The Ann Arbor Summer Festival (A2SF) has been a city staple since 1984, bringing such great entertainers as Ella Fitzgerald, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Steve Martin to town. But the pandemic presented unprecedented obstacles to its 36th season. By early May, all of A2SF’s scheduled indoor and outdoor events were officially canceled.
Determined to give performers and attendees an outlet, however, A2SF Executive Director Mike Michelon, ’10, and his staff presented an alternative, safe, fulfilling experience for this year’s season.
In August, Michigan Alumnus spoke with Michelon to learn more about the “Not Too Close” events A2SF began in partnership with the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department and to hear what he and his colleagues imagine the future will look like for A2SF.
How did A2SF pivot to handle the fallout from the pandemic?
The pandemic is an existential threat to what we do, when you think about live events. They will be the last events to come back fully. The festival had a season of activities all ready to go, but we quickly realized it wouldn’t take place as we imagined it. It would have to be very different. Now, everything we do is guided by two questions: How can we deliver our mission in the current reality? And how are we acknowledging that this may last longer than we want to admit? All the events we are doing for the moment are an investment in experimentation. We’ll be taking what we learn this year into 2021 and beyond.
In late July, you started the “Not Too Close” series, featuring small, registrant-only outdoor concerts and movie screenings. How did you ensure everyone’s safety?
Our artists, workers, and audience members were so happy we were organizing these events and were equally super-cautious. We had very rigid safety protocols that allowed for 100 people. There was zero room for error. Because of that, everyone was cool and understanding of all the extra steps, such as social distancing 6 feet apart and wearing masks. We are so appreciative of their cooperation.
How will A2SF develop in the future amidst the “new normal?”
Next year, it will look more similar to 2020 than 2019. In a normal summer, we produce over 200 individual events for 80,000 people. We are going to try to break down our activities and mount them in a new way. Maybe that means we spread them throughout Ann Arbor instead of having a central gathering place. We may lengthen the duration of the festival to space things out. We want to maintain that sense of discovery from a festival setting.
Popular programming we developed this year may carry over into next year. One of those is the Story Walk, which is a predetermined path through Ann Arbor that you follow as you listen to an audio play based on various real-life locations. There will also be one in Ypsilanti. What really makes Story Walk great is that you can do it on your own, with family, or in a small group. It can give the feeling of being in a group, but is balanced with safety.
How do you see A2SF helping the city’s recovery?
A2SF exists as a partnership between the city and U-M. We have a foot in both worlds. At any point each year, we’re working with dozens of University units to coordinate events and outreach. At some point, everyone in the community will need to come together for both the economic and societal recovery of the city from the pandemic. A physical, shared experience will be important to make that happen. We’ll be ready to help make that happen, no matter what form it takes.
For more information on A2SF’s virtual offerings and future programming announcements, visit a2sf.org.
Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus.