On March 12, 2020, the Sun Valley Film Festival officially canceled, becoming the first major event in the valley to do so because of COVID-19. Since then, the Mountain Express has run more than three dozen articles announcing the cancellation of festivals, concerts, sports, plays and myriad other events. For months, the paper printed no calendar.
Many major annual events and series were unable to take place this summer, some because their format made social distancing impossible, some for financial reasons. The summer passed by without Ketch’em Alive, Wagon Days, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, the Braun Brothers Reunion, Summer’s End Music Festival, Sawtooth Valley Gathering, the Sun Valley Museum of Art’s summer concert series and countless other staples.
A handful, however, were equipped to reshuffle the pack and pursue alternate, virtual offerings. The Sun Valley Music Festival, Ballet Sun Valley, Sun Valley Wellness Festival and Conference, Killebrew-Thompson Memorial, Family of Woman Film Festival and a number of others restructured their proceedings and went ahead digitally.
By and large, these events were considerable successes—the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial raised nearly $1 million for cancer research—and demonstrated both creativity from the organizers and an eagerness to participate from the audience members.
After Blaine County’s lockdown order fell into place, it did not take long for many nonprofits and arts organizations to explore virtual options. Libraries soon started recording and streaming virtual story time for children; the Wood River chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness swiftly began holding its support groups remotely; even The Mint started livestreaming line dancing.
Community Library had needed technology
The Community Library in Ketchum was particularly well-equipped to begin offering remote programs. Since late 2018, following a major renovation of its lecture hall, the library has regularly livestreamed lectures and book talks, particularly for events with larger audiences than the hall could accommodate.
“Last year, pre-COVID, we started livestreaming more things,” explained Martha Williams, the library’s programs and education manager. “We found it especially popular with people who lived in the south valley or up in Stanley, so they could enjoy the programs without having to drive all the way to the library.”
Moving into the summer, the library faced an unusual challenge. Its event organizers weren’t planning for one large program, but for several small events each month with a few hefty undertakings—like the Hemingway Seminar, the Family of Woman Film Festival, the Hemingway Distinguished Lecture and a collaborative series with the Lee Pesky Learning Center—thrown in for good measure.
Williams said that while participation has varied program-to-program, the trend is positive overall. A great many people clearly miss in-person offerings and have experienced some Zoom-burnout, but at the same time, the virtual platform has allowed for a broader audience. She was particularly pleased with and pleasantly surprised by mid-September’s Hemingway Seminar.
“Attendance was pretty close to what it usually is for an in-person seminar,” she said. “People were just so happy to see each other and feel connected. We offered a balance of small, group interactions where people could be conversational, as well as some larger events, and I think people enjoyed that.
“I think if we had held this seminar in April, it probably would have been very different. People have settled into this as the way to engage right now and are embracing it a bit more. We’re noticing an uptick in interaction in other programs, too.”
Even with the technology already in place and participation steady, each program seems to pose a new set of challenges. A book club requires a different setup from a film screening, which requires a different setup from a lecture, and so on.
“We’re still in an experimenting phase,” Williams said. “Every program is a little different. Every program is unique. The learning curve continues even while we’re using the same platform and technology we’ve always used. Mostly, though, the technology is working and people are patient and engaged. This is a nice time to experiment a little bit.”
Family of Woman Film Festival goes virtual
One of the The Community Library’s biggest virtual undertakings this year was its partnership with the Family of Woman Film Festival.
For the film festival, 2020 was always going to look a little different. The annual festival celebrates cinema by and about women while shining a light on the crucial work of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). For its first 12 years, the festival took place in February, but after massive snowstorms in 2019 wreaked havoc on air travel plans for international guests, filmmakers and speakers, festival founder Peggy Elliott Goldwyn decided to skip February 2020 and begin holding the festival in September instead.
Weather impeded attendance in 2019—an accepted danger for the winter months—but no one could have anticipated a year ago that an in-person series in September would be impossible.
In July, Goldwyn announced that the 13th annual Family of Woman Film Festival would proceed in a fully virtual format. Via a partnership with The Community Library, the festival could use livestream platforms for film screenings, lectures, interviews, discussions and exclusive donor events.
A selection of films also streamed as part of the Andrus Center for Public Policy’s Women in Leadership Conference at Boise State University.
Goldwyn reported that attendance varied between the two series—lower than she anticipated for the showings through the library but a good deal higher than expected via the Andrus Center. As the lineup consisted of films from small studios and distributors in several different countries, there were limitations on the number of times certain films could be streamed, and the festival was unable to archive any for future viewing—something Goldwyn said she may try to renegotiate for future programs as it likely had some impact on audience capacity.
Regardless, both programs were successes and Goldwyn reported that she was able to reach a much broader audience than with an in-person festival.
“I feel even if we’re able to go all ‘real’ next year, there’s a value to streaming as well,” she said. “You can reach people all over the country—we did reach people all over the country this time. This was a learning experience for me and for the library.
“A lot of people like the social aspect. People are longing for the opportunity to meet the filmmakers and the film subjects, to get that family aspect we have when we’re live in person,” she said. “One of the things that made us different was that we brought people in from around the world. The people we bring in are major figures in the world of international human rights, but they’re approachable people and easy to talk to. They meet with kids and visit schools, talk at the library and at the film screenings. Every time we have an event, there’s an opportunity for the audience to personally meet with some extraordinary people.”
While the festival presented several live interviews and lectures via streaming, that in-person connection was still missing. For Goldwyn, streaming offered a crucial opportunity to move forward without canceling, but still had its limitations.
Wellness Festival still attracts viewers
A September event would have been an experiment for Goldwyn even without a pandemic to contend with, since it departed from the usual February model. Most organizations, however, stayed with the same timeslots they always had.
The Sun Valley Wellness Festival & Conference typically attracts large crowds to the area for several days of programming, but organizers came to the same inevitable conclusion as most others this year: remote was the only way to go.
That did not seem to impede audience engagement, though. According to a recent statement from the Wellness Festival, the virtual conference sold passes to participants in 35 states and 15 countries, including Australia, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal and Monaco. With 2,282 viewers and 75 scholarships awarded throughout the duration of the early-September conference, the numbers indicate another big success.
“Feedback from those who experienced SVWellness Virtual has been overwhelmingly positive,” said board President Andria Friesen. “I am both grateful and relieved, as a tremendous amount of time and effort was put forth towards ease in navigation on the virtual format, and our impressive roster of speakers being well-presented was paramount.”
Ballet Sun Valley provides great performance
Transitioning a conference like the Wellness Festival or the Hemingway Seminar or a film festival like Family of Woman into a virtual format posed several obstacles and challenges. For the performing arts, though, many of those problems may have seemed insurmountable at first.
Ballet Sun Valley was among the organizations to cancel its summer programs. In April, while the summer outlook was still uncertain, the group simply postponed its events by a month into August. By the end of May, though, the organizers realized that the initial plan—to present dancers from the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet at the Sun Valley Pavilion—was simply unfeasible.
Weeks and months ticked by after the cancellation, but as more and more of life transitioned to streaming and video chat, the Ballet saw another option. On Aug. 23, the group streamed a free performance by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. The event was a “huge success,” Ballet Sun Valley wrote in a recent retrospective.
“Ballet Sun Valley’s mission has always been to present the best international ballet companies and dancers to the Sun Valley community,” the statement said. “When it became clear that we would not be able to hold a live performance this summer inside the Sun Valley Pavilion, we were determined to find another format to bring the best of ballet to the community.”
The Ballet’s program streamed to the jumbotron on the pavilion lawn, allowing people to view in socially distanced seating pods. Reservations for lawn seating sold out almost immediately.
In addition to the lawn show, people could stream the performance on their own personal devices and watch from home. Between the home option and the lawn, about 3,500 people tuned in to watch the one-night-only performance.
“Our goal was to provide an uplifting experience, even during challenging times,” Ballet Sun Valley Executive Director Kelli Quinlan said. “We had to be resourceful and flexible in terms of creating a hybrid product that provided an avenue for the dancers to safely return to the stage. Streaming the performance allowed us to provide an innovative and engaging experience to those at home and those who wanted to attend on the pavilion lawn. We were delighted to offer this performance as a gift to the amazing Sun Valley community.”
Thanks to the generosity of the nonprofit’s donors, Ballet Sun Valley was also able to offer its Education Program and Adaptive Dance Program free of charge via Zoom.
Sun Valley Music Festival orchestrates landmark series
Each of the aforementioned organizations—and many others—exercised a commendable amount of creative problem solving, ingenuity and a staunch devotion to deliver a much-needed dose of community programming to the Wood River Valley and beyond.
One of the greatest cornerstones of a typical summer season is the Sun Valley Music Festival. For the past 36 years, this beloved arts nonprofit has delivered free, world-class symphonic performances during the summer months, and recently branched out into the winter as well.
As the Wood River Valley sank into summer and it became clear that coronavirus wasn’t going anywhere, questions loomed large around the Sun Valley Music Festival. As cancellations piled up, many thought the festival would follow suit, but in late May, Executive Director Derek Dean and Music Director Alasdair Neale made a different announcement.
“We started discussions back in March when everything started shutting down,” Dean said. “We never really considered canceling outright. The festival raises most of its money in the fall and winter, so we had some financial strength in the back. If we canceled outright, we would have run a considerable surplus for the season and that didn’t feel right. Our donors gave us this money with the expectation we’d put on free concerts and teach kids, and we committed ourselves to do that.”
After considerable discussion, Dean, Neale and the rest of the festival team determined that they would hold the same number of concerts on the same days as originally scheduled with the same musicians.
Fourteen concerts, more than 100 musicians spread out in 43 cities across North America; two months in which to select music, form whatever ensembles COVID-19 restrictions allowed, hire production crews, film performances, edit the footage, prepare a new, robust streaming platform and—in some cases—synch up and mix dozens of individual musicians for an orchestral piece—that was the job.
Dean and Neale estimated that each of the 14 concerts required about 1,000 hours of labor. Some concerts required final editing the day of the streaming—not that an audience member could tell.
Their efforts did not go unappreciated and the new virtual format enabled the festival to reach new, far-flung audiences.
“Our best guess is that we had about 80,000 viewers—50 percent higher than a normal year, between five and seven thousand on average at each concert,” Dean said.
“People watched from all over the world,” Neale said. “We had viewers in Nepal, Russia, South Africa—that wasn’t the primary aim, but it was a nice side benefit to know there’s an international audience going in. Primarily, at its core, we wanted this season to be for our Sun Valley audience, who made it possible in the first place. It was a gesture of thanks to the people who showed support.”
The most important thing, both Dean and Neale agreed, was safety. That was the impetus for going remote, for carefully monitoring the situation in each of the musicians’ home states and for instating socially distanced pods on the Sun Valley Pavilion Lawn for big-screen viewing.
“The most important thing for us is that we have not heard a single reported case of COVID from anyone on the staff, any musician, production person or audience member,” Dean reported. “We were able to do it safely. That’s what matters most.”
The future remains uncertain, but this year’s grand experiment has given the festival options no matter what the coronavirus situation.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but I sincerely hope we don’t have to,” Neale said. “As wonderful as it was and for as many people as we reached, I don’t think a single person would say it’s better than the real thing. We’re hungry for each other’s company, for the feeling of sound floating through the air.”
Lessons from a strange season
As autumn settles in and prepares to give way to winter, one cannot help but anticipate a slew of new cancellations and postponements. The summer, for all its challenges, trials and tribulations yielded two vital verdicts for the Wood River Valley.
First, this community loves and supports the arts, and will continue to do so no matter what.
Second, those driving forces in the arts—the top creative minds, talented producers and dedicated organizers—will find solutions to any problem. They will hold concerts and plays outside while weather permits and they will explore new technologies to stream directly into their supporters’ homes. For as long as possible, they will see to it that art is not canceled.