by Leah Esslinger
It’s January and a kind of frenetic energy has descended over the first floor of the Dairy Market. Jane Kulow, director of the Center for the Book, zooms through the halls, around the corner from her office to the main block of cubicles known as the bull pen with stacks of books in hand. The year is still new at Virginia Humanities, the days are still dark and long. The much-anticipated return of the in-person Festival of the Book is only just visible over the horizon, but Kulow is bright and awake and busy.
The Virginia Festival of the Book has long been one of Virginia Humanities’ most popular events, so this time of year is always hectic for Center for the Book staff. Before COVID, the Virginia Festival of the Book was a five-day event, chock-full of author talks and moderated discussion panels at multiple locations around Charlottesville and Albemarle County. It was an organizational and logistical feat in the best of times. Now, after two years of virtual programming due to the COVID pandemic that has for many been the worst of times, the Virginia Festival of the Book will return to in-person programming—mostly. With a selection of virtual events, the 2022 Festival of the Book is going hybrid.
This year’s hybrid festival will host both in-person and virtual events. A selection of events will only be available virtually. To attend these events in real time, visit the event’s webpage and preregister to receive the Zoom link that will grant access. In-person events will be spread out over thirteen locations in and around Charlottesville. Many of these events will be live-streamed, so they also can be viewed virtually via Zoom or Facebook. Additionally, virtual events will be recorded, so viewers can access them later on-demand at VaBook.org/watch.
“In terms of numbers, this in-person program is half the size of others we’ve done,” says Kulow. “But I’d say it’s ten times as complicated.” Coordinating events at various locations for multiple formats, keeping track of guest speakers either traveling to Charlottesville or streaming in from locations across the globe while keeping an eye on the ongoing pandemic certainly raises the level of complexity.
Yet, despite the added complexity, Center for the Book staff view the improved accessibility offered by virtual programming as a major asset. “Accessibility has been a priority for us since 2015,” says Kulow. Before April 2020, when COVID forced the festival to go fully virtual, accessibility translated into easy access to festival events. “People could just show up. They didn’t have to register, they didn’t have to pay for the most part,” Kulow continues. That ease of entry allowed people considerable flexibility. They might plan to attend one event and end up dropping in on others.
“The serendipity of what attendees can come across is a fantastic part of the festival,” says Kulow.
Serendipity and the energy of a live audience were elements of the festival that staff worried would be compromised when the programming went virtual. But after two years of virtual programs, that fear has been thoroughly exorcised. “By necessity we learned how to present those programs through online platforms. We learned very quickly that the conversation is engaging, and there is an intimacy across those online platforms that I certainly did not anticipate,” says Kulow.
It turned out that the heightened accessibility virtual platforms allow extends to authors too, a real boon to festival programming. “We have this opportunity now to present authors who wouldn’t be able to come to Charlottesville for any number of reasons,” says Center for the Book’s associate director Sarah Lawson, “And that is just thrilling.” One such panel, happening on March 18 at 12 p.m., includes a trio of writers from California who worked together to produce an anthology called The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice. “The idea that we would get all three of them to fly in for an in-person event is just ridiculous,” Lawson continues. “Sharing those different perspectives from people who are less accessible in a travel sense will be really valuable for the community of festivalgoers.”
The hybrid structure opens the door to different perspectives by creating more interactive opportunities for Virginians outside of the Charlottesville area. School visits, for example, have always been a part of the festival. In the past, logistical constraints meant that authors could only directly interact with schools in close proximity. This year, festival headliner Traci Chee took part in a public discussion with educators from Fairfax County’s Virginia Run Elementary School. In addition to this moderated discussion with Tracie Chee, this year’s program will include eight virtual “school visits” to reach K-12 students across the Commonwealth. “In the long-term, we want to build these statewide partnerships,” says Kulow. “What we’re doing this year is a step towards that.”
New genres are also easier to explore through a virtual format like Sights & Sounds: Visual Poetry. Organized by Aran Donovan, the Center for the Book’s latest addition, this panel explores how modes of communication are interwoven by linking text and image. “One thing about these books is that they’re incredibly amazing with their combination of art and words,” says Kulow. “It really lends itself to the online platform because you can get a good look at the page while reading it.”
There is no doubt that in-person events are an important festival component, and those events aren’t going anywhere. Allowing people to participate virtually, however, has led to greater levels of inclusion and participation across the state—and across the world—than anyone imagined.
And these days, opportunities to connect can be lifesaving. “I’ve talked to so many people throughout the pandemic who’ve felt really burned out and unable to be curious about the world,” says Lawson. “They’re just trying to get through the day, through the week, month, year. I think this is a remedy to that. It’s a good reminder of all these aspects of the world that are outside of our current situation, to provide a glimpse of excitement and perhaps a sense of normalcy for some people dreaming of another kind of world.”
Oh, and if you’re worried about not having read the book, don’t. “People don’t have to read the books ahead of time,” says Kulow. “They don’t even have to read the books afterwards. Everyone can benefit from these conversations and these stories. There’s no homework involved.”
Although some of the pre-Festival virtual programming is already underway, the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book officially starts on March 16. COVID precautions for in-person events include vaccination and masking requirements and vary depending on the event’s location. For more details, go to VaBook.org/policies and be sure to check the webpage of the events that interest you.