The CubaDupa festival inhabits the Cuba Street precinct (Photo: Ollie Crawford).

Why CubaDupa festival was moved off the streets

With the increased security threat after the Christchurch attacks, Wellington’s CubaDupa street festival has had to move off the street and into venues around the city. The Spinoff spoke to the festival’s artistic director about why this was necessary for safety, and why the changes are not about letting fear win.

The presence of armed police with rifles across their chests has become an alarmingly familiar sight for New Zealanders since the terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The country remains on high-security alert until the threat of retaliatory action or copy-cat attacks subsides, according to NZSIS and GCSB Minister Andrew Little. The ongoing heightened security has meant big changes for CubaDupa street festival in Wellington this weekend to ensure the safety of its guests.

The festival’s original design would have seen it spread across seven stages set up outside within the Cuba Street precinct. It’s free and happens each year with tens of thousands of people descending on central Wellington for the two days of celebration of the diversity of the capital’s music, food, and people. But because of the ongoing security risk and the difficulty in providing security for a sprawling street festival CubaDupa has been reconfigured as CubaDupa OFFSTREET Festival.

The Wellington creative community has opened their arms in support of the festival and, at the last minute, venues have opened their doors to provide homes for the weekend’s vast array of performances. This means there’s a controlled environment that provides an opportunity to ensure the safety of the festival’s guests.

“Our love goes out to everyone affected by the tragedy in Christchurch, and because of these events it’s essential that we put the safety of the people attending CubaDupa before anything else,” said Drew James, the festival’s artistic director.

The Spinoff spoke to James about what’s changed, the reasons behind those decisions, and why CubaDupa is still the best celebration of all the best things about New Zealand going down this weekend.

CubaDupa’s street setting makes security requirements under the current high alert very difficult (Photo: Ollie Crawford)

Why has the decision been made to move the festival indoors? How was the decision made, and who was involved in the decision?

In light of the Christchurch mosque tragedy, all events were asked by authorities to undertake a risk assessment. The report highlighted that the nature of the event would require a significantly larger security and police presence along with infrastructure and operations that were beyond available resources, both in terms of time and money. In particular, the site – because it’s inherently on the streets of central Wellington – is difficult, if not impossible, to secure.

Public safety is of utmost importance to CubaDupa and we recognised that we were unable to reach the required level of site security in the time available.

What makes CubaDupa great is it is open by nature and a celebration of Wellington’s most vibrant district, conversely because of CubaDupa’s openness we simply don’t have the time or the resources to develop controls on who enters our site and what they bring with them.

CubaDupa is historically a low-risk event. In fact, one of the lowest, and we plan accordingly. But an event like this is also a complex beast and embedding security in a meaningful and effective way was simply not possible in the time we had available.

How does moving the festival off the street increase safety?

Putting the programme into venues allows us to put screening and controls into place. It also allows us to isolate one part of the event should there be an evacuation or incident. We can also keep tabs on how many people need to be accounted for in the event of an evacuation, something which is not possible in an open street environment.

What does it mean “indoors”? What are the new locations? Are there family friendly venues?

We have renamed it CubaDupa OFFSTREET. Venue entry is free and on a first in, first seat basis. Festivals around the world – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for example – are run like this. There are multiple performances happening at the same time in different venues around the precinct so there is a lot going on to accommodate everyone. Moving from venue to venue and exploring the Cuba St precinct area is still key to the CubaDupa experience.

See CubaDupa’s updated programme here.

The venues and open-air areas include The Opera House, Hotel Bristol, San Fran, Rogue and Vagabond (and Glover Park), Hannah’s Courtyard, Te Auaha, Garage Project – Wild Workshop Stage, Capital Blues in Jack Hacketts, {Suite}, Heyday Beer Co., Laundry, Fidels and Caroline. In true CubaDupa style, we encourage the audience to move around the various venues. The beauty of the Cuba St precinct is they are all within walking distance from each other.

Families are important to CubaDupa and we have programmed plenty to do for the kids. Te Auaha is the family zone with performances and activities. Other child-friendly locations include Hannah’s Courtyard and Glover Park. Children can enter other licensed venues as long as they are with a guardian.

How will the festival’s offerings be different? Have you lost artists or food suppliers?

The team have managed to reprogramme 90% of the entertainment – missing is the big parades and some street specific acts like roaming performers.

The difference to the original programme is there are now no street closures and therefore the footpaths will be free to accommodate the pedestrian flow. But people will be able to wander the footpaths, mall and alleyways of the CubaDupa precinct between bars, restaurants and venues. We encourage people to get in amongst the huge diversity of music and performing arts acts.  

And if it’s food and drink from the Moore Wilson Street Feast that you like most about CubaDupa there is a vast array of restaurants and bars geared up to feed hungry festival goers.

Was it hard to move the festival’s venue in a week?

Wellington venue owners have been amazing with their offers to house our acts. The community has really pulled together and got behind the changes. But let’s just say we have been all been working hard to make it happen, drinking lots of Havana coffee and not getting a lot of sleep.

WOMAD and Home Grown were able to go ahead almost unaffected. What’s the difference with CubaDupa?

The horrific murders happened on opening day of WOMAD – and the audience entered through secure checkpoints where all bags were searched. Homegrown also had secure entry points and it could isolate parts of the site effectively. Their successful partial evacuation demonstrated this.

In contrast, CubaDupa builds the site overnight in the streets where people live, work and play and we are unable to isolate the site, sweep it and then control access from that point on. We can’t stop people from moving about their city. Furthermore, the increased resources required to provide the level of security detailed in the report just doesn’t exist.

There’s been criticism of the decision, claiming that the Christchurch terrorist has got what he wanted and fear has prevailed to change the way our society works. Is this what has happened?

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The country is on high alert as a result of the Christchurch tragedy and all events are being scrutinised for their safety. This high alert will likely be lifted in another four weeks and it’s just unfortunate the CubaDupa timing means we have to respond to this high-security environment. We absolutely hope that the terror level returns to low and stays there but we can’t ignore the facts of the matter.

We realise people are disappointed with the change, we are too – we had little choice as public safety is our number one concern and we simply can’t control the festival site to the level required in the time that we have.

Why is a celebration like CubaDupa important at this moment?

Cubadupa is a chance to bring our amazing community together – it’s important for our social needs and wellbeing. Music, performing arts and visual art has been shown to lift spirits. New Zealand has been living in unprecedented times and it has affected everyone. The CubaDupa programme is a chance to celebrate our diversity as a nation and share the love.


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