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Photograph: Jamie WilliamsSWF in happier times, but eerily prescient.

Sydney Writers' Fest leads new wave of COVID-19 cancellations

Written by
Stephen A Russell

Sydney has been rocked by another wave of major arts event cancellations amidst renewed efforts to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The book has been closed on this year's Sydney Writers' Festival (SWF), scheduled to run from April 27 to May 3 with a short school season to follow. The curtain has fallen on all performances of Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) No Pay? No Way!, and Sydney Dance Company (SDC) has also cancelled their debut 2020 season Bonachela/Forsythe.

The Sydney Writers' Festival (SWF) was to have drawn international big hitters including the 2019 Booker Prize co-winner Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and celebrated local author of best-seller Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe. Patti Smith and Paul Kelly would have shared the stage. But the ban on public gatherings of over 500 people and the health risks made it untenable.

"This is an unprecedented, deeply upsetting and challenging time for everyone, but the health and safety of writers, audiences, staff, publishers, volunteers and our community must come first," said a demoralised SWF Artistic Director Michaela McGuire.

"This program is now a time capsule, representing one day mid last week when 437 writers from 14 countries were still appearing across 346 events," McGuire added.

Urging would-be audiences to seek out the works of the lost line-up and purchase them from local bookstores, McGuire noted it would be an especially tough time for emerging writers debuting their first book at SWF, like Sophie Hardcastle's Below Deck.

The statement noted SWF would be using their digital and podcast channels in the coming weeks and months to highlight, support and celebrate the work of the 2020 writers.

Chair of Sydney Writers' Festival board Mark Scott added, "It may be lost in all the terrible news, but the shutting down of entertainment venues, festivals, concerts, theatrical productions and the like will have an appalling impact on the creative industries in this country. Sadly, more than 400 writers share in this loss without this year's Festival."

A statement released by STC Artistic Director Kip Williams and Executive Director Patrick McIntyre announced that the current season of No Pay? No Way! at the Sydney Opera House, due to run until March 28, would cease immediately, as would the upcoming April 1-4 run at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.

"We are saddened to have to disappoint our audiences in this way, however our first priority is and always will be the health and wellbeing of our patrons, our employees and the community at large," they said.

"In this challenging time, all of us at STC are concerned for the wellbeing and long term viability of Australia's vibrant and internationally recognised arts community. We are especially mindful of the plight of small organisations and freelance practitioners who do not have access to resources or contingency plans."

The pair praised patrons who had the financial means and had opted to waive refunds on and convert them to tax-deductible donations.

"Generosity like this will be essential to mitigate the impact of this unprecedented global event," they added. "These are uncertain times. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that theatre is a necessary and vital space where communities are built, nurtured and maintained. Its importance will only continue to grow as we look to the future. Rest assured that we will be back and producing shows as soon as it is safe and advisable to do so."

A call on STC productions set to bow later in the year would be made in due course.

SDC pulled the pin on Bonachela/Forsythe before the season that was due to open March 23, though left the door open to possibly re-mount.

"More information regarding the feasibility of this will come at a later date," the statement said, adding that, "public dance classes, short courses, youth ensemble and school holiday workshops will continue in the Company's studios in Wattle Street, Ultimo."

The company noted it had implemented increased venue cleaning in all studios and high-traffic, with hospital-grade hand sanitiser made available and asked all dance class patrons and attendees to be vigilant. "The company will continue to monitor government recommendations and will respond appropriately regarding their studio program should it be necessary."

Check out our comprehensive list of the latest event cancellations in Sydney to see if your next outing is disrupted.

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