DaPoPo Theatre presents Behind the Queens as part of this year's Mayworks.
DaPoPo Theatre presents Behind the Queens as part of this year's Mayworks.

Like so many events around the world right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced this year’s Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts online.

“I didn’t want to have to cancel entirely and forgo having this celebration,” says festival director Sébastien Labelle. “We gave ourselves a week to explore whether we could pull together an online program. We quickly determined it was feasible and decided to switch to a digital format.”

Now in its eleventh year, Mayworks traces its origins in the 1990s to a group of Canadian artists travelling to Europe. “They saw that May Day was a much larger celebration than it typically was in Canadian cities,” explains Labelle. “Not only with demonstrations but also with cultural events.”

Labelle goes onto say the connection between the labour movement and the arts is one that allows complex issues to be more relatable. “Either in a way to let down people’s guards by entertaining, making people laugh or sometimes by challenging the way people think by demonstrating an issue from a different angle,” he says.

This year it also takes on a more urgent need. “In these days of isolation, it is often easy to fall out of touch or to feel disconnected,” says Labelle. “Having events like Mayworks that explicitly celebrates togetherness and solidarity is essential. It reminds us that we are working together to get through this difficult period.”

As luck would have it, two digitally-based events had already been scheduled for this year’s Mayworks. “We knew these events could still happen because they don’t require a physical gathering,” says Labelle.

Sebastien Labelle
“I’m excited by how we’ve been able to pull this together. When we struck the committee to see if we could do something digitally, we called it the ‘lemonade committee’ based on the saying about making lemonade out of lemons. I feel like we’ve pulled together a pretty tasty lemonade.” – Sébastien Labelle

In Zuppa’s Vista, audiences go on an audio tour exploring the daily grind of people who work in public health and those of us who find ourselves navigating this new world.

Ironically, Vista originated out of a series of 2018 conversations with public health experts in Halifax and the United Kingdom. Those initial conversations have since been supplemented with new interviews following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not app-based, Walking Gottingen takes a similar approach using audio.

Designed to provide a similarly immersive experience, listeners will hear stories of racism, homophobia, and postcolonial attitudes from neighbourhood residents while walking down Gottingen Street.

And while Walking Gottingen currently comes with a physical distancing warning, creators say it will be available through the Halifax Public Libraries in the future.

Other elements to Mayworks have also seen a more straightforward pivot, including its annual short film program Reel Justice. As well, an originally scheduled hip-hop concert has become a digital offering instead. “We are asking the artists that were involved and some of their friends to submit music tracks, and we will release it as a digital mixtape,” says Labelle.

In one of the new offerings this year, Mayworks board member Fallen Matthews curates a National Film Board playlist. In another, Voices From the Pandemic is an online exhibit designed to reveal how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work and what work might mean.

Another group finding themselves turning to the digital realm for this year’s Mayworks was DaPoPo Theatre.

Originally scheduled to present a fully-produced and updated version of their Halifax Fringe show Broadway Boyz, because of physical distancing requirements, the creators decided instead to offer a parallel story titled Behind the Queens.

“Rather than present an audio version of Broadway Boyz, we are creating two one-hour podcasts,” explains co-creator Garry Williams. “The podcasts will explore the biography of the creators and speak very particularly about what’s affecting us all right now.”

The two standalone but complementary podcasts will delve into some of the same themes explored in Broadway Boyz but in a more much more intimate and personal way.

“Rather than tell the same stories and perform the same songs from Broadway Boyz, we decided to explore some different aspects,” says Williams. “Where we came from, what drives us, and what scares us.”

And while Behind the Queens may not have been what its creators had initially set out to do at this year’s Mayworks, Williams is hopeful the full version of Broadway Boyz will see the stage in 2021. It will join two other events initially scheduled this year, including the multi-media exhibit Where There is Smoke, featuring interviews with female firefighters.

The 2020 digital edition of the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts runs May 1-31. Events are free-of-charge although a Solidarity Pass is available for purchase. Visit mayworkshalifax.ca for a complete list of events and more information.