When the world’s most famous book festival cancelled its flagship edition in Wales last spring, it was hard to see how any live event had a chance of surviving Covid-19. Worse still, the news hit at the very moment of maximum financial exposure, placing Hay Festival in immediate peril.
But if Hay Festival had any doubts about its ability to continue, its audience did not. In a standout cultural success story for 2020, Hay Festival Wales went online. Within weeks, the festival produced one of its most ambitious programmes ever, featuring a dazzling array of writers, thinkers and performers from Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood to Stephen Fry, Helena Bonham Carter and Benedict Cumberbatch. Sessions were viewed half a million times by people from 30 countries and friendships were formed in digital chat rooms, giving organisers renewed hope for the future.
Since that online festival, dubbed Hay-on-Wifi by the Prime Minister, Hay’s digital model has grown, with editions around the world bringing writers and readers together in Spain, Mexico, Croatia and Peru, and with new Book of the Month live Q&As and a refreshed podcast series bolstering the digital offer. 2020 closed with Hay’s annual Winter Weekend taking place online too, featuring Dawn French, Lee Child, Irenosen Okojie, Elton John, Arsène Wenger, James Rebanks, Katya Adler, Susie Dent and Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart.
In 2021 Hay Festival’s global audience is reaching into the millions and its focus is shifting further towards innovative hybrid events, merging the best of live and online experiences. Blended programmes are planned for Medellin, Jericho and Cartagena, Colombia (January to February); Querétaro, Mexico (September); Segovia, Spain (September) and Arequipa, Peru (November).
Closer to home, in May the green fields in Wales will once more be filled with the hum of conversation, in a pioneering hybrid edition of the Hay Festival. Outreach programmes will again bring festival events into local communities, supported by the Hay Festival Foundation. The festival’s schools programming will tour Wales, while Hay Joven and Hay Communitario will offer free programming for young people across Latin America.
Throughout a turbulent 2020, Hay Festival continued to represent the best of Britain’s openness, welcoming writers, thinkers, artists, performers and readers from all over the world to share ideas in a cultural moment that exceeds the sum of its parts. Its mission remains clear: in a volatile world of anger and corrupted language, this not-for-profit festival is a champion for empathy and curiosity. Stories and truths are told and exchanged and everyone is encouraged to imagine the world from different perspectives.
Reflecting on the past year, festival spokesperson Christopher Bone added: ‘The support we have received has been both humbling and inspiring. The very people we feared we were letting down the most came to help us in our hour of need and showed a deep desire to meet these challenging times with hope and new ideas. As we look to 2021 and beyond, we hold close the lessons of these past 12 months and step forwards with renewed purpose.’