Written by Cate Root
Saturday, 11 April 2009 20:26
NOLAFugees writer Cate Root speaks with Tennessee Williams Fest Marketing Director Laura Miller about the past, present and future of New Orleans' biggest literary event.
NF: The Tennessee Williams festival was borne of a time of economic hardship in Louisiana. How has the recent economic downturn affected this year's festivities?
LM: We had some concerns that the economy would limit attendance this year, but in the end we were pleasantly surprised at the turnout, which ended up being as good as it’s ever been.
We’re a small organization, and this year we tried to get even more creative about economizing our event. Making thrifty choices, such as putting our ticket brochure online and going with paperless tickets, served a dual purpose in that we saved money on print and postage costs and operated as a “greener” organization with far less paper waste.
I think a lot of people have a misconception about the Tennessee Williams Festival, that it has a lot more money than it does, because of the sheer size of the event and because of the caliber of the writers and other artists who participate. What they don’t realize is that that so much of it is funded by grants and sponsorships and that many of our speakers donate their honorariums back or take part just for the experience and the tickets to attend other events.
So as a nonprofit arts organization, the Festival certainly faces the potential of some funding cuts. Since we don’t know exactly how the various organizations that fund the bulk of our operating budget are going to restructure their granting budgets, to a certain degree we can only wait and see and keep applying for grants as we normally would. We feel very fortunate that the ‘09 Festival was so well-attended and can only keep trying to build our memberships and sponsorships, and hope that our box office will do as well in 2010 and in 2011, which marks our 25th anniversary and the 100th birthday of Tennessee Williams.
NF: What percentage of attendees at the festival are locals?
LM: According to an economic impact survey conducted by UNO in 2008, 58.1% of attendees lived in the greater New Orleans area. Other attendees come from all over the U.S. and a few from countries like Sweden, Japan, England and Canada.
NF: How does the Tennessee Williams Festival fit into the greater New Orleans literary scene?
LM: It’s a little different from anything else, because there are so many events concentrated in a short period of time and because a lot of non-locals take part. While it’s an event that attracts writers, it also attracts people who just enjoy books or theater or New Orleans culture. Because of the conference-like setup, with back-to-back events, it’s a great place for intensive immersion in literature and the other arts, and it’s also a great place for local writers, both established and emerging, to meet other working writers and to have several days of networking. There are, of course, the soirees and the salons that go on as part of things as well. And the ticketed events are very diverse, from topic-specific master classes that get down to brass tacks, to panels on theatrical topics or just about any genre of writing you can imagine, from interviews with Broadway actors to musical performances, from theater performances to cooking events, from programming geared toward a general reading audience to a scholars conference for those with more academic tastes.
In terms of our speakers, we have a good mix of local and out-of-town writers, so I think we try to compliment that. And our reading series that takes place in the fall, Coffee and Conversation, almost always features local writers. At this year’s Festival, for example, we had Tom Piazza, John Biguenet, Amanda Boyden, Joshua Clark, Bill Loehfelm, Joe Longo, Rick Barton, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, Ian McNulty, to name a few, as well as young writers from local schools. We seek out new talent with our writing contests and partner with the UNO Creative Writing Workshop students who judge and administer our One-Act Play Contest, and we used local writers to judge the first round of our Fiction Contest, and all the judges are entitled to free tickets. For the past two years, we’ve also held writing workshops for high school students who have a vested interest in writing, where they get the chance to learn about the craft and business of professional writing one-on-one from the likes of television writer/ producer David Simon or the former poet laureate of California, Al Young.
The Festival gives writers and readers an intensive few days to come together and network and learn from each other and from people they wouldn’t normally meet in New Orleans. And we think the setting of the French Quarter in spring is pretty inspiring too.
NF: How did the idea to host a poetry slam at the Tennessee Williams Festival come up?
LM: As a performer and a poet myself, I have a personal interest in slam poetry and have visited quite a few slams in other cities over the last few years, toying with the idea of starting a regularly running slam in New Orleans. I put on a slam at UNO last spring as part of my final project in the MFA Poetry program, and that slam was successful, and such a good time, and that’s when Paul Willis, the Festival’s executive director, and I started discussing it. A few years ago, the Williams Festival had hosted slams that had been well-attended and had attracted a different demographic than other Festival events, which is something we are always looking to do.
So it came from my personal interest in slam, and the wish to include more multicultural audience members, more locals and more young people. There are a lot of local people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who regularly support arts events, but who don’t attend the Festival, or in some cases, even know about it. So I wanted to do something a little looser, a little edgier than a typical TWF event that would broaden and diversify our audience base, and I wrote a grant to the Arts Council of New Orleans last spring and it was approved. Originally, Chuck Perkins was scheduled to host but when he had to cancel for an overseas gig, he suggested Nick Fox as host, who, incidentally, had just started a twice-monthly slam at the Dragon’s Den. After the National Comedy Company approached me about being a part of the Festival, I knew they’d be a great opening act for the slam and so the event became Literary Late Night, the improv comedy group followed by the poetry slam.
On the night of Literary Late Night, I chose a stamp for our attendee’s hands that read: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” a quote from Gandhi, which reflects how I feel about making an event like Literary Late Night part of the Festival. And it felt great to see all these pieces fall into place, and to see a different crowd come out and really enjoy a Tennessee Williams Festival event in an edgier, funkier venue like the Dragon’s Den.
What was also nice was that some of our more traditional Festival patrons came out too and they seemed to like it just as much. And as the current economic climate forces us all to rethink our spending, programming like Literary Late Night is not only an effort to widen our audience but a practical move as well.
NF: Are you planning on repeating the event next year?
NF: What else was new for the fest in 2009? Did any new ideas come up that you are looking forward to in 2010?
LM: The paperless tickets and the online program book are new. We had Omni bank employees donate their time to run the onsite box office as well, which was such a blessing, and one we hope we’ll have in 2010. We also started a Fiction Contest this year, with the final round judged by Richard Ford, with online submissions and a nice prize that included publication in the New Orleans Review. We had close to 500 submissions.
This year, as part of a grant I wrote to the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, we’ve started selling digital downloads instead of having an outside company sell CDs. The mp3 store (www.tennesseewilliams.net/audio) just became live and has a big selection of archival and 2009 audio recordings. We’re looking forward to seeing how this is received, both for writers and readers who’d like to download panels and master classes, and we hope also that it will be helpful to students and Williams buffs as the go-to spot for Tennessee Williams content. And we finally set up a myspace page this year, which our graduate assistant from UNO, Nikki, put together, and she’s working on a facebook profile.
For 2010, I’m looking forward to being able to repeat Literary Late Night, and in general, to program with more diversity in mind. I’d like to add more archival events to the digital download store, and possibly other types of merchandise, such as DVDs. Of course, we always want to build an inspiring program each year. We have some new ideas, but as to who the speakers will be and what will actually happen next year, it’s so many months away that it’s hard to tell. The staff is still hard at work though, and next up is Saints and Sinners, a GLBT literary festival co-sponsored by the Tennessee Williams Fest and the NO/AIDS Task Force. It’s another great event with a community feel that takes place May 14—17. (Info and tickets www.sasfest.org)
|< Prev||Next >|