Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Elora Writers’ Festival: Climbing back after a tough year

Robert Rotenberg, author of Stranglehold, kicks off the readings
at the 2013 Elora Writers' Festival on Sunday, May 26, 2013.
The Festival was held this year at the Elora Centre for the Arts.

It has been a tough year for the Elora Writers' Festival organizing committee, a group that includes me.

Organizing any kind of public arts event is challenging, of course: people are busy, money is scarce, details are daunting. But for the six of us, it was an especially difficult year.

Our 2012 Festival had a fantastic line-up but suffered from a lack of ticket sales. Why? We don’t know. A busy weekend on the event scene? Ticket prices too high?

And we didn’t receive the Ontario Arts Council grant that we had come to rely on to support our costs. Why? We’re not sure, but perhaps because we can’t show that we bring tourism into Elora, or that we especially appeal to those demographic groups that the OAC is committed to serving.

No, we’re just a little festival, in a little town. “Come and be read to” is our motto. Everyone is welcome. Be part of the audience for a few hours, and then spend some time together to meet, face-to-face, and talk books, writing and reading.

When we sat down at the committee table after last year’s event, we found ourselves in deep, depressing, daunting trouble. And so we made a plan.

Andrew Westoll, Ailsa Kay, Carrie Snyder, Sonia Day,
Robert Rotenberg and Terry Fallis show off their books.
We streamlined, we chose respected, award-winning authors with great popular (and local) appeal, and we went digging for sponsorships and grants.

We also took a break from our writing contest, which was an annual competition associated with the event, and which I was responsible for chairing. Administratively bulky and financially demanding (People need prizes, and only adults are required to pay an entry fee. Sorry, I’m not charging kids to enter a creative writing contest!), the writing competition needed an overhaul. So for one year, it was snipped off the agenda.

We focused. We worked hard at finding dollars to meet our costs. We moved to a central, welcoming venue (the Elora Centre for the Arts). We changed up the program to make it more audience-friendly (a post-readings schmoozefest with wine and hors d’oeuvres, including a Q&A with the authors). 

I’m happy to say, we battled back from the abyss.

Sponsors stepped up, granting agencies saw the value in our event and handed over cheques, people bought tickets to hear six very different Canadian authors share their thoughts and words with us: mystery writer Robert Rotenberg (Stranglehold); science writer/memoirist Andrew Westoll (The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary); authors of literary fiction Ailsa Kay (Under Budapest) and Carrie Snyder (The Juliet Stories); satirist Terry Fallis (Up and Down), making his second appearance at the Festival; and gardening guru Sonia Day (The Untamed Garden) – award winners and first-timers. It was magic, and the audience loved it.

Carrie Snyder (left) and Ailsa Kay chat with a fan, while Terry Falls
(right, with glasses) laughs with others during the reception
after the readings.
The authors loved it too, and they told us so. They loved that our wonderful MC (Roxanne Beale, owner of the local bookstore, Roxanne's Reflections, and a perpetually smiling, hard-working member of our committee) introduced each author with grace and humour - and then got out of the way. They loved that they had time to talk and read, but not so long that the audience got restless. They loved the green room with its snacks and opportunity to chat author-to-author. And they loved the up-close-and-personal schmoozefest with the fans – as well as the authors-and-committee-only BBQ that followed, where we could all kick back and relax together after being “on” during the afternoon.

We are ready to tackle our next Festival – our 20th Anniversary – in 2014. The writing competition will be back. Maybe we’ll resurrect the dinner that we used to include, and maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll do something spectacular, or maybe we’ll just stick with what worked for us so well this year.

“This is the third time I’ve come to this event,” one audience member told me as the afternoon was winding down, “and this is definitely the best one yet.”

She looked around at the crowd sipping wine and munching on delicious finger food, chatting with each other and with the authors in informal groups.

“This is great. You should do it like this every year.”

You know what? Maybe we will. The Elora Writers’ Festival is definitely alive and well!

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