One year ago, during the inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival, visiting poet-performer Steve Connell found himself playing to some very different audiences from what he’d expected.
“The fires had displaced so many people, right?” he recalls, speaking on the phone from his home in L.A. “So in addition to doing the big show at the Mystic, some of us decided to go out and do some little events at shelters and high schools, making connections to the community that was in the middle of this outrageous crisis. That was so cool and so meaningful, to me personally. I’m an activist as much as an artist, so any time you can take your art into the community, it’s a good thing.”
This year, though, Connell allows, when he travels up to take part in the second consecutive year of the ambitious Petaluma-based festival, he’s looking forward to enjoying the city without the added excitement of a massive wildfire.
“Maybe I’ll get to go wine tasting with my girlfriend this time,” he says with a laugh.
Connell is a poet who blends huge swaths of “performance art” and riveting dramatic and comedic acting into his appearances. His writing is intense, entertaining, rhythmic and highly engaging, and the way he brings his words to life – moving, jumping, dropping, crawling or pretending to be trapped in a box – make watching his shows a unique and riveting experience. He’s performed all over the world, before audiences that include President Obama, Norman Lear, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey.
The Wine Country Spoken Word Festival, running Friday to Sunday, Oct. 19-21, features some of the country’s best poets, standup comics, storytellers, improvisational comedians, solo performers and other spoken word artists. These will include Emmy-winning comic W. Kamau Bell, poetry slam champion Denice Frohman, acclaimed storytellers Bil Lepp and Elizabeth Ellis, solo performer Zahra Noorbakhsh and many others. Some will be teaming up for massive showcase performances on Friday and Saturday nights, at the Mystic Theatre. Some will also be appearing in smaller events at Hotel Petaluma, throughout the day on Saturday. Those events will include Elizabeth Ellis’ workshop “How to Create Characters That Pop,” Denice Frohman’s engaging presentation “Poetry in a Time of Despair,” and Connell’s own mini-workshop, titled “Up Close and Personal.”
The festival is organized by Dave and Juliet Pokorny, who founded Petaluma’s popular monthly West Side Stories story slam contests. Himself a professional stand-up comic and longtime fan of storytelling in all its forms, Dave Pokorny will once again act as host for the various events throughout the weekend.
“Dave and Juliet bring a genuine love and appreciation for the spoken word art form, and you can feel that in every aspect of how they’ve put this festival together,” observes Connell. “The whole event is so carefully crafted and curated, from the big, high-caliber showcases to the smaller, sort of eccentric and intimate little sideshow things. Every aspect of the festival is built with love and fun and a true sense of excitement for the art form.”
Connell believes that the effectiveness of this particular festival lies, in part, in its expansiveness.
“Spoken word is a big category, right?” he says. “It includes so much. Some people are locked into just poetry, or just storytelling, or just stand-up comedy, or just improvisation stuff. But some of us just love all kinds of spoken word, and we love being exposed to as much variety as possible. The difference between Bil Lepp and me, or between me and W. Kamau Bell, between what they do and what I do, couldn’t be too much bigger. And I love it because I get to sit in the audience and think, ‘Yo, look what this cat’s doing and how he’s approaching it so differently from how I do it!’”
PLANNING TO GO?
What: Second Inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival
When: Friday-Sunday, October 19-21
Where: Mystic Theatre, Hotel Petaluma, Other Petaluma Locations
Admission: $48 for Mystic Theatre showcases on Friday and Saturday, tickets $10-$15 for individual events throughout weekend.