Coffeehouse Theatre Festival shows the benefits of online festivals

coffeehouse theatre festival online graphic
Graphic by Darian Lee

In the wake of COVID-19, the arts have had to adapt and adapt quickly in order to still create and profit from their art. With cancelled shows and tours, many artists have turned to use the internet to their advantage with many people still remaining (mostly) inside. The most common adaptation to our new state of affairs is live-streamed events, pre-recorded events, or, as I like to call them, Zoom Festivals. 

“We started planning this festival in April when we announced our in-person season being cancelled due to Covid-19. Before our season was cancelled we had not planned on creating a festival,” said Syrah Khan, a director and actor at the Coffeehouse Theatre Society. 

The Coffeehouse Theatre Society was founded in 2018 by a group of high schoolers in Tsawwassen. They enjoyed working with each other and didn’t want to lose those connections after graduation and also wanted to give their theatre company a more youth-oriented focus. They were all set to perform their production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream until the pandemic hit. 

Despite the limits imposed by physical distancing guidelines, Coffeehouse discovered some unforeseen conveniences that an online festival can provide. Zoom offered a relatively cheap and accessible platform with a much wider net for an audience, as well as a way for all their actors to continue working while being displaced throughout Inner BC. This also gave fellow artists a chance to produce some original and in progress works, since the festival gave them a lower stakes environment to test out their work.

Originally, the festival was supposed to raise money for the Canadian Actor’s Fund as a way to give back to the community, but they switched to donate to the Toronto and Vancouver chapters of Black Lives Matter. By the end of the festival, they had raised $1 100.

“Not everyone lives in the same place either so it’s allowed us to cast outside of our usual area,” Khan said. “We have people from all over the lower mainland, the island, and Inner BC working together.”

The festival took place from June 13th until July 25th, with a show on every Saturday. Each show was presented through Facebook live on Zoom. They were essentially live readings. 

“We can’t have actors physically interact with each other like we can when we do shows in person, so we have had to find alternatives,” Khan said. “We also don’t have access to much for sets or costumes so we have less happening in that regard. With Zoom you also can’t have actors talking at the same time or over each other, so we have had to play with the timing of certain lines.”

The festival’s plays were a variety of original shows and productions from the Coffeehouse Theatre Society. One original work, Safehouse by J. Johnson, had its premiere at the festival.

When asked about the sudden change that the online Festival gave to their work, Johnson said there are pros and cons to the Zoom format. 

 “Without the traditional theatre setting of a stage and without all the actors in one place, it will be challenging to get across some of the physical movement of the show and how the characters interact with each other in the same space. However, since this will be a staged reading and not a full production, there will be some flexibility in this regard by reading the stage directions so the audience can follow along without getting lost.”

At an Artist’s Roundtable, the creative leads and organizers of the festival mentioned that they  hope for theatre to continue in this format. Not only is it more accessible, it casts a much wider net for an audience that isn’t bound to a single location. It is cheaper for the organizers to put together, the audience, and has more accessibility options. 

“It’s been my first time helping organize and run a festival, and I would definitely be down to do this again, but hopefully we won’t have the need for a virtual festival again next year.” Said Khan.

While limited by the format of Zoom, with no physical stage, no physical interactions between the actors, no lighting and sets, it was still an enjoyable experience to catch each production each week of the festival. It was obvious that everyone was having a lot of fun with each play, and put their all into their performances.