When the dreaded virus made its sudden appearance, followed by a particularly harsh lockdown, it turned everybody’s lives upside down, including those, mainly older residents, who lived from one meeting of a particular interest group to the next – organisations like U3A, the Botanical Society, the Bird Club, Whale Coast Conservation (WCC), the History Society, Overstrand Arts/Kunste (OAK) and the Association of Retired Persons, to name a few.

Pianist Nina Schumann warming up before playing her first virtual concert.

Not only did their membership of these organisations stimulate the mind, but it also offered them the opportunity to socialise with other like-minded individuals. The right to leave their homes to buy food or medication, even later to walk or run, simply did not cut it. They needed to exercise the mind and feed the soul. Apart from anything else they longed for the reassurance that there was still a world beyond Coronavirus where the environment, music, ideas, beauty, continued to flourish.

And then there was the FynArts Festival, scheduled to start on 5 June, a calendar highlight for this region’s people, as well as the many visitors who boost the town’s economy. It soon became clear that any events likely to attract a sizeable audience would be thrown out of the window. Might it then be possible to adapt the format, to create a virtual festival, whilst still retaining its unique spirit?

Cometh the hour, cometh the zoom. A couple of weeks ago, at more or less the same time, three Hermanus special interest groupings decided to give it a go. They were U3A, WCC and OAK. By the time FynArts Select was due to get underway, it was able to benefit from their engagement with this digital platform and to adopt it for its own purposes. In the meantime, the audience/participants were learning not only a new vocabulary – zoom talk, zoom meeting, webinar – but also a new technological skill to take even the oldies into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

And what a revelation it has been: everyone involved is over the moon at the success of the experiment. As Gert Claassen of U3A comments, “With a little bit of coaching in the run up to the first couple of sessions, everyone (even the oldest member) was on board and thoroughly enjoying the format; so much so, that we have gone from one session a week in May, to two a week from the beginning of June, covering a wide range of topics, from Beethoven to geology.” If you’d like to become a member of U3A and receive their newsletters, send an email to gc2441@gmail.com.

Michael Raimondo, the WCC webinar host has a similar story to tell. “Before lockdown, we held one presentation a month at the Green House, which would be attended by 80 people at the most; since we’ve started the zoom talks, we’ve gone from about 30 in the first session to 88 in the most recent – and that’s once a week. What’s really brilliant, too, is that after the real-time presentation, we share it on Facebook and/or YouTube and we’re picking up another 6 000 or so viewers there. So far there have been absolutely no hitches or security issues. ”

Anina Lee from the same organisation agrees that it has been a huge success and says they will certainly consider continuing with this format even after lockdown. “I am reasonably confident that it won’t be too long before we can start our popular outdoor excursions again, maybe after the winter. (In any case, I’m determined to get out to see the fireflies in October.) One of the advantages of the webinar format, though, is that our older members don’t have to drive out to the Green House and leave after dark for home.”

For OAK the experience has been slightly different. They have formed a trial alliance with a group called Concerts Connect, who have arranged a series of three concerts by top musicians performed in real time for members of several music societies around the Western Cape. “So far, it’s worked really well,” says René du Plooy of OAK. “Each concert takes the form of a kind of soirée in a beautiful setting – the first one in Lourensford Manor House and the second at Casa Labia in Muizenberg.

“Sadly, our numbers had been dropping at our pre-lockdown concerts, so this may be the way to go in the future. We’ll re-think the situation after this series is over.” All three organisations agree, though, that one of the huge advantages of these zoom presentations is that performers or speakers can be located anywhere in the world; they don’t need to be local. For example, Michael is currently trying to set up a talk with an environmentalist on the Island of St Helena.

The intervention of Covid-19 was, of course, devastating to Mary Faure and her FynArts team, just as they were finalising arrangements for the 2020 Festival, but being the trooper she is, she was determined not to cancel it altogether. She spoke to those who had been booked to perform and asked if they would be prepared to participate in FynArts Select, as it was renamed, in a virtual context. All of them, she stresses, were totally supportive and prepared to adapt where possible. So, once again, zoom has come to the party during this past week.

“Of course, this isn’t the end of it, though,” she stresses. “We’ll continue with presentations throughout the year – perhaps a couple of times a week (except, as a courtesy, during the National Festival of the Arts), and then later in the year, depending on how the lockdown regulations change, we would like to organise Select weekends, including workshops. These new experiences will definitely help to shape future festivals. Whatever works well will be retained. Richard Cock’s musical quiz on Facebook attracted several thousand viewers, for example. That’s fantastic international exposure and a wonderful way of growing young audiences. In a way, this is almost like our first small festival; we’re feeling our way, but still trying to make sure that everyone has a good time.”

Mary also emphasises that the Pioneer Freight Sculpture on the Cliffs will definitely still take place this year. During the earlier phases of lockdown, the foundries were not functioning and now they have a huge backlog to work through. The exhibition will just have to wait until all the logistics fall into place. She suggests that those who would like to keep up with the programme for the rest of the year, should ask to be put on the FynArts newsletter mailing list by sending an email to fynarts@hermanus.co.za.

There is no charge for attending any of the FynArts zoom presentations, or those organised by WCC (although this may change). The next WCC Zoom presentation by ecologist and filmmaker Dr Otto Whitehead will be on Thursday 18 June at 18:00 (not the usual 12:00). For more details email anina.wcc@gmail.com. For the last in the current series of OAK concerts which will take place on 5 July booking can be done on Quicket at R100 a ticket.

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