When Yarra Valley Writers Festival was forced to go digital, it allowed for some unexpected positives

When Yarra Valley Writers Festival was forced to go digital, it allowed for some unexpected positives

Words by Kate Streader

To cancel or not to cancel, that was the question. Thankfully, the answer here was the latter.

Like many event organisers, Hannie Rayson, acclaimed writer, playwright and Festival Programmer for the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, was left scrambling when coronavirus began to tighten its grip on the world. But despite strict social distancing restrictions ruling out the possibility of hosting a physical event, she was determined not to let the pandemic stand in the way of the festival.

“Initially when there was the thought of cancelling I just thought, ‘Oh, no! When are we going to get these 45 writers together again? Because, for a start, next year there’ll be a whole new crop of books,” she says.

“We were right in the thick of everyone cancelling everything and it just felt like such a bleak landscape and we didn’t want to be just another organisation that said, ‘Oh well, we’ll do it again next year’.”

“So we thought, ‘No, damn it, we’re going to do it. We’re going to find another way to make it happen!’ And it’s paying off, it’s exciting.”

While Rayson and Festival Director, Brook Powell were set on bringing their hard work to fruition by pushing ahead with the event in whatever capacity possible, the logistics of putting together a virtual festival have posed some unique challenges.

The biggest question Rayson and Powell faced was whether or not people would be willing to pay to attend a digital festival.

“I was worried about the fact that nobody was used to spending money, really,” says Rayson. “[But] people understand, it’s a new world and if you want to support the arts, you’re going to have to pay for them online.”

Ticket prices have been adjusted to take into account the new format of the festival while ensuring everyone involved in the event will still be paid. The three-tier ticketing system allows for different levels of access to the program’s various events, ranging from $15 to $75.

The festival’s main attraction on Saturday May 9 will comprise a full day of Q&As, conversations, performances and more, which Rayson says will be “like a little television show”, featuring a huge slate of writers, including Christos Tsiolkas, Angela Savage, Clare Bowditch, Rick Morton, and more, hosted by Festival Ambassador, Michael Veitch.

The program also features a sprinkling of additional events, including weekly in-depth discussions with a roster of acclaimed writers and a monthly book club.

Faced with the task of having to cut down the festival program from a three-day physical event to one day of live streaming, Rayson diversified the festival’s offerings through events such as the Yarra Valley Writers Festival Book Club to showcase the work of authors who she couldn’t fit into the single-day program.

While the circumstances that led to hosting the event online are far from favourable, she hopes that there will be some positives to come from the situation and that this year’s digital format will be adapted into future festivals to allow for a broader range of guests.

Where flying international authors in for the event was never a financially viable option for Yarra Valley Writers Festival, as festival-goers embrace live streaming as a new normal, it may allow for more creative approaches to programming and live events in the future.

“Once we’re all acclimatised to [live streaming], it’s possible to have some events where you can go into a room and watch people on tape that are from overseas,” says Rayson.

Another silver lining to come from hosting the festival online is that book-lovers from across Australia can now attend Yarra Valley Writers Festival. Rayson hopes that this will allow people to see what the region has to offer and inspire people to visit.

Not only is she excited to share some of her own personal favourite books and authors through this year’s program, Rayson hopes to highlight important issues that have been shoved out of the spotlight by coronavirus.

“One of the really key things I really wanted to do was make sure environmental issues were not colonised by COVID,” she says. “It’s just so off the agenda, so I’m keen to have that discussion.”

The program features a spread of professors and experts on climate and ecology, as well as authors who use their work to share important stories drawing from issues and disasters such as the Black Saturday bushfires which devastated parts of the Yarra Valley in 2009.

For Rayson, it was crucial to revive the conversations around climate change and bushfires by highlighting them in this year’s program. Not only does she want to ensure these issues aren’t forgotten now that our focus has been shifted onto a new crisis, she aims to perpetuate meaningful discourse based on fact and drawing from the insights of experts.

“Who wants to hear what Peter Dutton thinks about climate change?” she laughs. “Or Scott Morrison? Let’s hear from people who are experts and really thoughtful people.”

Yarra Valley Writers Festival is happening on Saturday May 9, with additional events taking place as part of the festival. For tickets, the full program and more information, visit the festival website