"There is More to Our Lives Than Just Being in This Crisis”
Who’d be a Festival Director right now while we’re two months into a COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak?
On the eve of the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival (HBAF) launching next Wednesday, director Pitsch Leiser is nodding in agreement over Zoom.
“It’s a good question - with the constant change of Delta, it has certainly challenged us.”
Leiser is referring to his contemporaries, arts festival directors from around New Zealand, having been forced to either cancel or drastically downsize given the restrictions of Alert Level 2 outside Auckland and the country’s largest city still in Alert Level 3.
Despite managing to deliver a full festival programme last year to the delight of artists, organisers and festival-goers, Leiser says the Delta strain has changed everything.
“It’s an incredibly hard journey, the goalposts changing frequently.”
But the HBAF Board and Leiser have made the decision to continue, albeit with a few changes. He’s encouraged by Gisborne’s Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival that has also pivoted with the COVID outbreak in order to go ahead.
The HBAF programme will now span over five months, with an initial 11- day roll-out starting 20 October, then summer shows in early 2022 featuring Reb Fountain, Troy Kingi with Delaney Davidson, Che Fu and the Kratez, Urzila Carlson and the much renowned Haka Party Incident show. Of course, this is all contingent on a loosening up of restrictions to allow greater audience numbers and an opening of regional borders to include Tāmaki Makaurau artists and technicians.
“First and foremost, we have a responsibility to our artists - we made a long-standing commitment encouraging them to develop works. We accompanied them on that journey,” explains Leiser.
He shares the popular opinion among the creative community that artists have been hit harder than most with the pandemic, “opportunities in the arts are shut down first and usually are the last to come back.”
Having been immersed in New Zealand arts for over 30 years (Galaxy Theatre, Auckland Council Festivals Manager, Events lecturer AUT), Leiser understands the importance of artists being on the stage. “The purpose is to be in front of a crowd, to do their craft and perform. It’s not just a livelihood, it’s also important for wellbeing.”
Pitsch Leiser. Photo: Supplied.
The local community has much to benefit from the festival going ahead, Leiser pointing to the pandemic creating divisiveness. “In times of crisis, it’s important to have something to look forward to; see work that reflects our world above the narrative that is very one-track. It’s easy to forget there is more to our lives, more to our worlds, than just being in this crisis.”
Much has been made about the role of the arts as being essential to society, and Leiser points to history to support this view. He says of the arts “they help us process and make sense of what’s going on around us – artists reflect our deeper purpose. You only need to look back in other times of crises; our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetime, the importance of arts during World War II, the Vietnam war - art puts things into perspective, as a response… as a way of coping.”
Tierra y Mar Flamenco Project. Photo: Supplied.
Having said that, the festival will make sure safety is paramount for its attendees - a theme that has been prevalent throughout the industry. Workarounds for limited audience numbers include increasing sessions and most shows cancelled have been reprogrammed for 2022. “It’s an opportunity to fulfill our promise to artists.” Punters will be socially distanced and masked, mixing and mingling only within their bubble.
Leiser’s tone turns sombre as he describes his hopes that the festival’s courage will be rewarded. “This is going to be a big investment in financial commitment on our part, it’s not going to wash its face.”
The toll of leading the way has been met with Leiser understanding his own personal needs. “I try and keep my own balance, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, plenty of sleep, meditation, walking, trying to focus on how we deliver this experience to lift us collectively.
Popular 2021 Festival and touring production The Artist. Photo: Supplied.
“This experience is a bit of shining light in this overcast scenario - it’s a bit of sunshine, lifting off the clouds. I know these performances will be beautiful, real people on stage, telling real stories, showing us craft… work… research, artistic development that will be privileged moments to share in.”