A few weeks ago, I was part of a team who launched a brand new festival in the town I live in. If you are a writer or supporter of the arts, too often we feel that we work in isolation. That those around us won’t understand the drive to create. That you have no outlets to connect your work in a meaningful way to others.
When we think of “engaging an audience” around creative work, we default to social media. We think that to share one’s work, or to organize people around an idea, it has to “go viral online.”
Today’s post is about tapping into the incredible potential that surrounds you, exactly where you are right now. I want to encourage you to — for a moment — forget about the web, and consider what you can do to share your work, and support other artists wherever you live. On tap for this post:
- The specific value that was created by running a local event celebrating the arts.
- How you can do this in your town.
- What I learned helping to organizing a festival with 4 stages, 20+ sessions, and 30+ speakers; plus: what I would do differently next time.
- Our initial plan for the festival: “I’m helping to organize a festival for storytellers“
- Reflections on the vision: “What does it mean to be a storyteller?“
In this context, I am not thinking of story as a product you can buy, but rather, a human experience that you create. The way that we — as individuals — connect to a larger narrative; to broaden our understanding; to connect more meaningfully with others.
I was watching an interview with Quentin Tarantino this week, and he described what he feels is missing from most films: STORY. He said that too often, a movie is about a situation. But a story is different. A story UNFOLDS. Not a quick left turn or right turn, but rather, an unfolding that leaves you unable to look away.
If you are a writer or creative professional wondering how your life can be infused with the arts wherever you are, I encourage you to embrace this as a story that unfolds around you — and that you are the one who can craft that experience for others.
Okay, let’s dig in…
The Value Created in Supporting the Arts
What I am about to describe below is a lot of work. So before I dig into that, I want to start with the value that has been created by us creating a new festival in our town:
- It promoted our downtown, encouraged more press about the area and what makes it special.
Sure, I am lucky enough to live in a town that DOES have a downtown, and I realize many regions don’t. Regardless, this is an opportunity for you to CREATE a center for the arts, simply by renting out a hall or other venue. Perhaps you feel that your region doesn’t have a central focal point for the arts. Well, because of you, one day per year, it can have that place, open to all.
- It drove more sales to local businesses.
Local businesses reported a really good sales day, and seeing lots of new faces in their shops. Vendors reported making good connections and gaining more exposure. Every part of this festival required support from others, and it is nice to know that helped out the businesses who anchor the commerce of our downtown.
- It promoted artists and arts organizations.
Too often, these are hidden from everyday life. I have lived in this town for more than a decade, and through organizing this event, I learned about SO MANY arts organizations I wasn’t previously aware of. For those I had heard of, this event gave me — and all who attended — a personal connection to them.
- It served the broader community — people of all ages — to come together and be inspired by the arts
Speakers had kids getting up and telling stories; there were workshops for both adults and kids; and at every turn, there was a friendly face welcoming people into the world of storytelling in all its forms.
- It empowered people to tell their own stories, providing them the skills and confidence This was the nuts and bolts of the festival — not simply to entertain and inspire, but to transfer knowledge and capability from the speakers to the audience.
Just as with a book, some of the most profound effects of this festival will happen silently, within the minds of those who were touched by it. A book’s “success” is not always reflected in its Amazon ranking — very often it rings in the mind of a reader for years to come. Two decades from now, long after the author may have almost forgotten about a book that they published, a reader may still reflect on the story. That story still shapes the reader’s life.
This is my highest hope for the festival: that it created a spark in someone.
How to Organize Your Own Festival
While I can’t pretend that the Madison Storytellers Festival serves as a model for others, I can share what it took to turn some crazy idea into an actual event.
By the numbers, the festival comprised of: 4 stages, 20+ sessions, 30+ speakers, plus around 20 vendors. We had authors, dancers, poets, playwrights, actors, pottery makers, jewelry makers, and so many others — all sharing ways that their craft can tell a story.
A step by step of how to emulate what we did:
- Have a strong vision. But don’t be too tied to it.
The idea for the festival started as a showcase for local independent presses. While that is something the festival absolutely supported, the scope of the vision changed early on. As the steering committee came together, we identified a core focus that we thought could include more local artist and organizations: to promote storytelling in ALL its forms. This allowed us to bring in dancers, stage combat actors, and so many others — not just those who do oral storytelling.
- Involve others: local people who know how to get things done.
I am astounded by the other members of the steering committee — those who made this event a reality. The event was conceived by two people, and they immediately brought in four others. That decision was big, and it changed what was possible in a big way. One other point here that I kept repeating to myself through the spring: forget about “ownership” and “credit.” To serve the community meant to do what is right for them, and clinging to any specific idea out of pride would have been a disservice to them.
- Embrace the local authorities: give them a chance to OWN your event.
This one was huge for us: without it, the festival would not have happened. We presented our idea to the Madison Downtown Development Commission (DDC), the committee who encourages growth and community in our downtown.
They not only provided funding, but they 100% supported us with this. In the process, the Madison Storytellers Festival became an official DDC event.
I was just amazed — and grateful — that they took such a risk on our idea. No, I can’t promise you that you will have the same kind of support that we did, but I can tell you that making this a DDC event was a watershed moment for our idea. I cannot possible express enough gratitude to the DDC for this. I think often, an idea such as this can feel like an “outsider idea” — and one could resist involving others. I would encourage you to give others a chance to support you.
- Start where you are, with what you have.
Sure, you can reach out to big famous names when you are seeking speakers, but also open your eyes and look around you. Seek out local organizations, businesses, and residents. Tap friends of friends to see who they know. This is a process of uncovering what lies hidden in your region. It is not for you to narrowly define a square hole, and look for blocks to fit in. This process should help you discover new shapes, and find a way to make them fit.
- Ask for help.
Don’t try to be a “visionary” who is a lone wolf. Ask for help. For volunteers. For speakers. For sponsors. For vendors. If you need more justification on the value of asking for help, see Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking.
- Fake it till you make it.
It is insane that we pulled this festival off so quickly. It ONLY happened because of the generosity of the DDC and of the many partners, speakers, volunteers. And this is my final piece of advice: be unreasonable in your expectations. At any point, someone could have stepped in and said, “Um, don’t you think the scope and timing of this is a bit unreasonable? Shouldn’t we slow down and scale back?” And they would have been 100% correct. But, if we had listened, then the festival simply would not have happened. There is something about having a tight deadline and a big scope that allowed us to do more than we would have expected.
Yes, there were 1,000 small tasks that I can’t list here, and I’m more than happy to answer questions via email if you truly need to know any of those.
What I Would Do Differently Next Time
By 8:30am on the morning of the event, we already had a list of “what we will do differently next year.” The lessons came fast and furious at the festival.
It would be easy to feel weighed down by these — that we could have made this better. But the fact is this: we created wonderful things that day, and it is just the start.
For the next event, here are some things I think we may do differently:
- Start promotion earlier.
Way earlier. So much of this festival felt like building the airplane while flying. That meant it was difficult for us to take advantage of a good marketing and publicity plan. Next year, we cannot only start promotion earlier, but do so in more creative and effective ways.
- Have the event itself start later in the day, and make it a shorter event overall.
We shoved a lot into the day, and to make it all fit, we kept making the start time earlier and the end time later. But who goes to a festival at 9am on a Saturday? Next year, we will likely start closer to noon and make it a tighter overall event.
- Create clearer tracks, such as a kids track that encourages families to make a day of the event. In general, I would like to better promote and craft each individual session, and make it seem like one event naturally flows into the next.
- Provide better support to the speakers and volunteers.
This applies to the simple things, such as providing them with coffee and water.
Maybe running an entire festival is too much for you to commit to. But let me ask you this: what is one simple action you can take this month to support the arts locally? Not just as a patron, someone who buys a ticket, but by doing something that makes the arts more accessible to others?