Montreal's music and arts festivals are gearing up for an 'unprecedented' summer

Festivals like Fringe and Fantasia say they are ready to pivot depending on how the situation evolves. Above all, they want to help Montrealers reconnect with live, in-person entertainment.

With unpredictable pandemic rule changes, 'we've got plan A all the way to Z,' says one festival organizer

In 2020, POP Montreal had to make adjustments to its programming due to the pandemic. For 2021, it's not yet clear exactly what rules the festival will have to follow. (POP Montreal Press Photo/Coralie Daigneault)

With Osheaga cancelled for 2021, and the Jazz Festival postponed until September, Montrealers may be feeling that this summer will only extend the drought of live cultural events in the city.

However, despite the uncertainty of future pandemic restrictions, there are several festivals that are planning to go ahead, embracing hybrid models and reducing the scale of their events to adhere to guidelines.

One such event is the Montreal Fringe Festival, which is set to take place June 1 to 20, kicking off the festival season with a mix of online and in-person performances.

Amy Blackmore, executive and artistic director of MainLine Theatre and the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival, told CBC's Daybreak the Fringe usually presents between 100 to 115 shows in 20 venues.

This year, it will be scaling back, doing 30 to 35 shows in four or five venues.

"We are going to be really transparent with all of our artists and all of our audience members with what the experience is going to be like,"  said Blackmore.

"For example, there is going to be reduced capacity at our venues, tons of COVID-19 safety precautions and folks on site to help everyone have a good experience, stay safe and enjoy the art."

Amy Blackmore is the executive and artistic director of the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. This year's edition will be quite different from previous years, but the team is dedicated to putting on a show despite the pandemic restrictions. (Cindy Lopez/Montreal Fringe Festival)

With Montreal designated as a red zone, cinemas and auditoriums cannot take in more than 250 people, depending on capacity, and the sale of food and drinks is not allowed. Whether those rules get looser or tighter by summertime, is anyone's guess.

Blackmore said that with the ever-changing situation, her team is "ready to change on a dime."

"We've got plan A all the way to Z."

Having had to move last year's event online, Blackmore is keen to celebrate the festival's 30th anniversary and has launched a fundraising campaign to keep the event alive.

"I feel a really big responsibility with 30 years," she said. "I want the fringe to exist for years to come. It's such an integral part of the Montreal independent arts community and it's really how Montreal kicks off summer."

Fantasia also hoping to host in-person screenings

Another festival with ambitions to welcome in-person audiences is the Fantasia Film Festival.


Scheduled to go from Aug. 5 to 25, founder and general manager Pierre Corbeil told Daybreak he is also planning to follow a hybrid model, offering films which can be screened at home as well as in theatres.

"We're known around the world for having the wildest screenings with the audience being very thrilled and excited and responsive," said Corbeil. "[At home] it's not the same, but it's still a lot better than not doing anything and just cancelling."

Also celebrating an anniversary, the festival's 20th, Corbeil said the event will open with the world premiere of Quebec film Brain Freeze, which he describes as a zombie comedy.

He said with the festival a few months away, there is still time to make adjustments to the plan depending on the rules.

"We're hopeful that the possibilities will be much greater than what we can envision right now," he said.

The Just For Laughs Festival is set to return for its 2021 edition July 15 to 31, though organizers have not yet announced how the festival will operate and if it will include in-person events.

Mutek to return in August

For its part, electronic music and arts festival Mutek is planning to go ahead in the end of August.

Artistic director Alain Mongeau told Daybreak that "it's been so difficult to predict exactly what will be possible" but that his team is ready to put on an event either way.

Last year, Mutek prepared to run the whole festival online and even created a custom virtual platform. In the end, they were able to host some in-person events with social distancing.

Mutek, pictured here in 2019, is another festival that is eager to welcome back live audiences. (Mutek press photo/Bruno Destombes)

Mongeau said unlike some other festivals facing challenges, he's lucky that his event doesn't lean heavily on international artists.

"We rely a lot on local talent, so we are able to restructure a festival," he said. "We can reshape the festival and it still makes sense."

Most of all, Mongeau is eager to welcome people back. He thinks the feeling is mutual for audiences.

"We feel that after a year and a half now, everybody will be quite eager to get away from their screen and be exposed to live culture."

Expect a busy September

Dan Seligman, creative director of POP Montreal, echoes this sentiment, saying that even if September will be an unusually busy month with events like Jazz Fest and Francos Montreal, the appetite from fans will be there.

"I think because there is such a desire for the public to attend cultural events and support artists, I think there should be enough space for everyone," he told Daybreak.

The 2020 edition of the POP Montreal festival included distanced, outdoor performances. (POP Montreal Press Photo/Coralie Daigneault)

Seligman called it an "unprecedented time" time for event organizers, adding that "the festival ecosystem has been in crisis mode for the last year."

He said that for "events like Jazz or Osheaga that are such massive undertakings, it's really hard to pivot with short notice."

With POP Montreal several months out, Seligman said his team is waiting to see how things play out, while hoping for the best — a return to normal.

"We'll be ready to accommodate an audience," he said.

With files from CBC Daybreak