Re-imagining Powell Street: Powell Street Festival pivots to online
When COVID-19 hit Canada and the rest of the world this spring, Canada’s cultural sector was thrown into a tailspin. Once it became evident that large gatherings would not be possible over the summer, festivals, dance and theatre companies, and concert promoters were forced to look at radically new ways of moving forward. The Powell Street Festival, Vancouver longest-running community-based festival, began the process of re-imagining the festival early on, looking at possible scenarios. The Festival eventually settled on a hard pivot comprised of an online telethon and a fundraising drive to support the Downtown Eastside (DTES). With an initial goal of raising $20,000, a goal that was surpassed well before the telethon even started, the Festival eventually raised over $60,000 and received plaudits for the programming that took place online August 1.
I talked to Executive Director Emiko Morita (EM) and Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator June Fukumura (JF) by email.
Bulletin Interview: Emiko Morita and June Fukumura
First of all, congratulations on pulling this whole thing off. While I was only involved in the Taiko on the Rooftop opening, which was a small aspect of the telethon, I could see that this was a massive undertaking, with lots of different considerations, not least of which was ensuring that everyone was kept safe. At what point was the decision made to pivot to a telethon-style streaming event?
EM: We hosted online Town Halls with our stakeholders – artists, community groups, vendors, volunteers – throughout the month of April. Thanks to their input, our understanding of their needs and values and possible solutions evolved quickly. In fact, the vision of a Telethon aesthetic was seeded by community member Michael Abe of Landscapes of Injustice.
I imagine the ongoing health crisis provided unique challenges. What was the biggest logistical challenge in switching from a park full of people to an online-only event?
EM: Our challenges were multifold: the ever-changing factors of operating during a pandemic, lack of live-broadcast experience (very different from a multi-stage live production), and how to create an inclusive platform to bring together our diverse community members during a time of mandated social distancing (and the fact that some of our stakeholders have limited access to computers and the internet).
We enlisted the support of tech, production, theatre and fundraising experts so we were confident we’d be able to pull something off. We had to construct the Telethon in a way that could adapt to any shift during the pandemic crisis.
One component in response to these unique challenges was the distribution of 1,500 care packages to unhoused and precariously housed people living in the DTES, an endeavour funded by Vancouver Foundation’s Covid Response grant. And to complement this, we staged The Giving Ceremony as a live event on Jackson Street to honour and acknowledge our reciprocal relationship with folks in the neighbourhood.
Days before the Telethon, we were faced with delays and possible cancellations due to Covid-19 testing and contact tracing. If it came to it, we were prepared to cancel the live performances, have our hosts appear from their home studios, and stream only pre-taped material. We followed public health guidelines, had extra support from peer workers who provided hand sanitation stations and physical distancing reminders, and our hosts committed to a shared “bubble.” Thankfully, everything worked out!
At a certain point into the COVID-19 quarantine and lockdown, lots of folks were getting burned out on living online, did you face much pushback on your vision of a digital festival?
JF: There were some questions raised of whether viewers would tune and watch a live stream at home during a sunny August long weekend. We anticipated that viewers may not be able to stay for the entire duration so we curated our program in such a way that it could be enjoyed in segments or in its entirety. We were really surprised to learn that there were many people who tuned in for the entire five hours! As well, in the weeks leading up to the Telethon we tried to diversify our digital engagement by utilizing a mix of social media platforms. While we acknowledge that digital tools are not accessible for everyone, we experimented with various modes of communication to try and engage as many people as we could.
The goal of the telethon was to raise funds for the Powell Street Festival Society’s DTES Community Care Program, specifically the PowellStFest Community Kitchen. By any metric, the fundraising was an unequivocal success. Please talk about these programs, and their importance to the Festival’s mandate.
JF: The DTES Community Care Program is a suite of social justice programs that services Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The DTES Community Care Program includes: the Hanami Cherry Blossom Picnic, Minori Harvest, the Asahi Tribute Game, the Giving Ceremony and the PowellStFest Community Kitchen. These programs aim to raise awareness of Japanese Canadian history and culture, while creating inclusive, capacity-building experiences that foster economic and social equity for everyone.
These programs provide meaningful and sustainable connection to the historic location of the early Japanese settlers prior to their forced removal during the Second World War. Through Powell Street Festival’s practice of social justice through art and culture, we honour this heritage while seeking to be accountable as settler-colonizers and acknowledging the larger narrative of displacement on these unceded territories of the Tsleil–Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam peoples.
Emiko, you’ve been quoted as saying, “The health of the DTES is directly linked to the health of the Powell Street Festival.” Could you elaborate on that?
EM: How real is our purported resilience as Japanese Canadians if we cannot advance equity in the Downtown Eastside (DTES)? From its inception, Powell Street Festival has been an expression of empowerment – Japanese Canadians returning to the nexus of the community’s dispossession and spiritual hurt. We gather, we sing, dance, eat – celebrate our art and culture in every form! – and in doing so, we send out a kiai shout that expresses our collective power, challenges people’s assumptions about Japanese Canadian identity, and hopefully offers space and strength to other marginalized people.
This year, Powell St. Festival friends, family and fans rallied to raise a large sum of money. 100% of the funds will create jobs for DTES residents and fill gaps in the food supply chain. The PowellStFest Community Kitchen is a modest step in the right direction.
One major initiative of this year’s Festival was the Paueru MashUp, which my wife Amy took part in. Can you talk about how that came to be, and your thoughts on possibilities for the future?
EM: In 2015, Leslie Komori, longtime taiko drummer and festival coordinator, proposed a Festival Dance inspired by Sylvain Émard’s Le Grand Continental community dance. We tried to get a project off the ground but our funding applications were unsuccessful. During our Town Hall discussions last spring, Leslie mentioned the project again.
Yes! we thought, what a perfect Covid-19 project. A great opportunity to animate the festival sounds and gestures, to bring people together while socially distancing. We commissioned Onibana Taiko and Company 605 to create the Paueru MashUp community dance.
We plan to dance the Paueru MashUp together in Oppenheimer Park at the 45th Powell Street Festival (July 31 and August 1, 2021). The hope is that Paueru MashUp will go viral (pun intended) and become as ubiquitous as Tanko Bushi at Japanese festivals throughout North America. The dance lessons are available on our Youtube Channel, so you can start learning now!
One outcome of this COVID-19 pivot was that the Festival suddenly became a national event. Participants no longer had to buy a plane ticket to Vancouver to participate and I understand that you had viewers across the country. What kind of responses have you been getting?
JF: The national and international support we received was overwhelmingly positive and we couldn’t be more pleased by the expanded audience reach. We had over 600 views from cities across Canada, United States, Japan, and even Australia! By embracing digital technology, we were able to connect with people who we could not have engaged otherwise.
Here are some reviews that we’ve received:
“The telethon captured the spirit of the festival, bringing Powell Street Festival into the digital realm while nodding to grassroots origins. It was the most engaging online programming I have seen during the pandemic.”
“Having a family of mixed heritage (French and Chinese-Malaysian) I feel a strong sense of solidarity with all immigrant communities who have had a rich and challenging history in Canada. To develop bilingualism of all sorts in children and a cultural literacy of seeing through different eyes, ears and feeling is the pathway to a richer society free of racism, intolerance and discrimination. The Powell Street Festival embodies a forward looking and always evolving embracing of the place of Japanese community and culture in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. I love that you continue to lean-in with love for the place & neighbourhood.”
“The Powell Street Festival telethon showed me how history (and the various forms of energy that historical memories and experiences can bring) can be activated to tackle present-day issues of settler colonialism. Rather than a single, detached, moment in history, the JC internment was a part of a long pattern of settler colonialism. By supporting the DTES community, who continue to live through the impacts of this colonial legacy in Canada and BC, the Powell Street Festival shows how we can confront the very notions that normalized displacement and dispossession.”
What surprised you most about how this year’s Festival played out? And were there any lessons learned that can carry over to future events?
JF: When we began pre-production of this Telethon in the spring we were uncertain about so many things: whether we could pull off such a complex production in such a short time; whether audience members would be interested in an online event; and if we could meet our fundraising goal. Every part of this process was uncharted territory, we really didn’t know what to expect. But to our surprise, the Telethon was met with an outpouring of support from around the world and we surpassed our fundraising goal beyond our wildest dreams! And our team was able to pull off a technically challenging program that seemed almost impossible when we first began this process. It’s been one exciting surprise after another – a truly historical moment of transformation, growth, and resilience for the Powell Street Festival. We learned that just like our Japanese Canadian ancestors who endured difficulties in the past, we too can pull together during these turbulent times to bring about positive change. This Telethon has created a new pathway for the Festival to evolve and adapt into the future.
EM: June zooming in live… how cool was that!
For those who missed the telethon, is there a way to see a video of the event?
JF: In case you missed it or want to watch it again, Powell Street Festival Telethon can be viewed on our Youtube channel. Uploaded in five one-hour segments, you can watch with family and friends to experience the spirit of the festival right from your home!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
EM: A heartfelt thank you to everyone who joined us, helped spread the word and made donations, and to Susanne Tabata, who was responsible for our top-notch production values. The success of the Telethon validates our purpose and vision, and we are very grateful to have you along for the journey.