NPR star Vowell to headline inaugural Wine Country spoken word fest in Petaluma
Sarah Vowell is more easily recognized for her high-pitched, girlish, slightly acidic vocal tones that for her face — which generally only appears on the jackets of her bestselling books. But through the stories and essays she’s delivered on NPR’s ‘This American Life’ and other programs — stories that have helped define “must listen radio” — and boosted by her skillfully emotive vocal performance as Violet the Invisible Girl in Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” Vowel has placed herself among the most influential and important voices in the U.S.
This October, locals will have a chance to see the Invisible Girl face-to-face, as Sarah Vowell comes to town as the headliner of the Inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival. Also in the lineup are acclaimed humorist and award-winning storyteller Bil Lepp, from West Virginia, and the electrifying poet-actor-rap-performer Steve Connell.
“Sarah is one of the top authors in the country,” says Dave Pokorny, who is producing the first-time event with his wife, Juliet, formerly of Pixar studios. “Sarah’s hilarious and surprising and brilliant,” he says. “Lots of NPR listeners have heard her talk about her life. Now she’s coming to Petaluma to help kick off the inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival. We’re not calling it “the first annual” festival because that always sounded dumb to me. It’s the inaugural festival, and yes, we do hope it’s the first of many.”
With their popular monthly spoken-word showcase “West Side Stories” — held the first Wednesday of the month at Sonoma Portworks — the Pokornys have already established themselves as adept at creating buzz and audience for spoken word events. With the new festival — set to run Oct. 13-15—they’ll be taking what they’ve learned, and ratcheting it up to a whole new level.
One thing in their favor, Pokorny points out, is that a festival like this is truly one-of-a-kind.
“We’ve run it up the internet flagpole,” he says, “and while there are plenty of storytelling festivals and cowboy poetry festivals and comedy festivals and solo performance festivals, it looks like no one else in the country is doing a spoken word festival, which encompasses all of that.”
As such, the festival will include traditional storytelling, poetry, solo shows, stand-up, Moth-like story slams, and more. It’s an ambitious project, and Pokorny acknowledges that others might have started small, testing the waters with medium-sized acts first.
“We wanted Sarah Vowell from the beginning,” he says. “Once she agreed to do it, we knew it would be easier to get other big names.”
Vowell originally leapt to prominence as a contributing editor to ‘This American Life,’ where her slyly comedic stories of growing up, learning hard truths, and losing her faith gained her a huge fan-base. Her 1997 radio essay “Guns” — in which she described her rocky relationship with her pro-NRA gunsmith father, and concluded with Vowell describing shooting his ashes from a cannon after his death — is now considered one of the greatest such pieces ever aired on NPR. Since then, she’s written numerous books (“Unfamiliar Fishes,” “The Wordy Shipmates,” “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States”) blending detailed history with a rich, entertaining sense of humor.
“Saying we’ve got Sarah Vowell on board has made it much easier to pitch the festival to sponsors,” says Pokorny, allowing that he’s still working to fill in a number of performance slots, aiming for as musch variety as possible. “As soon as we can lock down the other slots,” he says, “we’ll announce the full line-up on our website.”