Wordplay. It’s going to be the biggest book-related festival in the history of Minnesota and it’s happening in Minneapolis on May 11 and 12.
At least 100 of the biggest-name authors in the country, including Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, will take part in this extravaganza of conversations and readings on eight stages (including one for kids), as well as bookstore and publisher pop-up tables and booths.
At least 10,000 people are expected to attend events near the Loft Literary Center at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., where surrounding streets will be blocked off. Some 400 volunteers will help folks find their way around.
The nerve center for this big event is the tiny Loft office of Wordplay founding director Steph Opitz, a space just big enough for Opitz and Loft executive director Britt Udesen to meet. And they have met a lot, because these women, who grew up in Minnesota, are the sparks setting off this festival.
“Everyone involved in Wordplay is held together in the belief in the power of words and story,” said Udesen, who’s been Loft director since 2015. “Every literary organization in the Twin Cities is involved somehow in Wordplay, as well as the National Book Foundation, the Library of Congress and PEN America.”
Do you want a preview of the featured artists? How about Stephen King’s Rock Bottom Remainders rock band, which will play a sold-out concert May 10 at First Avenue, featuring Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Greg Iles, Mary Karr, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan, Scott Turow and Alan Zweibel.
Or you could see Tommy Orange, Edwidge Danticat, LeAnne Howe, Dave Barry and Natasha Trethewey, as well as scores of Minnesota writers.
Wordplay was born about a year and a half ago in one of those meant-to-be ways, with Opitz and Udesen having the same idea for a festival, even though they didn’t know each other.
Opitz had returned to Minnesota from Texas by way of Kyrgyzstan and she wanted to meet Udesen. When they got together for coffee at Open Book, Opitz recalls with amusement, “I just wanted to be friends. But Britt came armed and loaded with ideas for a big festival.”
“At the Loft, literature is at the center of civic life,” Udesen said. “Through stories different ideas bring us together. With Wordplay we want to assert the idea that literature is a natural and essential as other arts. But we also want to invite people to Wordplay who don’t identify with the literary community, people who love cookbooks for instance. It’s an event for the whole community.”
Optiz, who grew up in Edina, certainly had the right credentials for heading up Wordplay, having curated literary events and festivals around the country, including serving as literary director of the Texas Book Festival, fiction co-chair and literary council member of the Brooklyn Book Festival, and as a member of the programs team for the PEN World Voices festival. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, she serves on committees for the National Book Foundation, PEN America, Rain Taxi Review and the Portland Book Festival.
“I’ve never worked on inventing a festival,” Opitz admitted, but she couldn’t resist Udesen’s enthusiasm. She remembered walking around the big Texas Book Festival and seeing 50,000 people excited about books. She was especially pleased by how the children reacted to the adults’ enthusiasm.
“This moved me, and I knew I could do something like this in Minnesota,” she recalled.
Not that it was always easy. In the early planning days, Udesen jokes, “We were like Wile E. Coyote, building the bridge while we’re on it.”
Udesen explained to would-be Wordplay participants that “our core belief at the Loft is that a strong literary center can help our society advance and become more just and open to all people through the exchange of ideas, perspectives, emotions and experiences, all transmitted through the miraculous acts of writing and reading.”
Those beliefs resonated with senior leaders at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, which came on board as a major Wordplay sponsor, along with the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.
“We saw an awesome partnership with the Loft,” said Toccara Stark, St. Kate’s vice president of marketing and communications.
“Reaching out, figuring out how to access and engage community with conversations through book topics such as social justice, diversity and race are important at St. Kate’s,” she said. “The types of authors they were looking to bring in for Wordplay would provide good dialogue about lack of civility and humanity and how we understand through storytelling. We thought the festival could have a wonderful impact.”
To fulfill that expectation, the university chose 11 Wordplay authors who will offer what they are calling St. Kate’s Critical Conversations. They will be listed at the St. Catherine University exhibit booth near the festival entrance and their appearances are highlighted in purple on the schedule.
Before any of this happened, though, Udesen had to sell the ambitious idea of a festival with a half-million dollar budget to the Loft board of directors, chaired by Jack El-Hai.
“We had a lot of tough discussions about the timing, finances and stretching of staff time this event would require,” El-Hai said. “But ultimately the board agreed that Wordplay had the potential to help the Loft reach new audiences and strengthen its leadership in the community in a dramatic and exciting way.”
As Opitz reached out to authors, publicists and agents with invitations to attend Wordplay, she invited a group to the Twin Cities to see the Guthrie Theater and other Wordplay venues, including Open Book and Mill City Museum.
“They all thought it was cool, and when I went to New York, I heard plenty of pitches from publicists who wanted their clients to participate,” she said. “We were lucky to host the Final Four and the Super Bowl so the city could get ready for a huge literary festival.”
The first person Opitz invited to be a guest author at the festival was poet Dobby Gibson, whom she’d known in Texas. He lives in St. Paul but works in Minneapolis.
“Dobby is our patron saint,” Opitz says.”From the beginning he asked what he could do. When we had a gathering for supporters and the board and announced our big-name authors, Dobby said ‘Holy s—, is THIS what you meant by a festival? ‘ ”
Gibson admits he was “blown away” when he learned of how many popular writers will be at Wordplay.
“I was a Loft board member for six years,” he recalled. “I was excited about this vision when it was very preliminary. On the board we were always taking about and brainstorming how to broaden the reach of the organization and bring the power of books and reading to bigger and broader audiences. This seemed like the next natural step for the organization.”
Gibson, president of the creative agency Hanley Wood Marketing, told his staff about “this really cool festival” and asked if they wanted to work pro bono. Everyone did.
“As a business we are part of the creative economy in Minneapolis and I felt a duty to help foster that since this aligned with our values,” Gibson said, explaining why he donated resources to the festival. What he especially liked about Wordplay planning was “Steph and Britt’s open arms, their democratic vision that there was room for everyone.”
Gibson will introduce his fourth poetry collection, “Little Glass Planet,” during a conversation May 12 with his Texas friend Fernando A. Flores on the Open Book stage.
St. Paul will be represented at Wordplay by organizations such as Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, which will present a special pop-up event May 12 called Minnesota Book Awards Voices in Poetry. David Mura, 2019 Kay Sexton Award honoree, will read with this year’s poetry finalists Mary Moore Easter, Claire Wahmanholm and Chaun Webster.
“We’re proud to support an event that lifts the whole literary community and so closely aligns with our own mission to connect readers and writers across the state,” said Alayne Hopkins, assistant director of programs and services for the Friends.
When Opitz and Udesen were reaching out to authors for Wordplay, they set a goal of 30 percent local writers. Among presenters will be David Treuer, who’ll introduce his history of Native America, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” and Marlon James, whose novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is one of the most-praised this season. Also appearing will be Lorna Landvik (“Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes”), Linda LeGarde Grover (“In the Night of Memory”), Julie Schumacher (“The Shakespeare Requirement”), Sarah Stonich (Minnesota Book Award-winning “Laurentian Divide”), Anne Ursu (“The Lost Girl”), Nora McInerny (“No Happy Endings”), Mike Wohnoutka (“Croc & Turtle”)and Ed Bok Lee “(Mitrochondrial Night”).
Bottom line: Wordplay sounds awesome. And you are invited.
If you want to know more about the festival, go to loft.org. There you’ll find everything you need to know, including cost ($10 for adults, free under 17) and wristbands, a list of participating authors and information about signings, a map showing venues, closed streets and very limited parking, and an easy-to-read schedule for readings at each venue — Guthrie Theater (two stages), Mill City Museum, Open Book, Minnesota Public Radio, Western Bank, Children’s Stage and Target Stage.
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