Pandemic sinks writers festival

‘We had no other choice,’ says festival board president

The Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts has cancelled its 2020 season due to the potential health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The festival – which was scheduled to run Aug. 13 to 16 – is the biggest annual arts event on the Coast, bringing audiences totalling about 8,500 people to hear readings and interact with Canadian authors at some two dozen events at Rockwood Pavilion in Sechelt. It was to be the 38th annual staging of the event.

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“We have been paying close attention to the COVID-19 projections from federal and provincial public health officials. While B.C. is seeing some success in ‘flattening the curve,’ we recognize that restrictions on social gathering will continue through the summer,” the festival said in an April 22 press release announcing the cancellation.

“We had no other choice,” John Lussier, president of the festival’s board of directors, was quoted in the release.

“We have an obligation to ensure the safety of our authors, volunteers, staff, and audience and to follow the direction from the public health authorities.”

For Jane Davidson, who has produced the festival since 2007 and is its sole full-time employee, nearly a full year of booking authors and planning has been wiped out.

Her concern now, though, is for the community. 

“It’s a special thing that happens every August in that little park,” Davidson told Coast Reporter. “And it has everything to do with the writers, it has everything to do with this community, the volunteers, the people who come year after year. We have people who have not missed a festival in 38 years. There’s a real sense of ownership in our community about this festival.” 

Davidson is also concerned about broader impacts. “Every small business on the Sunshine Coast is taking a huge hit right now [due to the pandemic]. I know there are businesses in downtown Sechelt that count on the business the festival would generate. 

“And a lot of the writers we have, whose books have been released winter, spring and summer of 2020, are not only missing out on the festival, their books are not being launched and celebrated in the way that writers look forward to so much.” 

Davidson said there is a slim possibility of a smaller “pop-up” form of the festival taking place if there were an unanticipated, positive turnaround in the course of the pandemic.

“We do have the capacity. It wouldn’t be ‘The Festival,’ but we could invite, say, Lower Mainland artists who are able to come. If we can, we will do something in August or September. I think we’ll need it, our spirits will need it.” 

While some artists are taking to the Internet to stage events, Davidson doesn’t see that as likely at the moment.

“I don't know about the possibility of online programming,” she said. “It’s impossible to replicate our festival experience.”

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