Like many festivals, Pygmalion had to transition to the digital sphere if it wanted to hold an event in 2020. Unlike many festivals, it was starting from scratch.
“The ironic thing for me and for us is that I’ve been so resistant to any sort of virtual streaming experience for Pygmalion for its entire 15-year history,” says founder and creative director Seth Fein, who helped orchestrate Pygmalion’s inaugural event, which debuts Sept. 24-26. “The idea that we’d do anything virtual or in a streaming environment is really foreign to me personally.”
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the notion that Pygmalion would go digital became somewhat liberating for its team. The fiercely independent, community-funded event, held in Urbana, Ill., since 2005, was once music-centric, hosting artists such as Yo La Tengo, Of Montreal, Andrew Bird, Titus Andronicus and Japandroids in early editions. But in recent years, Pygmalion has introduced a bevy of non-musical programming to its offering, including a hackathon, literary discussions and readings, podcasts, comedy and even food and drink demonstrations.
“Pygmalion, strangely, is uniquely suited to do what we’re doing, because we’ve been moving away from being solely a live music entertainment event for a long time now,” Fein says. “For the last eight years we’ve been fashioning a different type of cultural event inside of what was once just an indie-rock music festival. As a result of that content having shifted already, we felt like, well, maybe we could explore what it would mean to do things differently and try to fashion something into the virtual space.”
The product is one of the most innovative digital festival offerings this year. Pygmalion’s sprawling and eclectic lineup includes “Saturday Night Salon” with NPR host Ari Shapiro, “Napoleon Dynamite Live” featuring original cast members, a summit of staffers from newly formed blog Defector and a literary marathon including prominent authors, poets and journalists, to name a few.
Musicians from rising jazz artist Angel Bat Dawid to indie-rocker Ellen Kempner of Palehound dot the bill, but Pygmalion 2020 won’t feature music per se.
“We’re not doing any livestreaming music, because we don’t believe that’s what we’re best suited to do,” Fein says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with streaming concerts. I just don’t know that as a promoter that’s how I want to spend my energy. You probably don’t need a promoter to put on your own show – but you might benefit from having a promoter present you with these creative ideas to continue to perpetuate art.”
Take, for instance, “Exit Stage Left: A Pygmalion Mystery,” the virtual escape room Pygmalion is presenting. Fein landed on the idea because the Pygmalion team had to find a way to use the grant funding it receives from Urbana, which comes with the stipulation that programming remains local. With physical gigs off the table, Fein turned to acclaimed local escape room center Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space to render digital escape rooms. When agent Ali Hedrick caught wind, she suggested the involvement of one of her clients, violinist and singer Sudan Archives.
“Without giving too much away, Sudan Archives and her music and her instrument play a primary role inside of these games,” Fein says.
Undergirding Pygmalion’s 2020 slate is a commitment to social good. Donations generated from the free event will benefit several charities, including the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA). Once Pygmalion realized in May that it wouldn’t be turning a profit in 2020, Fein says decisions about charitable giving were easy.
“If we’re going to do that work, we’re going to use that opportunity to try to raise some money for people that are doing work that is much harder than the work we’re doing,” he says, citing education and the arts as two areas of particular importance to him.
Ultimately, the process has been a freeing one for the Pygmalion team.
“I don’t know how this is going to go!” Fine says with a haughty laugh. “I’ve never done this before! We’d rather use this as an opportunity to experiment with the craft of programming than do nothing. If it completely falls flat, I guess we’ll throw up our hands and say, ‘Hey, we tried. We employed people to do something creative.'”