With the world coming to a halt with COVID-19, the streets of Melbourne have been bare and quiet for the past six months. There is a vibrance to the city that seems to have faded with the lack of bustle on the pavements and the near-limitless shows, festivals and experiences that have found themselves brought to an abrupt stop.
While the rest of the world appears to be trickling back to a state of normal, with social-distanced concerts taking place (honestly – have a section that’s just yours, no one else near you so you can watch a show? How was this not a thing before?!) amongst other things – our city appears as though it will not be joining in with this trend for quite a while yet. For a city that thrives on its experiences – on its quirky, tiny shows that you may run into when exploring lane ways, to its huge, international festivals that seem to cater to almost every whim or fancy – the abrupt halt to these seemed a bitter moment for many.
In particular, the loss of the Melbourne Writers Festival had left me feeling a touch despondent. The festival is a highlight each year, from seeing writers that I admire greatly – to attending talks that had simply had a description that peaked my interest, it was always built to be a great few weeks. With an assumption that it simply would not be running this year, It was only in the last week that I realised that I was quite incorrect. The Melbourne Writers Festival was going ahead, with a virtual twist. It could be argued that a virtual experience will never compete with an in-person one, which is somewhat accurate on some levels. There is, however, something that has to be said for the convenience of streaming a session in which the author of a book you have just finished is walking you through her process, while you sit on your couch in your pajamas.
This years’ twist to the festival was an interesting one, the ticket prices differed from previous years, instead a system of pay what you can was implemented. One has to wonder about the attendance of the festival this year, and if it differed greatly from the previous years. With the reduced entry fees and ease of access for any with an internet connection, the accessibility of the festival during COVID-19 appears to have become far more convenient for many (not to mention the struggle that many may face with accessibility issues in venues and on the public transport to get there).
The experience itself was surprisingly easy, the purchase of a ticket supplied you with a link to that particular session. Connecting at the right time would give the attendee access to the stream. While I cannot argue that in-person events are ultimately more rewarding for many reasons, I found myself far more willing and even eager to attend sessions in which I had never heard of the author before, but the description of the event sounded somewhat compelling. Likely for an in-person session I would have stepped past those, wanting to spend my time and effort in getting to a venue on a speaker I was already familiar with. Instead, this year I found myself enjoying a range of names I had never heard of before, and walking away (figuratively) with a long list of books to be added to my to-read pile.
While I do long for the day that the streets of Melbourne fill with people again, when the possibility of having a drink with a friend in an actual bar and not just through a computer screen is a reality – the spark of Melbourne that thrives on its festivals, performances and arts is not gone. It has adapted like many of us, driving forward a new normal, for however long is necessary, to ensure that the magic of this city continues to flow.