Q&A with Open Book Festival programme co-ordinator Frankie Murrey

14 October 2022 - 11:18
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Open Book Festival programme co-ordinator Frankie Murrey and festival founder Mervyn Sloman.
Open Book Festival programme co-ordinator Frankie Murrey and festival founder Mervyn Sloman.
Image: Supplied

After a two-year hiatus, the popular Open Book Festival took place in Cape Town’s City Bowl during the first week of September.

Programme co-ordinator Frankie Murrey shares the joys and challenges of organising a literary festival, the art behind curating a multifarious programme, and the effect the Mother City’s notoriously unpredictable weather has on festival-goers.

If you were to describe Open Book Festival 2022 in five words what would they be?

Rewarding, stimulating, entertaining, gratitude, relief.

The mini-fezzie in March aside, this is the first time Open Book has taken place in person after a two-year hiatus. Was there any tangible difference in the overall feel and ambience?

One of the most rewarding parts of Open Book has always been to see people’s faces coming out of events. To see how the event continues in the foyer [of the Homecoming Centre] or in the queues for book signings. This year definitely felt the same as it has in the past. People thoroughly enjoyed the events they attended, as did those up on stage. There were obvious gaps which changed the feel. The marketplace was absent this year and is something we need to think about for 2023. The biggest gap was not having international writers join us. While this didn’t detract from the conversations, welcoming guests from all over the world comes with a level of excitement that is hard to match.

What challenges did you face bringing back Open Book after two years?

Anyone who works in event or festival spaces has had to reimagine everything over the course of the past few years. Shift to digital, shift to hybrid, shift back to face-to-face. Open Book is no different. While we may have been in the same space, the Homecoming Centre is missing the team we have worked with for so long. The new team is fantastic and have given us amazing support, but it is impossible to explain something like Open Book and the needs it has. It  has to be experienced. The past year has been a learning curve for us. We’ve come out the other side with an Open Book that is more flexible in its engagements and is, we hope, better equipped to shift what we do.

What were your predictions regarding attendance and ticket sales, and how did they compare to the realities? 

For all sorts of reasons we were worried people wouldn’t come. The pandemic has hit people hard, making buying a ticket to an event a tough decision, added to which are transport costs of safely getting to the venue and back home. That meant, as always, we issued a massive number of comps, which leaves one in that terrible position of not being sure how many people will show up. However, Friday morning rolled in and the foyer filled and that was the start of three days where all events had not only good audiences, but ones who were so excited to be there. That said, we do need to work harder to get more people to each event.

Open Book is often lauded for its smorgasbord of events, panelists, workshops, you name it. How do you go about curating a diverse, inclusive and enjoyable programme for all?

It all starts with the writing. Without the writers and publishers, we have nothing, which is why it is so important for the industry to actively push itself to transform. We need books that are relevant to the audience who joins us. We desperately need books that will slowly flesh out the missing stories in our literary landscape. During the reading process there are moments where you can see the kind of conversation you want to have around the book. We are also very aware of what is going on in the country, and look for ways to explore those challenges through the lens of the books we are highlighting. Finally, among other things, the festival is a platform for others. We have always welcomed collaborations. Finding new people to work with brings content we would otherwise never be able to include.

The absence of international authors was palpable at this year’s fest, through no fault of your own. Can we expect transcontinental auteurs in next year’s programme?

We are hoping to include writers based on the African continent, but this is entirely dependent on our budget.

Have you considered reintroducing Afrikaans events, or introducing events in any of Mzansi’s 11 official languages other than English?

We have tried including Afrikaans events in the past and those have always been badly attended. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever try again but does certainly mean there will need to be a reason that makes sense to us to include events in any of the other official languages. It is likely we will include an event highlighting Khoe, and I would like to include a sign language element in some events if possible.

To what extent has the advent of technology (videos and recordings, social media, podcasts and so on) been advantageous to you? And to what extent has it caused unparalleled challenges?

Tech has been vital to our survival over the past few years. Doing business during the pandemic has also meant audio-visual suppliers have invested in equipment that makes recording events more affordable. That had a fantastic knock-on effect for us, and for the first time we were able to record all the events on the programme. We are in the middle of releasing that content. The flip side is people expect everything to be streamed. We made the deliberate decision to have all events face-to-face only. We wanted people to focus on being in the room rather than have their attention split, which often happens in hybrid or streamed events.

(PS: How chuffed were you that the WiFi was reliable?) 

Ah, that was ama-zing!

Would it be Open Book if it didn’t rain on Spring Day?

Ah, Cape Town and its drama weather. When it rains, we are worried people won’t come to the festival, but then when the sun is shining we worry people will go to the beach instead. As an organiser, you are always worried people won’t come.

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