Hay festival goes digital

Following the cancellation of the main event, this year’s literary festivities have been relocated online


Words by Millen Brown-Ewens


From May 22- 31, the renowned Hay festival will bring together bibliophiles from across the globe as its programme moves online.

No different from the legion of other art and literary events scheduled for this Spring, the Festival was forced to cancel its original festivities at Hay-on-Wye in Wales due to the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s response, somewhat anticipated, has been to launch a digital initiative which has challenged organisers to explore the ways in which this new space can capture the warm and lively spirit of its yearly celebrations.

Director of the Festival, Peter Florence comments on just how this will be achieved: “The festival is the very opposite of ‘social distancing’. It’s all about being together, about contact and exchange. But in that antithesis, there’s another truth that the internet knows at its core: stories and ideas spread virally too, from writer to reader, from that mouth to this ear, and in that reality, there is opportunity.”

The new Hay Festival Digital will be host to an exciting schedule of interactive events including webinars, workshops and Q&A’s that explore this year’s theme, #ImagineTheWorld.


Drawing together more than 100 award-winning writers, global policy makers, historians, pioneers and innovators, each conversation will invite #HayMakers to interrogate and engage with some of the biggest issues of our time. From the pandemic and world health, to climate change and social injustice, its comprehensive programme will leave no stone unturned in opening up a dialogue around the uncertainties of our future.

“Let’s replace infection with inspiration, isolation with connection and let’s open Hay festival to everyone, everywhere,” says Florence. “It has never been more important to respond to the world with imagination and hope.”


Image courtesy of Hay Festival

Presenting itself as a silver lining to the cancellation of the main event is the undeniable accessibility of the new Festival. While nothing may compare to the buzzing atmosphere forged by the meeting of like-minded spirits, this year’s free digital Festival is expected to draw in a larger audience than ever before.


“The audience will be our most international yet,” says Florence. “Early figures suggest our Friends, who are the heart and soul of the festival, have embraced the digital sphere with gusto, while new people who have never made it to Wales are signing up to tune in.” 


Operating in a digital landscape has also facilitated the curation of an A-list line up which Florence believes wouldn’t have been possible face to face. For one special session in particular, marking 250 years since the birth of William Wordsworth this is certainly true. Described by Florence as the “dream team”, familiar faces Margaret Atwood, Simon Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander, Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave will come together in celebration of the revered Romantic poet.


Elsewhere in the events throughout May, Helena Bonham Carter will join Allie Esiri’s Shakespeare show, Stephen Fry and Natalie Haynes tell the different sides of the story from Troy, and guitarist David Gilmour will be playing a Von Trapped family concert to celebrate Polly Samson’s novel about Leonard Cohen’s Greek summer, A Theatre for Dreamers.


Alongside the main events, the Festival will also introduce a range of resources including a newly launched Hay Festival Podcast and monthly book club. Kicking off the festivities in the first special recording of the podcast, feminist activist Gloria Steinem will share her Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion with the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates.


In an effort to introduce younger generations to literary spheres, the main Festival will be prefixed by a Programme for Schools running from May 18-22. It too has been designed especially for learning from home with resources available for teaching years three to ten.


While it may be too early to discern how those in arts and literature are responding to these unprecedented circumstances, Florence comments that “what’s certain, is that books have a huge part to play in giving people a sense of freedom, and of reaching out beyond their confinement.”  


Click here to browse the main Hay Festival Digital programme and register for talks.

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