I’m helping to organize a festival for storytellers

I’m part of a team that is putting together a local festival about storytelling. Today, I want to show you what that looks like behind the scenes: both the unbridled excitement, and the terror around expectations.

This is a brand new event — something that started with one conversation, and then kept growing momentum little by little as others were pulled in to the mix.

That is a fun narrative, right? The other side of that story though is basically the thought in the back of my mind: “Let’s not mess this up.”

Because we are at the point where people are counting on us, investing in us, and believing in us.

Which is amazing, right?! Like, the best thing ever.

And I suppose I just want to do right by those folks. Okay, let’s dig in:

Collaboration is everything

The event is called the Madison Storytellers Festival, a one day event on June 11 in Madison, New Jersey.

The seed of this event began — as far as I remember — with a conversation between my friends Barb Short and Dan Cafaro. Barb runs the indie bookstore in town, and Dan runs a small indie press in town.

Now, the thing to realize here is that Barb is a force of nature. She has a full time job as an executive working with CEOs, owns the bookstore, raises two kids, and in her spare time, commits to things like birthing this festival. She is involved in many local organizations, and probably about 1,000 other things I don’t even know about.

The next thing that Barb and Dan C. did was to seek feedback from a small group of local folks who were in the arts. This was that meeting:

Madison Storytellers Festival

The folks pictured are, left to right:

One person not in the photo is Melanie Tomaszewski, who runs two businesses in town: Madison Mud Clay Studio and Tivoli Creative Design Studio. Mel is amazing — she seems to know everyone and is the catalyst for helping so many creative folks in town.

We have also been chatting with the good folks at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, about ensuring they are involved.

Now, I want to make a big point here, it’s a bit of a digression, so I will italicize this: I see so many people talk about “reaching influencers” online. Like, there are thousands of people vying for the attention of the same bloggers, hoping for a retweet.

The folks in this photo are all from the town I live in. They are AMAZING, doing important work for creative folks, for the community, and are clearly “influential.”

Why do I say this? Because folks like this exist where you live. Instead of being the millionth person to reach out to some “online influencer” who received 1,000 pitches per day, why not tap into the amazing people right around you?

Okay, end of digression

The next thing that happened: the folks in the photo started talking to others; Groups that support the arts in our community, including:

Now, let me just say: this is HUGE. These groups — day in and day out for decades — have supported the community in this town. Sure, there are amazing highlights, but they also shoulder the grunt work that is often unseen or forgotten about.

For us to come in with our idea for a Festival, it REQUIRES us to honor the work that these (and other) organizations have created in town.

The icing on the cake: these organizations have been wonderfully open and supportive of the festival!

Be open to change

As I mentioned, this event started with a conversation between Dan and Barb. They discussed a literary festival, and a program that exclusively features local indie presses.

At the group meeting in the photo above, we expanded the goal of the event to include all of the arts — broadly defining ‘storytellers’ as the key term.

I could feel in that discussion that Dan’s original idea was morphing quickly, focusing less and less on indie presses. What was incredible to see was how the evolution was natural. Dan went with it, and the idea kept evolving. No one clung to a single idea, or bristled at as the creative process unfolded.

That moment may seem insignificant, but it’s not. That is what makes great collaboration, and that type of thing isn’t easy.

The basics matter

Lots of lofty ideas have been floated around about what this Festival will be. But one thing that is critical: the basics. Getting space in town, having tables, designing materials, and all of the elements of what it means to invite the public to an event.

I’m already thinking about first aid kits, how to guide people, lost and found, and how to support the local police, fire, and first aid squads to ensure they can do their jobs if needed.

What is the communication plan on the day of the event, in the 24 hours prior? What is the clean up plan? Where is accessible parking?

And perhaps most importantly: where are the public bathrooms and the accompanying signage to let people know?

This is where details can make or break an event. The earlier you begin losing sleep over them, the better. (Kidding. Okay, not really)

What excites me and what terrifies me

What excites me about the event is living up to our mission:

Storytelling is the expression of who we are, who we were, and who we hope to be. It encompasses both experience and identity, and is what brings us together as a culture.

It is critical that each of us is empowered to tell our stories — to express our vision of who we as individuals, and how we fit together as a whole.

The Madison Storytellers Festival celebrates the storytellers in our community, and empowers everyone to find new inspiration and skills to tell their own stories.

If we can pull this off with a great range of speakers and hands on workshops, that would be a-maz-ing. I love the idea of helping people of all ages better tell the stories they see in their lives.

What terrifies me? Not living up to that goal. To not do right by the folks who attend, by the speakers, by the collaborators, and by all of the wonderful folks who support this effort.

I think about it this way: if a police officer has to spend part of their day helping direct traffic because of our event, I want it to be for a good reason. I want to justify it by knowing that a child was inspired to delve into the arts; or that an 80 year old found practical ways to share her story.

That is basically my measure of success for this event.

Oh, the other terrifying part? We are two months from the event and have SO MUCH TO DO. One thing that is missing from this page — any description of the programming — the actual things you would come to this event for.

Working on it… more soon!

Oh, and if you are in the New York metro area and want to get involved, please let me know! Two things in particular we are looking for:

  • If you know if any amazing speakers who fit the bill — especially if her name is Elizabeth Gilbert — please let me know!
  • If you are local and want to volunteer to help out.

(Oh, and of course, if you want to sponsor the event, we would love to chat.)

I’ll share more updates as this comes together. In the meantime, let me know about your own experiences supporting the arts in your local community.