Covid-19 Exclusives: George Town Festival Tests the Digital Waters

Teochew Puppet and Opera House is a long-time performer for GTF.

PENANG WOULD HAVE been a hive of activity last July, with preparations in full swing for the George Town Heritage Celebrations and George Town Festival (GTF). Performing artistes from around the world would have descended on the island to enthral festival-goers.

But alas, both events were rightly called off last March in light of the Covid-19 pestilence. Confronted with the twin issues of a now blank calendar month and zero audience, Jack Wong and his team at TLM Event – that took over the mantle from Joe Sidek in 2019 – buckled down over the next two months to bring the entire festival online instead. It was certainly a gamble, but this also gave TLM Event the opening it needed to gauge public response in taking GTF fully online in the future.

Curation-wise, the digital event under its new theme Everyone, Everywhere did not diverge too much from its original programme line-up, which included talks and workshops running from July 4-19, with a bonus screening of Moving Shadows, Chasing Light, a collaboration between artistes and NGOs to cast light on today’s complex human rights issues, to cap off its 11th edition. The full festival catalogue was streamed on GTF’s official Facebook and YouTube channels.

I spoke to Jack about GTF’s surprising digital transition, following the premiere of Absolute Penang, a kaleidoscope of cultural performances featuring long-time GTF performers Teochew Puppet and Opera House and Wak Long Music & Art Centre, among others.

“One striking contrast I’ve found is the size of the audience. A more visually-oriented performance commands a better crowd. But online streaming of such performances are usually hampered by a host of technical glitches and slow internet speed.

“On the other hand, organising a digital festival enables us to leap over a number hurdles; we’re no longer limited by geography or the number of participants,” explains Jack. The New Adventures in Sound Arts by Kamal Sabran and Friends saw artist Kamal Sabran retuning classic Malay pop songs. He was joined by friends including Russian visual artist Arina Kokoreva, American musicians Emma Caterinicchio, Beyowing and Eric Hausman, Italian choreographer Diletta Brancatelli, and Malaysian musician Reza Othman.

“Perhaps, in the future, we might host online events in tandem with physical ones that, if you factor in the logistics, are costlier to run. For the 2019 edition, more than 70% of the events were free to attend, but even with the ticketed shows, prices had to be lowered.”

Jack says that for GTF 2020, the curation process was two-pronged. “The first is to bring focus to Penang’s artistes, and because we’ve now amassed a large international following, the opportunity is ripe for them to delve deeper in experiencing Penang’s unique arts and culture.” The second objective is to revisit GTF 2019 with a string of “catch up” talks. “The idea is to offer those who couldn’t attend the festival last year a comprehensive look into the creation process of performances like Armour and Skin, which we are also rescreening.”

The musical masterpiece Armour and Skin was rescreened for GTF 2020.

Wak Long Music & Art Centre performing Tarian Kuda Kepang.

Local group Culture Shot livened up the online festival with their rendition of local folk songs.

Sitarist Pravinraj Premkumar and tabla player Kumaran Rajanam delighted audience with classical Indian music.

An Affected Ecosystem

Putting together a physical event the scale of GTF requires ample manpower. “It takes 15 people to curate the whole festival, but when the event draws near, about 300-400 more temporary workers and volunteers have to be recruited to ensure a seamless operation.”

Covid-19 has left the local events industry flailing, and events professionals helpless. Some have even resorted to selling durians just to make ends meet! The times are unpredictable and the air is thick with what-ifs. “It’s anyone’s guess if the government will extend the Recovery MCO beyond August 31. Our difficulty is not just having zero income, but making the tough decision of retrenching as well. Everything feels so up in the air at this point,” says Jack.

GTF 2021 will no doubt see many essential changes. “If it’s unnecessary for certain shows to be physically hosted, then these will be curated for our digital platform. But for those that require a physical performance, we will be looking into providing a larger venue for physical distancing, and instead of it being a one-day event, it’ll run for two days to manage crowd distribution and to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. All said and done, 2021 will be a special year for us, in introducing GTF’s digital platform while also continuing with the physical events.”

Regina Hoo is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.

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