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Steph Walker and Kiran Dass on WORD!

Literary Groups & Festivals, Literature

It’s one of the best writers and readers festivals in Aotearoa, and WORD Christchurch is all set to go in August, with a formidable new team at the helm, including Executive Director Steph Walker, Programme Director Nic Low (Ngāi Tahu) and Programme and Engagement Manager, Kiran Dass.

The latest additions to the team – Steph and Kiran have a vast array of experience between them – and both are excited about taking up the reins of WORD and continuing to grow the festival’s reputation and audience. They spoke to Zara Potts about their new roles and what’s in store for audiences in the future.

Zara Potts: Welcome to you both! We’re excited to have you at WORD! First up, what’s your connection with Christchurch?

Steph Walker: I wasn’t born in Christchurch, my family moved to Christchurch when I was four and I did all my schooling there.

Kiran Dass: I don’t know Christchurch that well but I know Lyttelton really well. I have this whole community there and every time I visited Christchurch I have found the people really warm and really friendly and welcoming.

ZP: Steph, you’ve been in the seat now for six weeks – tell me your first impressions.

SW: It’s been very all encompassing. Taking on an organisation that had two people like Marianne Hargreaves and Rachael King running it collaboratively has been quite a big jump! So I’m unravelling things from their brains at the moment, trying to figure out how things have been done in the past and how things have worked and then looking at all the possibilities for the future and that’s the most exciting thing.

ZP: What was it that attracted you to this role?

SW: I’d been looking for something based in Christchurch for a little while and I was looking for the right kind of job where I could combine my experience in programming festivals and events as well as one that had quite a bit of strategy in it. WORD is tremendously exciting and has such a great reputation across the nation, and internationally as well, as being one of the coolest writers’ festivals, that’s one thing – but for me it’s about being able to make a difference for the city as well. There is a real buzz here, Christchurch is really coming back into its own – so to be able to come back with energy and help contribute to that and help grow WORD, it’s a really exciting prospect.

ZP: And there seems to be a lot of people returning who have been away for decades and it does seem to have a pull. There seems to be a Generation X feeling about!

SW: Strictly speaking, I’m an elder millennial!

ZP: You can be an honorary Gen X’er.

SW: It does feel that way though, and I’m also hearing about a lot of people, like Kiran, who have never lived in Christchurch, who also are feeling the pull. Whether that’s about affordability compared to Auckland or Wellington, or the location… I keep hearing the word vibe a lot at the moment.

ZP: It’s a creative city. I think it has a somewhat unfair reputation throughout the rest of the country about what it is – but actually what it is, is quite different to what people think it is. The history of arts here is incredible. Particularly with literature. Is that something that attracted you both?

KD: Christchurch has such a rich cultural heritage, which intercepts across a whole lot of different disciplines. It’s got the literary bit, the arts bit and a really strong music culture as well. All the things I love. So much great stuff is coming from Christchurch.

SW: I think growing up being a bit of a theatre geek in Christchurch, and seeing the name Ngaio Marsh bandied about on theatre walls, gave me an appreciation from the get-go that there was someone like Ngaio Marsh who was writing crime novels and really incredibly influential in New Zealand theatre. So she was like the ultimate cross over artist when it came to literature, and that’s one part of WORD that I’m really excited to grow. Writing isn’t just about books. Think about what you see on stage, how many Netflix series do you watch that have incredibly clever writing? That genre which has been such a huge part of Christchurch’s culture, songs and writing that have come out of the Christchurch experience. It’s huge.

ZP: People think of Christchurch and they think ‘traditional’ but if you dig in to it, you don’t even have to dig that deep, it’s actually pretty radical. You have The Group, Ramai Haywood, Pacific Underground and Flying Nun just to name a few…

KD: All of those communities that you’ve just touched upon is exactly what I was referring to in terms of the rich cultural heritage, and a lot of those were formed around communities and often through people who met at school and it was about doing it themselves and championing ideas and new ways of doing things. You look at something like Flying Nun which was such a cottage industry built on community or the Bloomsbury South group – where people like writers and musicians and painters all came together.

ZP: Is that a direction you’re going to take WORD?

SW: There is something beautiful about bringing people together isn’t there? Something like writing, which can often be quite a solitary process, so if you can introduce collaboration in there, whether it’s bringing artists together with a new idea to see what comes out of it or even just bringing a group of  writers together at the festival and hearing what ideas and thoughts they’re sharing together. Festivals are a vital place for that and I’ll think you’ll see WORD going more into that space.. ‘What happens if…” If we get writers to think about a site or a space in a particular way or we pair people within a community together, what happens then? There’s a magic alchemy that festivals can help create in a city.

ZP: Also that diversity of voice. One of things that I’ve loved as an audience member at WORD is the relationship with Ngāi Tahu. Hearing those stories and seeing how well those events are attended – is that something that also excites you?

SW: Absolutely. Māori culture is based in storytelling. All the myths and legends for a start, there’s a natural affinity there with storytelling. Telling stories in contemporary ways is a real driver for us. Hopefully we’ll be working with Ngāi Tahu to bring those stories out further. I watched some of those events on livestream at last year’s festival and it was incredible. I was learning things I feel like I probably should have learnt at school, but it just opened my eyes to different ways of viewing the city.

ZP: The lovely session with Tā Tipene O’Regan and Nic Low that outlined all the original place names of Te Wai Pounamu..

SW: It sounds like something so simple but it was so brilliant to really sit and reflect on. Nic Low is really leading this, as a Ngāi Tahu writer himself, but the whole team is really excited about bringing more of these stories.

ZP: You probably don’t want to give away too much at this point – but in terms of direction – is it a case a ‘steady as she goes’ or are you looking at something different for the festival?

KD:  One thing that I’m interested in exploring is multi-sensory events and branching out into those areas. Looking at olfactory and sonic and how different disciplines intersect and relate to each other – so that’s really exciting for me. Activating new spaces – not just in the city.

SW:  I think it’s probably no surprise to anyone that given my background in multi art form festivals that we’re going to be growing our space but keeping a clear kaupapa. The mission of the festival is uncannily giving us our trajectory and that is celebrating a love of words in all their forms, and so we’re just doubling down on that!

ZP: And not focussing exclusively on the literary festival aspect?

KD:  You don’t want to cut people out by focusing on the literary aspect of it. You know, the written word comes in so many different forms. Like musicians – they use words, and filmmakers’ – they use words. Music is one of my first loves and is definitely something I would like to incorporate more into the festival and just kind of grow it, but also have more community outreach so all kinds of different audiences feel included.

ZP: That collaborative model can be really effective – I think of Jolt and the CSO’s staging of The Seasons last year. It can be so effective bringing together different audiences.

SW:  Yeah, but we are not about to become the next Christchurch Arts Festival, I don’t think we’ll be going as far as contemporary dance!

ZP: Have you had to look deeply into Christchurch audiences and look at what makes them unique?

SW:  I’m actually doing a deep dive into the past four years of audience surveys at the moment to try and grasp a little bit more of that. A lot of it is confirming where I thought the audiences were, which is good. But the past two years have been such a challenge, in just being able to actually have audiences come to an event. I’m looking at our data from 2018 and 2019 and it feels like it was a world away now.

ZP: It feels like a different time.

SW: Yeah, and how relevant is it now? Where are people at now? I think about my time at the Christchurch Arts Festival immediately after the earthquake and thinking about audiences then and what I took away from that, and it was that you need to make a space where audiences feel safe and welcome and give them permission to let their emotions out, whatever they are.

ZP: I think that still stands – Christchurch has been through so many challenges in the last decade. I think it does make Christchurch people very good at empathy.

SW: I think people are looking for that as well, looking for a chance to come together and hear other peoples’ experiences and other peoples’ ideas and to sit with that. That’s kind of what I’m getting from the surveys, and that’s the feedback that’s also come through in this Covid era.

ZP: So when is WORD happening this year?

KD:  August the 31st until September 4.

ZP: So you must be nose to the grindstone at the moment!

KD: I think this is my sixth day working for WORD, and I’ve come to WORD at our busiest time. It’s been a baptism of fire! But one thing that Nic and I have been talking a lot about –we keep coming back to the same word and that’s hospitality – being hospitable and making sure that people feel welcomed and cared for and our guests and our audiences all feel that they can come and have a good time and feel looked after, that’s really important to us.

ZP: It does have a different feel to other festivals I think. Personally I think it feels more intimate than other festivals

KD:  I think when I first went to WORD it was 2018 and I’d never been to WORD before and my primary experience had been the Auckland Writers Festival and the Wellington Writers and Readers Week – and they’re both fantastic festivals – but when I went to WORD as soon as I arrived it just felt different. I and the energy and vibrancy was so palpable and it really piqued my interests I really wanted to be there.

SW: We’re all really excited to get in amongst it and start meeting people and talking ideas and possibilities.

ZP: We’re excited to have you here!

KD: I can’t wait to finally hit the ground and get out to booksellers and bookshops and meet writers and readers. Also I love hearing about what people are reading so I will happily talk about books to anybody so I’m hoping to have lots of interesting conversations with people about what they’re reading!


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