Arts First Festival 2021 Adjusts to a New Medium


Harvard’s annual Arts First Festival, one of the largest collegiate arts festivals in the country that showcases performers across diverse genres and spaces, is gearing up for its second consecutive year in a virtual format starting Monday.

The 2020 festival took place after Harvard shut down campus last March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, artmakers at Harvard have found new ways to create a memorable experience in locations around the world.

“Last year, we did a small virtual festival, but because all the closing happened in the middle of March, there was very little time to really do what we’ve done this year,” said Jack Megan, the director of Harvard’s Office of the Arts, which produces the festival.

According to Marin Orlosky ’07-’08, the Arts First coordinator, this year’s festival will showcase podcasts, music videos, digital performances, and site-specific performances recorded on campus and in locations around the world.


“I think Arts First always celebrates the ways that Harvard’s arts community is evolving, whether that’s embracing new art forms, genres, or technologies, and will continue to do so,” she wrote.

'A Diverse Range'

One way the organizers adapted the Festival to a virtual format, according to Megan, is by elongating it from the usual four days to 11. This year, the festival’s events will span from April 19 to April 30.

“We can’t ask our audience to go to dozens and dozens of events online, on a beautiful spring Sunday or Saturday,” Megan said. “So the idea is to recognize that people are sick of looking at computers, and therefore take this exciting material, but make it presented in a way that is less demanding of the audience’s time.”

The organizers will also modify the Performance Fair, which normally consists of students performing for hours in 13 different locations around campus. This year, that singular day will be transformed into five nights of both virtual and in-person student performances.

“We’ve asked students, wherever they are, to find a place that is special to them,” Megan said. “They are being filmed in those locations, playing music, delivering monologues, dancing.”

Typically, Arts First employs student producers who are each in charge of one venue during the Performance Fair. Angel G. Hoyang ’22 — an Arts First intern working closely with Orlosky and one of those student producers this year — said student submissions increased this year across all disciplines.

“There’s truly been so many submissions,” she said. “It was incredible to see even just the number of how many there were, and then seeing everything come together in the same place has also been really cool because there’s such a diverse range.”

'Online Reality'

A major component of Arts First, according to Megan and Orlosky, is the fully staged events or concerts put on virtually by student groups.

These include the Gilbert and Sullivan players, the First Year Musical, and various Harvard organizations like Hyperion Shakespeare, the Women’s Center, and Black C.A.S.T.

Another one of these organizations is Harvard Pops, a symphonic group known as “Harvard’s funniest orchestra” that plays seasonal themed concerts combining scripts, films, and eclectic repertoire.


With the inability for both in-person rehearsal and performance, the group created a four-minute video titled “Pops Gets Funky,” which will be broadcast as part of Arts First. In addition, a five-episode podcast play titled “Popscast: Cereal,” which includes a storyline, jokes, and original music, will be released on the Festival’s website.

“I guess some other challenges were learning new skills on how to audio mix and audio edit in Adobe Audition, and then trying to recreate that orchestra sound with individual instrumental tracks,” said Georgiy A. Kent ’22, one of the co-presidents of Harvard Pops alongside Michael T. Pak ’23. “So that's probably been one of the harder aspects of this online reality.”

Carissa J. Chen ’21, alongside Jessica Lao ’23 and her sister Sarah Lao, created a public art project called “The Loneliness Project,” a collection of letters about loneliness during the pandemic, together forming the longest collective letter in the world. They will share excerpts from this project during Arts First.

“We thought that one of the key experiences of being isolated is a feeling like your voices are not really necessarily heard or not part of the group, and so The Loneliness Project came out of that – a desire to allow people to share their voice in chorus with others across the world and also to serve as a historical archive of some sort of this period of time,” Chen said.

Chen said they originally thought that by the 2021 festival, they would be able to showcase their full exhibit, which they envisioned to be a physical room with mirrors giving the illusion of an infinite letter. However, they are sticking to a digital presentation over Zoom.

“I think this is a great example of how art reacts to the pandemic, and it’s an opportunity for more connection during it,” Chen said.

'Broad Accessibility'

Arts First organizers said an upside of this year’s virtual format is the increased accessibility, which has yielded a noticeable increase in both performers and anticipated audience.

“When Sanders Theater is full, that’s it — sorry, you can't get in,” Megan said. “But here, everyone can get in. Theoretically, 6,500 undergraduates could come to the show.”

“In a way, we lose the energy of all being together, but we create this broad accessibility for people to participate in the festival,” he added.

Elements of this year could possibly influence artmaking in the long-term, according to the organizers. Orlosky wrote that the OFA is considering retaining the successful hybrid model.

“As we’ve begun discussing the future of the festival, our team is talking about a hybrid model: not simply live-streaming in-person performances, but finding ways to truly embrace both in-person and virtual arts experiences going forward,” she wrote.

Overall, both faculty and students involved are looking forward to the next few weeks.

“I think it’s such a great thing for Harvard to devote so much of a space and a spotlight to the arts in general, because that feels like it’s maybe not super appreciated,” Hoyang said.

Megan added that he always “discovers someone or something new” during the festival, and the one this year will be no different.

“There’s that moment where you hear students you just hadn’t heard before, and see or hear they are playing something, not only beautifully with respect to technique and so on, but they’re really artists. They’re really giving from someplace deep inside,” he said.

“I love those moments of discovery,” Megan added. “I’m sure I’m gonna have them with this year’s festival.”

—Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at