Kathryn Carmody, New Zealand Festival Writers Week programme manager, looks back, and ahead to the 2016 programme, 8-13 March.
It’s a funny old job this one. There’ve been five managers on the literature programme since the inaugural festival in 1986. The first five were run by Ann Mallinson, who was also one of the co-founders, a bit more about that later. Chris Price, who’s now at the International Institute of Modern Letters, looked after the next four. Anne O’Brien, now at Auckland Writers Festival, managed one and then Laura Kroetsch, who’s now at Adelaide Writers Festival, ran the next two. Anne Chamberlain looked after the 2012 one, and this year will be my second, but my fifth Writers Week overall, because there’s a precedent for the assistant to step into the role. My assistant, for the second time through, is Claire Mabey, who’s also the co-founder of the excellent LitCrawl.
In theatre terms, this job looks to me like a combination of writer, producer, director, head of casting, production manager and stage hand. With the play being the whole week and the individual sessions the different acts. “What could possibly go wrong?” is the line one of the production managers from the main festival enjoys teasing me with. She’s seen a few Writers Weeks come and go and appreciates its festival-within-a-festival nature. For me, though, it’s not so much things going “wrong”, rather than the potential for sideways movement. Context collapse, scheduling issues, acts of god, failing health, failing alarm clocks – but it is definitely worth the worry. Yes, yes it is.
I recently re-read Ann Mallinson’s Recollections of Five Festivals, about her time with Bill Manhire and Elizabeth Alley as the co-founders of Writers and Readers Week, which it was carefully called then. If anyone is curious about the inner workings of a festival, then read these essays alongside The Writers Festival, the latest novel by Stephanie Johnson, co-founder of the Auckland Writers Festival, and you’ll have a pretty solid overview. Talking with producers from overseas tells me that this really is the way of things – that writers festivals the world over all do roll along in much the same way – except that I think that we programme differently here. Or at least we try to.
For 2014, the themes I worked with were the concepts of identity and community, and reading the reviews of those sessions tells me that it worked – the openness of the audience to the conversations on the stage was truly heartwarming. This time around, I’ve been grappling with the concept of rapprochement, and it’ll be interesting to see how that comes through. The idea for the theme came about because, while I was preparing to interview for the contract again, various stories about Treaty of Waitangi settlements kept cropping up in the news. Plus, I’d recently been to the film festival and seen the superb documentary The Price of Peace about Tame Iti and the Urewera Four. So the Writers Week sessions this time are about seeing the other side of the story, looking for common ground, sitting for a while with different conflicts and all sorts of potential for repair and resolution – or not. Even after living with this programme for months, I am still really engaged by the thought of how various conversations might go and what the audience might then do with that experience. That’s a good sign, I think.
We’ve a similar number of participants this time, over 100, but the “week” itself is shorter, with the daytime sessions over four days rather than five, in the Embassy, BATS and Circa theatres. We’ve three headline acts in much larger venues and umbrella events which give us a showcase for poets, playwrights and photographers. I do really enjoy that aspect of the programme – the logistics of how the budgets, venues, and availability all fit together. It’s a good jigsaw puzzle.
Over the years, we’ve learned that the festival overall, and the literature component especially, has provided inspiration and motivation for others to create and grow their own creative and event projects. Hopefully, that’s exactly what will happen again this time (fingers and toes crossed for luck, touch wood). In this next Writers Week, I can promise the audience hours of excellent conversation and, for maximum impact, I’d thoroughly recommend cramming in as many sessions as possible. To help with this, budget-wise, we’ve made all the multi-passes fully-flexible and have also introduced a new one, encouragingly entitled “Take Friday Off Work”. I sincerely hope that people will.