St. Catharines: The In the Soil Festival adapts to the pandemic

Monday, January 3, 2022

The pandemic has changed how festivals may look forever.

For two years now, companies have had to alter their events, many shifting to online.

St. Catharines-based multi-arts group Suitcase in Point runs the annual downtown In the Soil festival, which features local artists working in a variety of mediums.

Historically speaking, the festival took place over three days in June. When the pandemic began in March 2020, everything changed.

Deanna Jones is their artistic director, and co-founded the organization 20 years ago.

She said when the pandemic hit, they were in the throes of planning what would have been their 12th annual festival.

“We had to work quickly to figure out how we could still support as many artists as possible,” she said.

Dave MacNeil, CEO of the provincewide organization Festivals and Events Ontario, said events take a while to plan. Larger events can be a year-long effort, but even small events take eight weeks or more to set up.

“They start planning and then they start committing to certain dates and then something like Omicron comes around and you’ve already signed a few contracts, you've made a few commitments and all of a sudden you're in the hole,” he said.

Second, even without any new variants or setbacks, MacNeil said not everyone will be comfortable returning to large venues right away. Some will choose to ride it out at home until they’re certain COVID-19 has been dealt with.

“Never in the past have we ever used safety and cleaning protocols and stuff like that as the marketing tool, (but) I think that's the landscape we're going to find ourselves in for the next year or two,” he said.

MacNeil said organizers have done a great job of adjusting over the past two years.

“We've continued to try to come up with ideas that in some way, shape or form, we can still do that safely. Whether it was starting out with the drive-in theatres or the drive-in concerts and the static Santa Claus parade,” he said.

In The Soil features new music, films, dance, theatre, comedy, installation art and interactive things for kids. Jones said it was a challenge adapting it to an online format.

“We had to figure out how to do that, if we could still do that," she said. "So we did it all online.”

Aside from their online component, for their 2021 festival they called for art submissions on the theme of “Lost and Found.” Jones said they had artists perform through glass, and had audio submissions as well.

“No matter what was going on with the pandemic, (the art) could be witnessed in some way,” she explained.

They also expanded the festival, and held it from August through October.

“Before it was always this ‘three days with over 150 things to see and do’ and we called it the explosion of creativity in downtown, and this time we took our time and did less, and had a deeper relationship with our artists,” said Jones.

Moving forward, Jones said, the festival will continue to be a “mix of things.”

“Something we’ve learned is we don’t need to go back to how things were,” she said. “Why don’t we learn through this process and figure out how we can continue to take care of the artists we serve and the audience? It’s something that really forced us to look inside of how we were doing things, how we can continue to do it better and make it more and more special.”

By Abby Green and Luke Edwards for www.niagarathisweek.com.