New Zealand

30 Jun 2020

A Festival Like No Other

by Jenny Barrett

Auckland Arts meets Global Pandemic

Auckland Arts Festival 2020 was years in the planning, with forty-nine shows and events involving artists from all over the globe, attended by audiences in excess of 100,000 and involving one hundred and fifty staff, including sixty technical crew members. This year the Festival opened to rave reviews and full houses, but as Covid-19 impacted, it was the people behind the scenes who deserved the limelight. 

Something In The Air

As early as mid-February the Auckland Arts Festival (AAF) felt the first impact of COVID-19 as air cargo flight cancellations pushed the cost of air freight up four-to-six fold.

As a result, on 26 February, two weeks out from the start of the Festival, management had no option but to cancel the headline show Place des Anges, an outdoor aerial spectacle set to be performed at Auckland Domain.

Nick Tomlin, the Festival’s Technical Manager, recalls the feeling at the time, “We could see the Artist Liaison team working flat out, rerouting people’s flight plans and dealing with hold ups, and we began to wonder what would happen next, but it was still very much a case of the show must go on.”

Two weeks later and coincidentally the day before the World Health Organisation declared the virus a global pandemic, the Festival opened, “By then we were very concerned. We were watching the performing arts industry shut down all over the world.


“I remember they announced that the Black Caps would be playing in an empty stadium and I thought what is happening? I think there were five or six COVID-19 cases in New Zealand at that point, and the situation globally seemed to be escalating by the hour.”

The executive management and communications teams worked relentlessly to try and pre-empt whatever would happen next, “When Auckland Council decided to cancel the Pasifika Festival, we began experiencing an increase in enquiries about that status of AAF shows and events,” remembers Chief Executive David Inns.

Nick describes how the management team kept in constant contact with all the staff and venues, “We were under no illusion by then that we were working in unprecedented times, and that communication was critical.

“We shared all the information that we had and what was under discussion, so that staff were as prepared as we were for what might happen next.”

Festival Opening – Tira in Aotea Square with Hollie Smith, Hātea Kapa Haka and choirs from around Auckland singing a playlist of iconic waiata. Photo credit: Eu-Lee Teh

Carrying On Carrying On

AAF remained determined to continue with all shows that had not been impacted by performers having to self-isolate on arrival,  and the restriction of mass gatherings to five hundred.

David says all shows were reviewed on an on-going basis, “Spiegeltent shows were immediately limited to three hundred people, and we worked with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra on livestream options for their four concerts.

“We also anticipated the need for contact tracing in general admission venues and quickly worked to put in seat numbering and audience cards to enable contact tracing if required.”

Meanwhile Nick, in his role as Technical Manager, had the job of cancelling equipment bookings and crew calls for those shows cancelled or postponed,

“We decided early on to honour all of our commitments to rostered contract staff and crew, so they at least had some surety no matter what happened, and I have to say in light of all that was happening – and the complete lack of sleep – morale was still positive.

“The Technical Team’s office became the place where everyone gathered, and the atmosphere was open, nurturing and supportive. Not to mention we had a well-stocked beer fridge.”

The last men and women standing, packing down the Spiegeltent.

A House of Falling Cards

The next few days saw international border closures and cancellation of flights to various destinations meaning it became critical to get international artists home to their countries of origin, and the limits for internal mass gatherings fell to one hundred, effectively shutting down the remaining shows.

“It was like a house of falling cards. They were really difficult days and absolutely heart breaking after all the effort everyone had made,” reflects Nick,

“We spent one day packing in Mouthpiece and my job the following morning was to pull it all down. One company, Estère were actually doing the soundcheck when we had the difficult conversation.”

Only Massive Company (Babble) and NZ Opera (Eight Songs for a Mad King) opted to go ahead with performances, with limited audience numbers to ensure compliance.

Even they admitted defeat after a few days as venues closed all over Auckland and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra announced that they could no longer continue due to concerns for staff and artists, even though they had planned to stream the concerts without an audience.

Before the tent came down – Limbo Unhinged in the Spiegeltent.
Photo credit: Veronica McLaughlin

Packdown becomes Lockdown

Already exhausted after two weeks of crisis management, AAF’s staff still had people to repatriate, equipment to pack out, and a massive tent to pull down.

Laughing about it now but not at the time, Nick recalls, “I thought I had a week to sort out all of the technical infrastructure and that the priority was giving the staff a couple of days off after such a volatile time, just to recalibrate with family and whanau.”

Nick had grand plans to take everything down methodically, clear out all the storage, maximise crew hours and give everyone an enjoyable week together as he figured it would be their last for a while.

Luckily for Nick, the Production Manager thought otherwise and suggested that they return to work on the Sunday, “My plans for a slow working week were thwarted on Saturday when the Prime Minister announced the alert system and that we were at Level 2. Fortunately, with everyone back on the Sunday we were able to get a head start.”

Festival Opening

Sunday and Monday were busy, “Everybody on the Festival staff came to help, with office staff tidying up dressing rooms. The technical team from Q Theatre and a couple of other venues turned up. Even Phil Sargent from Jands leant a hand. There must have been over thirty of us.”

But keeping to the new social distancing rules, they found time for a social catch up, “Traditionally we have a barbecue at the end of the first day of pack up so we went ahead, with delivery pizzas to avoid food handling, and it was lovely to connect at that moment, as we all stood on a precipice of the great unknown.”

With the announcement at midday on Monday that Level 4 Lockdown would begin in forty-eight hours, the team scaled down so people could travel home,

“We prioritised family and people’s personal lives, and then everyone who was left rallied to get the Spiegeltent down. Incredibly, by the end of Tuesday we had taken the technical infrastructure down, got the equipment into roadcases, removed the scaffold base and got most of the stuff into storage. Suppliers were great and just came and collected their gear.”

On the Wednesday, all that was left was the fencing, removing the rubbish and two containers for the tent to be picked up, “This gave us all time to empty out our Auckland Live offices so we could set up our home offices, with a quick trip to Mitre 10 thrown in for some furniture!”

The two containers were picked up at eleven pm, one hour before lockdown commenced, “We did run it down to the wire.”

“For us as a Festival, the most important things throughout were open and honest communication and managing the welfare of the staff, crew, artists and audiences. And they repaid that over and over again. It would be remiss to single out anyone for special mention, because everyone played a part.”

Packing down the Spiegeltent – detail
Before the tent came down – Limbo Unhinged in the Spiegeltent.
Photo credit: Veronica McLaughlin

CX Magazine – June 2020   

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