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How Pride Toronto Plans to Pull Off a 'Phygital' Festival

The 40-year-old festival's executive director explains how the team is hosting over 70 individual events, including weekly online programming, a virtual parade and a series of physically distanced art installations.

Trans Pride, seen here in 2019, will take place virtually this year along with Dyke Pride and the Pride Parade.
Trans Pride, seen here in 2019, will take place virtually this year along with Dyke Pride and the Pride Parade.
Photo: Courtesy of Trans Pride

TORONTO—Pride month kicks off in Toronto next week, with the annual rainbow and trans pride flag raising at City Hall on June 1. This year’s celebrations include over 70 individual events showcasing more than 150 2SLGBTQ+ artists, 14 party collectives and seven committee programs, set to take place online and in-person throughout the month. The celebrations—which include some of Toronto’s biggest annual queer events including the Pride Parade, Trans Pride and Dyke Pride—wrap up on June 27.

Some of the most anticipated entertainers slated to perform this year include Canada’s Drag Race’s Tynomi Banks, Juno-nominated contemporary vocalist STORRY, Toronto-based R&B duo TRP.P and musician and multidisciplinary musician Shi Wisdom. This year also commemorates 40 years since “Operation Soap,” when four Toronto bathhouses were raided, leading to hundreds of arrests and the city’s first Pride event later that year.

Attendees everywhere can also check free weekly, virtual programming, including the Queer Shopping Channel, Wellness Wednesdays, Human Rights Panels and the Virtual Streetfair. 2021 features two festival weekends, with virtual editions of Pride’s biggest parties including Drag Ball, Lavender, Yes Yes Y’all, the F*ck Shit Up! A Trans and Non-Binary Cabaret and Blockorama. F*ck Shit Up!, a trans and nonbinary cabaret of drag, burlesque, music and more, takes place on June 25.F*ck Shit Up!, a trans and nonbinary cabaret of drag, burlesque, music and more, takes place on June 25.Photo: Courtesy of F*ck Shit Up!

Since the city of Toronto canceled all major indoor and outdoor events for the summer, it’s been uncertain whether Canada’s largest arts and culture festival would be a hybrid or purely virtual experience. However, Pride Toronto’s leadership team has been preparing for multiple scenarios since last year’s online celebration wrapped up.

“We had a three-phase plan that began in July 2020,” explains Pride Toronto executive director Sherwin Modeste. “Phase 1 was planning a full physical festival. We knew that if by February things were not looking promising, we would need to transition to Phase 2—a combination of physical and digital. Phase 3 would be only digitally produced. With health restrictions beyond our control, our team wanted to be prepared for all outcomes. In everything we do, we ensure we are following all public health guidelines.”  

Following the release of Ontario's provincial reopening framework last week, it’s hopeful that physically distanced outdoor events will take place as planned. Throughout June, visitors are invited to attend six outdoor art installations curated by 2SLGBTQ+ creators. Exhibits will be popping up in spaces across the city—including Stact Market, Harbourfront Centre, Woodbine Beach Park, Buddies and Bad Times Theatre—where guests are asked to follow public health guidelines.

This year, official Pride merchandise designed by local 2SLGBTQ+ owned businesses, including Yohomo, Operation Soap, MUKA designs, Annyugenart, Frizz the Kid, the Invisible Majority and Flamingo Market, will be on sale every Thursday in June at Stact Market. Organizers also announced that they’ll be bringing the celebration to neighborhoods across the city with surprise swag bag handouts, to be announced on social media. CFlava, a group of Afro-Caribbean dancers, will take part in this year’s one-hour virtual Pride Parade.CFlava, a group of Afro-Caribbean dancers, will take part in this year’s one-hour virtual Pride Parade.Photo: Courtesy of CFlava

With a packed lineup of artists slated to perform, festival organizers are prepared to ensure every virtual performance is broadcast on time and in high quality. To eliminate risks of technical issues during livestreaming, artist sets will be prerecorded and edited, and a festival sponsor is donating audiovisual equipment for performers to record with.  

“Our community will be able to watch our diverse talent from the safety of their own chosen spaces,” says Modeste. “We also ensure that artists are given the production equipment they require to film their segments from the safety of their spaces as well to ensure that exposure to COVID-19 is limited.” 

Virtual presentations will be available on multiple platforms, including Zoom, Instagram, YouTube and the Pride website. Moderators will be on hand to assist guests having trouble accessing events and to ban individuals who engage in queerphobic cyber-harassment of any kind, to enhance community safety measures.

To drive event awareness and attendance, Pride Toronto released its online interactive Pride Guide containing event information, artist and speaker biographies and watch links, and they will post updates to festival programming information on a regular basis. Artists performing this year are doing their part to engage their social media followers, while Pride sponsors are spreading the word to their audiences. 

“Our generous sponsors have been a true asset for putting Pride in the spotlight,” says Modeste. “We have been able to extend our reach through securing in-kind media assets available through our stakeholders. Our 2021 creative was developed through working with 2SLGBTQ+ artists including Yalla Roza, Vivian Rosas, Mitch Duncan, Jenelle Lewis, Eric Kostiuk Williams and Brian Jiang.”

As for how event planners and companies can lend support to 2SLGBTQ+ artists and businesses, Pride Toronto recommends taking a proactive approach. By checking out this year’s virtual programming, events pros can connect with a diverse array of entertainers and speakers—many of whom are available for event bookings year-round. Corporate event planners can also find consultants who specialize in inclusivity training and are available to facilitate lunch-and-learns or staff-training seminars.Leah Allyce Canali is one of 19 artists performing for Pride Live, a one-hour music video-style production.Leah Allyce Canali is one of 19 artists performing for Pride Live, a one-hour music video-style production.Photo: Courtesy of Pride Live

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