Photo: Glacier Media
Powell Street Festival Society executive director Emiko Morita with Daruma, the unofficial mascot of the festival.
After a two-year pandemic-driven hiatus for large public gatherings, organizers for Vancouver’s top cultural festivals are crossing their fingers as summer approaches with the promise of a return of pre-COVID crowds.
For TaiwanFest, Bard on the Beach and some of the city’s other major cultural festivals, the responses from organizers about the return to traditional gatherings, parades and crowds are unsurprisingly upbeat.
“I would say cautious relief and irrepressible excitement,” said Emiko Morita, Powell Street Festival Society executive director, with her words followed by a quick laugh revealing a sense of anticipation shared by other festival organizers.
For Vancouver Pride Society executive director Lee Keple, the anticipation is doubled because her organization had to scrap its Winter Pride – originally scheduled two months ago in February – at the last minute because of changing health regulations.
“We had hoped we would be out of the pandemic this spring and had a whole bunch of great programming,” Keple said. “And then, at the 11th hour, we had to let that go because we had to adhere to the public health orders. It was demoralizing for the staff… So believe you me, we are all as excited as the rest of Vancouver.
“Pride is back.”
As of now, all four of the aforementioned festival are planning for a return to full in-person festivals after two years of “hybrid programming” using online platforms and smaller exhibits that did not attract crowds to a single location.
Bard on the Beach, the outdoor Shakespearean theater festival, will launch first with the opening of its BMO Mainstage on June 8 for its presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Vanier Park. Romeo and Juliet is scheduled to start Aug. 3, and an Othello-inspired play, Harlem Duet, will run June 15 to July 17.
Pride, Vancouver’s iconic parade and festival celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, and Powell Street – one of the longest-running Canadian festivals celebrating the Japanese Canadian community – will fall on the same weekend this year.
Powell Street Festival will take place on July 30 and 31 at Oppenheimer Park (and the historic Japanese Canadian neighborhood of Paueru Gai), while the Pride Parade will wind along Robson and Denman streets before ending at its Sunset Beach festival site on July 31.
TaiwanFest – one of Vancouver’s biggest street festivals with a theme surrounding Taiwanese food and culture – has not announced its official dates. But the festival historically takes place downtown on Granville Street and at the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza on Labor Day weekend (slated for Sept. 3-5 this year).
For TaiwanFest lead organizer Charlie Wu, while the last two years have been trying, the festival has learned how to leverage online platforms to reach new audiences – something TaiwanFest will continue this year with its “Conversation with Indonesia/Malaysia” theme and in subsequent years as the festival expands its scope by engaging with cultures around the world, starting with the Netherlands in 2023.
“We’re definitely very happy that we can go back to the in-person format,” said Wu, managing director at the Asian Canadian Special Events Association. “And for the past couple of years, we also have an opportunity to kind of revisit some of the things that we weren’t able to kind of evaluate, because we only had one year to prepare for any new thing.
“What we’re going to be doing is to be able to do both in-person and online; we will create programming where people that come could have a great time. And then, for the people that didn’t come, they still will be impacted by what the festival was.”
For Bard on the Beach executive director Claire Sakaki, the financial implications of the return of crowds is as critical as the social/cultural impact of Vancouver’s return to normalcy this summer.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s an understatement to say we’re excited,” Sakaki said. “We are so thrilled to be back in the park this summer. Our business model is such that we rely very heavily on ticket sales: two-thirds of our almost $9 million budget comes from ticket sales. So you can imagine the financial difficulty we face when we can’t produce the season … and it’s vitally important we get back to live theater and in-person programming.”
She noted that Bard has been lucky. A combination of government and community pandemic funding, along with running programs online (including the festival’s first feature film) meant the group was able to keep its entire year-round team of 26 staff members employed through the two years without live theater revenue.
But officials added that the pandemic interruption of the live-attendance economy “shone a light on the need to protect the livelihoods of people at the core” of industries like theater that depend on seasonal, gate-driven interactions.
And it isn’t just about the financial bottom-line, Sakaki said, it’s about the intrinsic nature of what live performance is.
“We have all been creating art and important work over the last two years, but they’ve all been digital,” she said. “One of the things that is the most exciting … is the fact we are bringing people back together, to experience it live and to experience a live audience.”
Pride’s Keple agreed.
She said the “Together Again” theme of this year’s Pride Parade will reflect the same notion of cherishing the return of gathering with others.
“That was the rallying call. We asked folks for their ideas for this year, and we got a lot of different suggestions, but they were really all variants on this theme: We get to be together. We are still finalizing some of our activities and events, but they’re all very much about ways for us to come together and enjoy each other’s company in some structured and unstructured ways.”
Keple added that attendance is expected to be strong, as pent-up demand for people to attend festivals can already be seen in other ticketed events like sports games and concerts.
Similarly, Powell Street Festival’s Morita said she is optimistic about attending this year based on seeing the turnout at other events so far in the spring.
She added that, while the festival focuses on the Japanese Canadian community returning to its historic neighborhood on Powell Street, the importance of the festival as a catalyst to bring economic and social benefit to the Downtown Eastside – one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic Economy in Metro Vancouver – is not lost on organizers.
“Yes, when we gather there, it’s a return to the historic Japanese Canadian community,” Morita said. “But when we arrive, we are arriving as guests … and one of the special things about Powell Street Festival is how the Japanese Canadian community at-large joins shoulder to shoulder with Downtown Eastside residents to stage the festival. It’s a magical ingredient, and I think this year will be particularly emotional to have that physical coming together.
“This will be an opportunity for people to come together and really, really celebrate the resilience that everybody has demonstrated over the last trying while.”