Some people still call WordFest a book festival, but anyone who’s paid attention knows it’s become much more than that since its 1996 inception. Books certainly remain an important part of WordFest — officially announced this past Wednesday, the 2012 schedule features novelists including Martin Amis, Annabel Lyon and Anne Perry reading from their latest works. But events such as those, says festival director Jo Steffens, are just one part of the festival’s broader focus on storytelling.
“For the festival as a whole, I think we’re really building on our rebranding, and emphasizing the power of story and narrative. And that allows us to use that as an umbrella for all of the storytellers, the novelists, the poets, and it also allows us to call, say, Story Shorts — our animation event — a storytelling event. Because we feel stories can be told in lots of different ways.”
The Story Shorts screening, a co-presentation with the Quickdraw Animation Society, will feature several animated shorts related to books and writing, including the recent Oscar winner The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Festival-goers seeking a change of pace can also check out ContainerArt, a travelling public art event, which will see shipping containers installed in Olympic Plaza and accompanied by programming such as a radio play and some short films.
Look out your car window during WordFest meanwhile, and you might see an unusual digital billboard display. Word Powered Art, which presented passing motorists with “breaths” of poetry last year, will appear again, with multimedia artist Kath Maclean providing the images.
“So we’re just trying to bring this power of word, power of story to an audience that would not see them,” says Steffens, “particularly in that context, or in its expected, typical context. If you’re commuting and driving down Macleod Trail and you look up and see an art piece on a billboard instead of an advertisement. And that element of surprise is something that we’re trying to get into the environment more.”
But while Wordfest hopes initiatives such as Word Powered Art will raise its profile with the general public, Steffens says she’s also paying attention to feedback from last year’s festival, her first as director. Audiences said they wanted to see more foreign authors, and she’s worked to honour this request, although most of the featured writers are still Canadians.
Luring foreign authors to Calgary is a challenge, Steffens acknowledges, since most book tours are more likely to stop in Toronto and Vancouver. But she believes the proximity of Banff, which has co-hosted WordFest with Calgary from the beginning, is a tempting “carrot.”
Martin Amis, sometimes described as Britain’s greatest living author, will make an exclusive appearance in Banff to present his new biting satire, Lionel Asbo: State of England. And the opportunity WordFest offers select writers to attend a retreat at the Banff Centre’s Leighton Artists’ Colony may attract another British literary titan in the future.
“I spoke to Ian McEwan in New York at Book Expo America, and he was very interested in that idea,” says Steffens. “And I mentioned that we could offer him a private guide, because I actually know he likes hiking.”
But for Steffens, expanding WordFest’s appeal is about more than bringing big-name authors to town. The power of story, she believes, will only grow from harnessing its many forms.
“Just bringing WordFest to new audiences is important for me. And just to sort of break out of the traditional mould of what’s thought to be stories or a book or something really kind of static on a page.”