This is a Building Blocs piece by Shu-Ling Chua, where a producer takes us through what is takes to run a writers' festival.
It’s the second afternoon of Noted writers’ festival and I’m racing the clock, criss-crossing Canberra, leaving a flurry of programs from Gungahlin to Tuggeranong.
Me: “Is there a bookshop I could leave programs at?”
Librarian: “There is no bookshop in Gungahlin.”
As I leave, I picture a shy, bookish teen finding her people and resolve to deliver programs to every library in the ACT. Having grown up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, I didn’t want anyone to miss out. This festival we’re producing is for everyone, not just inner-city ‘literary types’.
I remember workshops with local writer Margaret Campbell as a child, the stickers and the joy in laminating a book I had written and illustrated. Reading was a means of escape, a way to forget how I never quite fit in at school. For the first time, I was someone, someone with stories worth telling and listening to. I wasn’t responsible for our children’s stream or the inaugural ACT Secondary Schools Writing and Poetry Prizes but now see with sudden clarity the value in giving young people, particularly those who are marginalised, the opportunity to share their stories too.
Nick Delatovic, The Writers Room at Noted 2016. Image: Dream Piece
Writing and art can – and should be – inclusive. A proud offshoot of sister You Are Here experimental arts festival, Noted is Canberra’s first writers’ festival committed to emerging and experimental writing. Featuring authors, poets, editors, comedians, dancers, zinemakers, visual artists and more, this year’s program included a literary art exhibition, TV Writers Room, a literary bar hop and an Independent Publishing Fair. For those who couldn’t make it to Canberra, we made digital content – such as how-to videos, and zines by students in local Koori Kids and Koori Leadership groups – available.
Like the city itself, Canberra’s art scene combines the best of a big city and a smaller, community-based town. It’s ambitious yet unpretentious; encouraging rather than cutthroat. Dependent on one another, performance artists, writers, musicians and visual artists form a thriving ecosystem. Everyone in the Noted team lives or has lived in Canberra. Tapping into the local community and building a program around institutions such as the National Library of Australia and the High Court was only natural. We even held a performative lecture in the Embassy of Finland’s sauna. Ha!
Lit Hop Stop 2: Book Swap Speed Dating at Noted 2016. Image: Dream Pieces
Most people will never realise what happens behind the scenes at a festival, and nor should they. The deceptively calm surface of what you see is the result of many months work. Selecting and working with artists to develop their events. Negotiating venue space. Drafting risk management documents, artist information pack and contracts. Proof-reading website and program copy. First aid. Working with vulnerable people registration. Emails. Skype meetings. Social media. Last-minute stationery run. On top of all this, there was plenty more I wasn’t responsible for: the ever-important budget, insurance, media interviews, design and sponsorship. I couldn’t imagine pulling off Noted with anyone but co-directors Yasmin Masri and Lucy Nelson, our amazing team and volunteers.
As a rapidly growing festival in its second year, we worked [insert expletive] hard to make Noted the very best it could be. Setting up and packing away the Fair, running on adrenaline and good will, the sheer physicality of the festival took me by surprise. #Noted16 was a force of its own, tugging and pulling everyone along for the ride. I wish I could distil the experience into a few pithy quotes but the best I can manage is to share the moments that have stayed with me. Laurie May’s poem about the loss of language. Jessica Friedmann’s reading on Skywhale and motherhood. Meeting Twitter friends @indigo_eli and @ethanisatuni IRL. Looking around a packed bar of happily chatting festival-goers at Lit Hop Stop 2: Book Swap Speed Dating and thinking this… this is why Noted exists.
Jessica Friedmann, World Storytelling Day at Noted 2016. Image: Dream Pieces
On the second last afternoon, I tear up at Madeleine Laing’s Show + Tell reading. Writer brings treasured object and tells a story about it. Simple. I assume no one from the audience would be game enough to take the open slot at the end. Wrong. A woman moves to the front and tells us about a recent train trip where the driver invited her family into the driver’s cabin, an once-in-a-lifetime experience. He knows every station, every signal crossing, eyes closed. A simple, pleasant story but I get the sense she is building to something. I am right. He tells her of personal loss due to family violence. It takes her by surprise and in turn, us. Writer or no, we all have stories to tell.
Madeleine Laing, Show + Tell at Noted 2016. Image: Dream Pieces
I wonder what stories will come to be told about Noted 2016, a shimmering spider-web of memories and experiences spun into something much, much bigger than me or anyone who was part of it. No person, no story, exists in isolation. Oh, and that shy, bookish teen... she found her people, at last.
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer, reviewer, Noted festival 2016 Live Producer and HARDCOPY 2015 participant. She blogs at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day. Her work has appeared in BMA Magazine, The Victorian Writer, Scissors Paper Pen, Capital Letters and Feminartsy. You can follow her at @hellopollyanna.