About two weeks ago I noticed a curious new account in my Twitter feed. It came seemingly out of nowhere and had the most intriguing name: the Social Distancing Festival. This was during the early days of keeping ourselves largely separated, before even the full Safer at Home set of orders came through here in Los Angeles; people in the local and indeed the global arts community were already getting hit with waves of canceled trips, concerts, events, stage productions, screenings, readings, performing arts tours and gallery openings.
One of those creatives is Nick Green, a playwright based in Toronto. He writes plays and musicals, and his production “In Real Life” (with composer Kevin Wong), was canceled due to the need for social distancing. “It was tough. This was a show that we had worked on for a long time, and we really don’t know what the future holds for this show,” Green says, echoing the worst fears of many thousands of artists in the same situation.
As Green tells the Weekly, and again like so many other innovators in the arts, it wasn’t long before hopelessness turned to inspiration. “It got me thinking about all the artists out there who are experiencing such loss and disappointment, and how badly we all need something that will keep us motivated, optimistic and connected to one another,” he explained. “And that’s when the idea came to me.”
The idea behind the Social Distancing Festival is both quite powerful and fairly straightforward — send Green the links and materials from your COVID-canceled and quarantined arts projects and, if everything is order, the SDF will amplify them. Across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and including scheduled streaming events at their main website, this earnest and lovingly curated platform offers everything from dance companies to gallery shows and musicals to monologues, poetry and performance art. There’s also an “old-school” chat room on the site called the Beer Tent, and a list of internationally-based arts relief resource organizations.
Prior to this project, Green had worked as a writer with a few publications, particularly writing about lifestyle and food, and maintained a personal blog called …and Fabulous. “It was totally embarrassing but I was so proud of it back then!” he says. “I was familiar with how to design and maintain a website through that. In terms of social media, I can’t say I was any sort of Twitter aficionado. I’ve maintained a solid 350 followers on my Insta account, posting mostly shots of the same four friends and baked goods. It’s been quite something to see how social media operates when people are talking about what you’re doing. I’ve got a (younger and cooler) colleague named Matt who is largely running it for me now.”
Well, it’s good he has some help because SDF has been getting pings from every corner of the world. Green finds the response surprising, but also kind of not. “I’ve been an artist all my life, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that people are responding so quickly and with such passion,” he says. “It is a close, tight community and we don’t like to see each other hurting. That said, I didn’t expect the response to be so far-reaching. I’ve connected with artists in Amsterdam, Florence, Tazmania, Spain, all over the U.S., and of course throughout Canada, where the arts scene is incredible.”
The submissions have represented nearly every discipline of art you could name. There has been visual art, dance, opera, classical music, theater, music, film and different aspects of spoken word. Green and his team of artists sort through submissions with empathy and curiosity, primarily focusing on work that was disrupted or canceled by the need for social distancing. They ask that people share a bit about their story in their submission, about the work that they put into the project, and what plans they had for it before everything changed.
The overall quality of submissions are impressive, but Green admits that a few have really caught his eye. The composer behind the musical Grow (music: Colleen Dauncey, lyrics: Akiva Romer-Segal, book: Matt Murray) sent a video of her singing one of the newest songs of the show. “This was a very anticipated musical, being produced at the Grand Theatre,” Green says. “The song is stunning!”
He also received a dance video from an artist in Dar es Salaam named Tadhi Alawi. He had been planning on traveling to Ireland to present this dance video and a new piece before it was canceled. “He has few opportunities to showcase his incredible talent, and I love the piece,” says Green.
A textile artist named Jane Sanders in Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K., also submitted some of her work, which had lost its exhibition. Green totally fell in love with it. “She makes the most amazing textile portraits using her sewing machine with felt, fabric and unconventional materials like newspaper and old cigarette cards. I want one in my living room!” he exclaims.
“These are hard times,” Green continues,” and I think it’s going to take a while to recover. We can’t forget to support one another. We have to motivate and encourage each other. Give hope. Be generous and supportive. And share other people’s art with the world.”
Check the Social Distancing Festival website for evolving content and a schedule of streaming events.