Beyond Books: Kingston WritersFest 2023 is ‘Unbound’
Like red-tinged leaves, flannel shirts, and droves of students lining up for lattes, Kingston WritersFest has been a fixture in the autumn landscape for as long as I’ve lived in the Limestone City. This week, I sat down with Artistic Director Aara Macauley to discuss this year’s theme—Unbound—and to learn how the festival, which runs from September 27th to October 1st, plans to connect Kingstonians with literature beyond the printed page.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This year marks the festival’s 15th anniversary, and it’s an exciting time for Macauley. “Anniversary years are a good opportunity—you’re celebrating where you come from, but it’s also an opportunity to look at the potential for the future.”
People are bound to have preconceived notions about literary festivals. Unbound aims to disrupt these assumptions and showcase the diversity of language-based arts. “I wanted to explore and challenge the idea of what written art is… It often gets pigeonholed. There’s this assumption that it’s just people standing onstage and reading, or that you’re going to a very formal lecture. And that it’s just about books. None of those things are really true. So I wanted to put a highlight on some other forms of written art.”
The 2023 lineup boasts songwriting, graphic novels, zines, screenwriting, and spoken word poetry. Of particular interest to theatre enthusiasts is a stage reading from the winner of this year’s Voaden Prize Playwriting Competition. WritersFest has partnered with the DAN School of Drama and Music to produce a reading of Brandon Zang’s Ah Wing and the Automaton Eagle, followed by a talkback with the playwright.
WritersFest isn’t only bringing plays from the page to the stage—this year, Vancouver’s JD Derbyshire will offer a reading from their novel Mercy Gene, which is adapted from their one-person play Certified. “[Mercy Gene] is navigating some pretty heavy topics like being queer, mental illness, and the mental health system in Canada… I think that’ll be a really great conversation.”
“What we’re looking at this year is defying that idea that there’s one right way to do things, or one strict structure. Experimentation, hybrid form—playing with form is really an interesting thing to explore. That’s something that theatre does well with the existence of things like fringe festivals, where those limitations are played with in really interesting ways. So it’s fun to bring that to WritersFest as well.”
Kingston WritersFest is also partnering with The Shoe Project, which invites immigrant and refugee women to share the stories of their journeys to Canada. “It’s a fantastic initiative and an intensive process. Ten local newcomers to Kingston have the opportunity to work with a writing coach for ten weeks, and then they work with a performance coach… It’ll be very powerful and it’s quite exciting.”
Macauley has been involved with Kingston WritersFest since 2014, stepping in as Artistic Director in 2020. “When WritersFest started 15 years ago, the goal was very much about making it seem professional and legitimate.” After all, what world-class author would come to a festival that doesn’t take itself seriously? Since then, the festival has proven itself in the literary scene. “Now it’s got a very established core audience. It’s an older demographic. And I have a lot of respect for our audience—they’re incredibly engaged, they ask great questions of our authors, and they’re willing to explore. They want to be challenged, they want to feel like they have their finger on the pulse, and that they understand what’s going on in the world around them.”
With this in mind, one of Macauley’s biggest goals is to engage younger audiences. “They’re our future audience members. We want to build those relationships now. And I want to challenge that idea that it’s intimidating, or that it’s too intellectual, or that you’re going to get grilled in the hallway and berated if you haven’t read the book. So I won’t say it’s breaking down what was built up—it’s just trusting that people know what we’re doing. It’s getting rid of some of the pomp and circumstance, and bringing in newer voices, some weird stuff, some experimental stuff. And also some really important social issues.”
Social issues were at the forefront of last year’s theme, Beneath the Surface, which is sticking around with three “deeper dive” events on topics including environmental stewardship, the opioid crisis, and the lives of MMIWG2S (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People) included in this year’s lineup. “What are people talking about? What is keeping people up at night? Let’s talk about it.” Macauley sees this as an important part of WritersFest’s future. “It’s the work of adapting to the audience that we want to see, and adapting to what the community needs. What do people want? What can people afford to spend their money and their time on? What’s important to people? So it’s a lot of collaborating with different arts partners and community partners, and building those relationships.”
This article was edited on December 1st, 2023 to update formatting.