways we never imagined. Telling the ComFest story in light of so much death and disease seems trite. Our issues were not so important as life itself. A very real part of the ComFest story is that one member lost both parents to Covid, one parent after the other, in different parts of the country over months. Others have lost business, retired unexpectedly, or worse, all while making big life changes that are more important than anything related to a festival.
Even so, the pandemic forced festival organizers to face some great existential moments. Please allow me to share a ComFest story, about what the festival did this past year of pandemic pandemonium.
As note-taker or Scribe for the General Planning Committee this past year, I witnessed many discussions about; what the organizers wanted to do, what they thought they should do, what they realized they couldn’t do, and discovered what they wouldn’t do. It was a good challenge to hold us to our statement of principles, to maintain our values and employ them using consensus in decision making. Pandemic rules required us to do this in online forums, with all the technical challenges presented therein. The learning curve is steep; we are still learning. Like everyone, we struggled.
We discussed, and discussed. What if we can’t have a festival? What are we if we don’t have a festival? Is it time to grow larger, get smaller? Can we evolve with the next generation of social organizations seeking change? Can we survive to our 50th year? Meanwhile, in the background but very much in our thoughts is this crazy “vibe” from the virus that is mixed with a serious wave of social upheaval and political change. And before long people are thinking, “Hey, when is ComFest? Are they gonna do ComFest? It sure would be nice to have a festival.”
It would be nice to have a festival; an outdoor-music-driven dancing-mass-of-people festival. The festival organizers agree. Yet the physical logistics that are needed to create a safe environment for thousands of people doomed our plans. Safety, for thousands. There is a Safety Committee, they work with the Red Cross and the City Police during the festival to keep the festival safe and healthy. They recommended caution, saying there was no way to ensure safety for festival goers or volunteers.
We couldn’t mount a festival last year, due to the virus. We can’t mount a festival this year, due to the virus. Last year we put our energy into 3 days of a virtual festival, which turned out rather nice despite a few glitches. It was presented by a few dedicated volunteers who put in tons of time and it took a lot out of the group. It was new and exciting, and we learned that it would take many more people to mount another festival like it.
As the pandemic surged on this past year, we held discussions about mounting a live festival. Mounting a festival of this size takes months of planning and bickering, working out the logistics and the spirit and purpose for the festival, and managing the safety and education of the community.
During this past year, discussions arose from questions like: How much does it cost to run a festival? How big or small should the festival be? What are our revenue options? What vendors have lost business? Is the family that sells hot dogs still in business? What is happening in the food service industry? In the entertainment industry? It is noted that many artists, musicians, and food vendors rely on festivals as a source of income. Yet now there are no festivals.
It is true that things are opening up, the pandemic seems to be ebbing (if only in the U.S.). It would be nice to have a live festival right now. Would it be responsible to mount one?
Indeed, what would ComFest 2021 look like? We had to work this out weeks ago, months. It could not be a full-sized festival, we can’t risk exposure to the virus to a community, the thousands who will come vaccinated or not. There is the cost of the PPE. The clean-up. What about a hybrid festival? Some parts could be live and/or online. What about a smaller event? Fewer stages, or stages set around the city, instead of just the park. But still, what if we throw a party and everyone comes!? What about sanitation? one organizer asks, several times.
Discussion continues and in our minds we “pencil in” a real live festival at a future date, willing it to be, while actually making plans for a second attempt at an ultimately more fulfilling Virtual Festival for the last weekend of June 2021. Festival organizers have found amazing amounts of archived content from artists, musicians, speakers, and social organizations covering nearly 50 years of ComFest life. 100’s of videos have been uploaded for release this weekend. The website has been retooled to exhibit the festival through the years in new exciting ways. Local musicians have submitted videos to be played during the festival. A few will perform live from various locations, streaming their art into the festival portal. The website is where it’s at for 2021. There was talk about using this to launch the next iteration of the festival, ComFest 365.
Still, in subsequent meetings not long ago, we discussed mounting a live event, that it could still happen, maybe later in the year. Dates were chosen, discussed, right up until the last minute. The group was split over the direction of the festival, it was a topic at three or more meetings. Again, the cost of doing business became the deciding factor. Any live event would cost money and require a number of volunteers (people willing to work in PPEs perhaps!), both of which are problematic. It was thought it might be best to wait till next year, when present health concerns may have been resolved. Also, it is noted that spending energy and time on a festival this year could risk mounting a full one next year, which would be the festival’s 50th. As our treasurer says, we have been throwing a party for the city for 50 years, that is a major feat in itself. This was when we decided to fully commit to present a Virtual Festival this year and work toward a physical festival next year. The organizers agree that using the website as a portal into a virtual festival at this moment can also officially launch ComFest365. In the planning stages for months, the idea for ComFest 365 is to have a year-round presence on the web which would feature live updates to social happenings and to the info boards of other like-minded orgs. All archived videos will be available for viewing. Want to see what the festival was like in 1983, 1999, 2011? Follow the links to years, dates, stages. Go down the rabbit hole like Alice and explore speakers and workshops and Program Guides! Pop in while one of the local artists is playing live for Virtual Festival 2021 or view it months later from this same website.
Happy Virtual ComFest 2021!
— Jonathan Johns