Roland Gulliver expected 2021 would be different. After having his debut year as director of the Harbourfront-based Toronto International Festival of Authors thrown into chaos as a result of COVID-19 restrictions that forced the ten-day program to cancel in-person events and run exclusively online, he and his team were convinced that by the time the calendar ticked over to 2021, things would return to normal and they would be on track to prepare a traditional live event for the fall. “That all blew up in our faces spectacularly,” Gulliver says now.
The result is that for a second year, TIFA will operate as a virtual festival, with online programming that runs from October 21–31. Gulliver confirms that this year’s festival will once again be free online, perhaps with people signing up for a festival pass, but there is also the hope that audiences will be willing to make donations to TIFA in a kind of pay-what-you-can model as a means of supporting both the festival infrastructure and the artists who participate. “As well as it being about developing ticket income, it’s also about valuing the work that authors and performers are doing,” he says.
The 2020 digital festival went “better than expected,” according to Gulliver, allowing TIFA to create a mix of traditional programming and new innovations. An expanded program of performances and critical conversations took place alongside master classes run in association with Humber College, as well as podcasts, events in different languages, and an interactive small press map that allowed users to learn about independent and regional publishers from across the country. “It was a really nice place to experiment in that sense,” Gulliver says.
Those experiments yielded fruit thanks to online audience engagement that Gulliver says continued throughout the ten days of the 2020 festival rather than petering out after the first weekend. Whether the same programming philosophy and mix of events and performances will continue moving into this year’s version and beyond is still something of an open question as festival staff work behind the scenes to analyze what worked last year, what didn’t, and what could be done differently. “We’re building the bike, riding the bike, repairing the bike,” says Christine Saratsiotis, TIFA’s deputy director, who suggests it will take another year to make concrete decisions about how to structure a live event moving forward. “We’ll have a better sense after this festival if the patterns stayed similar, have they shifted, are these streams that we’ve introduced the ones that are carrying forward the draw.”
Not that Gulliver, Saratsiotis, and the rest of the TIFA team are remaining idle while that occurs. On June 15, TIFA announced new features for 2022 that will expand the festival and potentially shake up the literary landscape in the city.
June 2022 will see TIFA debut a three-day festival devoted to crime fiction. Run in conjunction with the year-long Harbourfront Nordic Bridges program, the event, which is scheduled from June 3–5, will include a Nordic Noir segment, as well as featuring mystery, suspense, and thriller writers from Canada and abroad. As templates for the genre-specific festival, Gulliver mentions the U.K. programs Bloody Scotland, Noirwich, and Harrogate (“the classic”). “It’s a new model that’s appeared,” he says. “And it’s an interesting space to try things that could go into the main festival.”
In addition to experimenting with the potential for running a “mini-festival” at a different time of year from the traditional TIFA programming, Gulliver says the impetus behind the crime programming is to broaden the range of genres the fest is known for and to tap into what he sees as a huge Toronto audience for crime fiction. “It feels like there is a real energy in terms of readership,” he says. “Having talked to publishers and partners about it, everyone seemed really excited about what it could be.”
The other big change coming in 2022 is a move forward from TIFA’s traditional ten-day spot at the end of October to the final week of September. The 2022 iteration of TIFA will run from September 22 through October 2. According to Gulliver, one reason for the move was to take advantage of Harbourfront Centre’s outdoor space as a way of becoming more visible and better exploiting the full range of possible venues at the location. “By being at a warmer time of year, I hope people will come and it will be more of a destination,” Gulliver says. “The fact that there is all that outdoor space and it’s on the lake – it’s quite a dramatic location.”
There is one group that knows exactly how dramatic the Harbourfront location is for an outdoor literary festival: the organizers of Word on the Street, the long-running one-day book fair and live performance event that traditionally runs on the last weekend in September. Since 2015, WOTS has partnered with TIFA and used the Harbourfront space for its event; as a result of TIFA’s decision to move forward in the calendar year, WOTS will be forced to find a new venue, a different weekend, or potentially both.
“We’re going to work with them to support them as much as we can,” Gulliver says, suggesting that one reason for announcing the 2022 date change so early is to give WOTS plenty of time to make alternate arrangements. Speaking to Quill & Quire, WOTS festival director David Alexander says that they have been considering alternative sites and that an announcement about plans for 2022 will be forthcoming in the next several months. “I’m completely open to working together to make each of us a success,” Gulliver says. “I think there’s lots of potential in terms of what happens at the end of September becoming greater than the sum of its parts.”
Gulliver points to other events, such as the Toronto Public Library’s successful Appel Salon reading series, as evidence that the city can sustain more than one literary event at a time. “It’s not about competing with Word on the Street,” he says. “It’s about looking at how we make what we program unique and different to anyone else’s programming in the city.”
While this year’s festival is still an unknown quantity in terms of what financing will be available in what form, TIFA benefited in 2020 from various funding bodies stepping up to help arts organizations that would otherwise have suffered an unsustainable financial hit as a result of their inability to court paying audiences in live venues. “A lot of the funders last year did some emergency funding that was really unique,” Saratsiotis says. “That allowed us to take a deep breath and focus on the presentation versus how are we going to manage this. But we had to be fiscally responsible and careful, for sure.”
The success of the 2020 digital festival proved that it can be done and this year the team is determined to do the same, only better. “We pre-recorded performances last year, but we didn’t pre-record our multilingual events,” Gulliver says by way of example. “If we pre-record those, we can caption them in English and broaden out the audience.”
In the near term, TIFA is in the process of finalizing the program for 2021, which involves the usual mixture of excitement and trepidation about putting together a coherent, robust, and diverse mixture of participants while also realizing that a ten-day festival – even a digital one – offers only a finite amount of hours in which to showcase selections from what is shaping up to be a busy publishing season packed with big books and heavy hitters. It’s a tightrope Gulliver is aware of having to walk. “The biggest challenge for me is to stop inviting people.”