by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 30-April 3) and the Saints & Sinners Festival (April 1-3) are two major literary conventions held annually in New Orleans, Louisiana. While the Tennessee Williams Festival (http://www.tennesseewilliams.net) is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year, Saints & Sinners (http://sasfest.org) is celebrating its 13th year of promoting those in the field of LGBT literature, and those that support it. Whether you are an established author, a first time author, someone that wants to become an author, or a fan of the written word, there is something to appreciate and enjoy at either (or both) festivals.
The Tennessee Williams Festival (TW Fest) is currently going on its 30th Anniversary enjoying its long history with New Orleans. Originally set up to celebrate the 'genius of Tennessee Williams, who once called [New Orleans] his 'spiritual home'.' The festival provides professional writing education to more than 200 area students. 'It's a feast for the senses,' says Paul Willis, Executive Director since 2004. 'Approximately, 30%-40% of the programming is related to our namesake playwright, but it is also a celebration of contemporary literature of all genres&as well as promoting New Orleans food and music culture that has a tie to the written word.' The festival currently brings in more than 130 authors, actors and musicians to celebrate the five-day event.
The TW Fest started with 500 audience members within a two days' space of entertainment. For the 25th Anniversary (2011), the festival expanded to five full days of programming including over 10,000 audience seats. It shows no signs of stopping. This year includes such honorable speakers as Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), Megan Abbott (Dare Me), and John Lahr (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh) among many other esteemed authors. Also joining the festival will be music sensation Big Freedia, Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Rex Reed, and Mary Badham ('Scout' in the film To Kill A Mockingbird) among several others gathered to study and share the wit and works of America's greatest playwright.
There are so many lectures, classes and Master Classes offered that it quickly becomes a matter of prioritizing. Aside from several full-length productions of Mr. Williams' plays (The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending) there are opportunities to see some of his lesser-known, one-act plays (Goat Song, Something Unspoken) as well. Master Classes are presented on Friday and include such examples as: 'Lucid Dreaming/Sustaining the Story' (Dorothy Allison), 'Setting Mood' (Megan Abbott), or 'To the Heart of the Subject' (John Lahr). And, of course, there is the 'Stella/Stanley Shouting Contest.' This contest (open to the first 25 that sign up) gives the average, and sometimes beyond average, person a chance to recreate the infamous scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Open to all genders you may stand before a balcony and yell 'Stella' or 'Stanley' (screamer's choice) for the chance of prizes and notoriety. Past opportunists (2015 video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzoPLLFiorU) have performed by being comical, serious, in American Sign Language and even a Yiddish version.
The Saints & Sinners Festival (SASFest) is the 'younger sibling' to the Tennessee Williams Festival, and is perhaps the largest LGBT Writing Festival in the United States, although open to all attendees. 'While SAS is welcoming and would be of value to authors of any orientation,' explains Amie Evans, a member of the SASFest Board of Directors, 'it is focused on LGBT writers.' The festival first got started as a way to bring LGBT writers together. 'Paul Willis started it because there was a need for a writing festival,' Evans continues. 'To bring together LGBT writers in all stages of their careers, to build community, and recharge themselves in what is a very solitary art.' Founded in 2003 it was originally set up as a new initiative designed as an innovative way to reach the community with information about HIV/AIDS. In doing so, the festival has worked closely with New Orleans AIDS Task Force. 'NO/AIDS does a great outreach to help those living with HIV and to help prevent others from acquiring it.' Evans says. 'SASFest saw an opportunity to give back and help support a great organization and cause, stopping AIDS.'
While the two festivals have coincided with each other for the last couple of years, they differ and complement each other in a grand way. Combining the two programs 'allows us to mainstream the organized aspects of the festival,' Evans says. 'We can book out both festivals at once. This greatly reduces the strain of set up on Paul [Willis] and his team.'
While the TW Fest is more focused on the workings of Tennessee Williams, Saints & Sinners is more mainstream. The SASFest offers 'more intimate groups,' Evans continues. The SASFest 'focus is on writers in all stages of their careers (from emerging to famous) and the Craft of Writing.' There are plenty of opportunities to meet, mix and network with some of your favorite authors as well as others in the business. 'I imagine,' Evans confesses, 'non-writers would enjoy meeting literary figures and hearing the intimate deep discussions the panels offer as well as the reading series and the parties.'
Offered this year are a plethora of classes, lectures, meet-and-greets and opportunities to mix with your favorite authors, and those working in the publication field. Attendees include two Violet Quill alumni Felice Picano (Like People in History) and Andrew Holleran (Dancer From the Dance), as well as Michael Thomas Ford (Alec Baldwin Doesn't Love Me), Radclyffe (Justice For All), and Jewelle Gomez (The Gilda Stories) among many others. Panels are offered on such subjects as 'Marketing,' 'Crossing Writing Genres,' as well as 'Pitching Your Novel' sessions. Bold Strokes Books (https://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/), the largest LGBT publishing house in the United States and third largest in the world, will be on hand (by appointment) to listen to new, up-and-coming authors pitch their novels. Classic Reading Series are set up to allow exposure to new, as well as established, authors who will be reading from their work. Excerpts will be read from Flit: A Poetry Mashup of Classic Literature (Dennis Milam Bensie), Not Just Another Pretty Face (editor Louis Flint Ceci), and, of course, from the Saints & Sinners Anthology 2016, composed of the winning submissions of the annual fiction contest. A variety of reading events are set up throughout the weekend, on any number of various subjects.
'Each year,' Aimee Evans says, 'I am always surprised by the passion attendees have for the craft of writing and their willingness to share that passion with each other.'
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