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Iowa City organizers to conjure Witching Hour Festival online

Strange Vacation host Saundra Allen (left) interviews Stacey Walker during her podcast at The Mill on the second day of
Strange Vacation host Saundra Allen (left) interviews Stacey Walker during her podcast at The Mill on the second day of the debut Witching Hour Festival in 2015. Walker, of Cedar Rapids, is returning to this festival in video format this year, discussing what it’s like to be a Black in America. (Zak Neumann/freelance for The Gazette)
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As in folklore, Iowa City’s Witching Hour is a time for pushing boundaries — and the boundaries are being treated differently in this tricky pandemic season.

Instead of sweeping through downtown sidewalks, streets and venues, this year’s creativity festival is going online, with virtual programming beginning at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

It’s still a ticketed event, but organizers don’t want finances, stretched thin throughout the creative community, to be an issue, so they’ve adopted a pay-what-you-can model. Seven levels of suggested prices range from $5 for arts participants to $120 for benefactors, with lots of low-pay options in between. Ticket-holders receive access to both days’ sessions, and the link will be good for 72 hours.

The event has been evolving since its 2015 debut, but the concept remains the same: performances and discussions that explore the unknown, discuss the creative process and showcase new work from local, Midwest and national voices representing a wide variety of races, ethnicities and gender parity.

By now, many of them don’t wait for an invitation — they reach out to the festival, said organizer Andre Perry, 43, of Iowa City. He’s executive director at the Englert Theatre, which is presenting the event with Little Village magazine.

Participants

Among the main voices are:

• Black Belt Eagle Scout, the recording project of Katherine Paul, who grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation in northwest Washington state. The project has earned accolades as favorite new musician and debut album in 2018.

• Tameka Cage Conley, a graduate of the fiction program of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship and the Provost Postgraduate Visiting Writer Fellowship in Fiction. She is at work on her first novel, which considers the untimely deaths of African American men over six decades beginning in the early 1940s in northern Louisiana. She is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Oxford College of Emory University in Oxford, Ga.

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• Dawson Davenport, from the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama and a University of Iowa graduate with a degree in art. Davenport owns the Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Cafe; the nonprofit the Indigenous Art Alliance; and the Daepian Apparel clothing brand. He also hosts a weekly #Stay Home Live Virtual Poetry Reading Series promoting Indigenous Artists.

• Heavy Color, a modern-music ensemble founded by composer producers Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg, based in Toledo, Ohio. They recently composed the soundtrack for the Rights of Nature documentary “Invisible Hand,” produced by Mark Ruffalo.

• Danez Smith, an award-winning writer from St. Paul, Minn., whose third poetry collection, “Homie,” was published by Graywolf in January 2020.

• Beatrice Thomas, star and creator of Black Benatar’s Black Magic Cabaret and principal of Authentic Arts & Media. Thomas, who lives in San Francisco, is a national multidisciplinary artist, cultural strategist, social justice drag queen and creative producer.

• Stacey Walker of Cedar Rapids, the first African American elected to the Linn County Board of Supervisors. Throughout his career, Walker has worked for several political campaigns at the congressional, gubernatorial and presidential level, and continues to serve as a political activist and writer.

Changes

“Witching Hour is in constant evolution,” Perry said. “The festival by design is a reflection of where we are as a people, where we are as a culture and where we might go. Those questions, those concepts — the expressions that we might have around them, the discussions we might have around them — are constantly in evolution, so we’re always determining how to create the best platform for the artists, the thinkers, the community members to have that expression and to have those discussions,” he said.

“Hopefully, we’ve gotten better at creating an environment where lively expression and discussion can happen.”

It also serves as a counterpoint to the city’s other festivals, from the Block Party and Iowa Arts Festival to Mission Creek, he noted.

“The difference is that Witching Hour is really asking the audience to consider where they are in a given moment of their lives — consider their relationship to creativity, consider their relationship to their community or to their communities,” Perry said.

“It’s slightly more demanding, and may yield different rewards because of that. It’s almost like going through a seminar or workshop — a full-on immersive experience.”

With that, it brings a different vibe to the Iowa City scene.

“I think the energy it brought was always generally positive, but also somewhat serious, because you’re thinking about the world and our place in it,” Perry said.

The timing also is different, since it’s typically held in mid- to late October, when the weather is turning.

“It’s getting colder,” he said, “and it’s like, ‘What do we need to think about before we go indoors for a few months?’”

Learning curve

This year’s event still will feature creative minds discussing their processes and presenting new works for the new age, but instead of gathering presenters and audiences in the same physical space, audiences will be viewing prerecorded videos online.

“Conceptually, it was natural, the way we’re pulling it off. In practice, it’s just as hard,” he said, to coordinate interaction between the producers and contributors, whether virtually or in person.

Perry noted his team is pretty versatile, since they’re used to working with live and recorded sound and visuals. Still, taking the festival online has required them to take on new skills.

“Conceptually, Witching Hour is very much like story telling in the way that we sequence things, so a lot of those skills are applicable to this new world. The challenge is that the format is a little bit new, but we’re pretty ready to go,” he said.

Monetizing a virtual festival versus an in-person festival is different and difficult to judge, so the organizers cut the budget from between $45,000 and $50,000 for the typical live event, to between $15,000 and $16,000 for this year’s online offering. The artists still will be paid for their efforts to create new material for the audiences and spark new conversations, but viewers can pay on a sliding scale, which will bring in less revenue.

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“We don’t want anyone turned away,” Perry said. “We always want access across the board to be as open as we can afford it to be, particularly thinking about younger people in high school and college students who do not have a lot of disposable income.”

Outreach efforts also are aimed toward the creative and artistic communities who “sometimes do have incomes and sometimes don’t,” Perry said.

“In many ways it is a festival for artists with a capital ‘A,’ but also for those of us who have an artistic practice that are maybe not as open about it, which is any of us and all of us who want to express. ...

“We say it’s for artists, arts workers, curious minds and everyone connected to supporting artistic industries. The ‘curious minds,’ that’s for everyone else who just want to be involved in a really special conversation and experience.”

If You Go

• What: Witching Hour Festival

• When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

• Where: Online access to both days with ticket purchase; 72-hour replay available

• Tickets: Pay-what-you-can, seven levels of suggested prices from $5 arts participant to $120 benefactors at Outermostagency.com/stream/witching-hour

• Details: Witchinghourfestival.com/

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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