COVID-19 And The 2020 Festival

2020 marked Mariposa’s 60th anniversary and ticket sales for the annual festival were promising to break all previous sales records. The 60th anniversary festival was going to celebrate Mariposa’s history, longevity, and creative ingenuity. 

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, the world was on the brink of a global shutdown. “Detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize health resources” became the mantra of the day. The pandemic raged on around the world and on this same date, the first of a series of preventive measures began in Canada including a shutdown of border crossings and all but essential services.

Due to restrictions on gatherings, Mariposa in Concert cancelled the last of its winter concert series and refunded all tickets.  The highly anticipated appearance of the ever popular group Union Duke was not to be. As so much about COVID-19 was unknown in the early days of the pandemic, it was assumed that it would be short lived and life would get back to normal. Planning for the annual festival in July of 2020 continued.

In response to the growing pandemic, on April 21, 2020, the City of Orillia extended the restriction on local events and public gatherings until July 5th. All city facility bookings and permits would be cancelled including the annual Mariposa Folk Festival in 2020 and the 60th anniversary celebrations.

As the media quickly picked up the story that one of the longest running folk festivals in North America had cancelled its 60th anniversary event, it became clear that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon. This was one of the first cancellations of hundreds of thousands events around the world.

Festival organizers had been in regular communication with public health, city officials and Canada’s festival community in the weeks leading up to the decision. President of Mariposa, Pam Carter remarked, “Our priority has always been the health and safety of our supporters, our audience, our artists, we needed to consider the interests of everyone that had a stake in Mariposa.” Refunds were offered to all ticket holders as well as the option of deferring tickets to 2021 or making a donation. Mariposa fans were going to have to wait another year for the return of their beloved festival.

The announcement followed on the heels of the news that the festival’s Sunday night headliner, legendary singer songwriter John Prine, had died after succumbing to COVID-19 complications. A loss felt around the world.

True to form, the Mariposa community rallied to support their beloved festival. Many patrons deferred their tickets and made donations to help keep Mariposa on its feet. Volunteers reaffirmed their commitments, sponsors left their sponsorships in place, and funders also left grants intact. All efforts helped keep Mariposa financially solvent so that it could live through the hardships of the pandemic.

Due to this generosity, Mariposa was able to financially support its volunteer production crew by issuing their honorariums in spite of the cancellation. This small gesture reaped untold benefits to those whose livelihood depends on live performance. For some, this meant surviving another month until the government relief fund came into play. Many long-time crew with deep roots in Mariposa donated the honorarium back to ensure that the festival survived. 

The live performance sector required urgent support to survive the financial impact of cancellations due to the pandemic. The industry faced unprecedented upheaval and turmoil. The scope of the impact was devastating to the industry as a whole. Many umbrella groups, such as Canada Live Music Association, began to lobby all levels of government across the country in an effort to gain financial support for the live performance industry. Their tireless efforts paid off. The Canadian and Ontario governments heard their concerns and provided targeted support measures for the hardest hit sectors.

Mariposa’s New Branding

As a result of the ban on live music events, Mariposa began to reimagine its productions and events. In preparation for Mariposa’s 60th anniversary, Beehive Design, a creative agency located in Toronto, was hired to redevelop the foundation website and branding, create a new digital strategy, and bring a fresh approach to Mariposa’s social media platforms and content. These efforts, with an overarching objective of better engaging our patrons, followers and supporters, proved invaluable as COVID-19 forced the whole world into the digital realm.

Mariposa decided to host a free virtual concert series that summer, on the newly created Mariposa Virtual Stage (MVS), with the objective of staying connected with fans and supporting the industry. Costs were covered by grants from the National Arts Centre (NAC), Celebrate Ontario, Ontario Creates, Canadian Heritage and the City of Orillia.

A virtual festival featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, This Way North, OKAN, The Small Glories, and Mimi O’Bonsawin, all of whom were booked to play the 2020 festival. Serena Ryder was also featured in a separate concert release and in cooperation with the NAC, a concert featuring Julian Taylor and Kalyna Rakel was presented.

The MVS also produced a four-part series of Episodes showcasing archival material of Mariposa legends, paired with a contemporary performance. The CBC’s Shelagh Rogers hosted three of the four episodes, with the fourth hosted by Tre Burt. The episodes featured legends Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and John Prine, with contemporary performances by Dala, Harrow Fair, Celeigh Cardinal, Birds of Chicago, Colin Linden and Tre Burt.

In light of John Prine’s death, the emotional episode celebrating his life and music was viewed by tens of thousands of fans of both Mariposa and Prine. It benefited from social media shares by John’s widow, Gordon Lightfoot and a retweet by late night talk show host, Stephen Colbert.

Mariposa Sun Lager

In partnership with Sawdust City Brewing Company, the festival produced its own beer – Mariposa Sun Lager. The lager was available at the craft brewery in Gravenhurst and on line. It sold out quickly as fans reminisced about festivals past and began to develop their own plans for a backyard festival.

In the face of unprecedented challenges, thanks to a disciplined long term strategy, the organization remained on solid financial footing. With great foresight, and perhaps some experience with near financial disaster over the years, the organization had established a “rainy day” or sustainability fund. Its original purpose was to allow the foundation to withstand the financial impact of a catastrophic weather event on the festival weekend and to take advantage of partnership opportunities and grant programs which emphasize the benefits of shared funding.

The sustainability fund along with the generosity of our funders, patrons, sponsors and donors kept the Festival’s finances on the positive side of the ledger. No matter how 2021 was to progress, the Festival was positioned to be active and ready to go back to business when the situation permitted.

The pandemic continued to ravage the world at the close of 2020. Several vaccines were approved and the roll out of vaccinations began in December 2020. Finally, there was some hope that the world would emerge from this pandemic and begin the effort to rebuild the sector bringing live performance back to all.

Unfortunately the pandemic did not subside in time to save the 2021 festival, but the 2022 festival returned as a tremendous celebration and success.

All of the Mariposa Virtual Stage projects can be found on our Videos page here