The birth of StoryTown, a literature festival whose home is the Wiltshire town of Corsham, was in 2018. For a good while, the town council had wanted to host a festival which played to the many creative strengths of the town, from the home of the prestigious BathSpa University MA courses, at Corsham Court, to Pound Arts, amongst others. Its inception evolved from a collaboration between the town council and Paper Nations, a BathSpa creative writing incubator, and the first festival took place in mid-October 2018.
From the outset, StoryTown’s purpose has been to make Corsham a writing destination. The co-production between a local authority-funded council and an Arts Council-funded project allowed it to develop in myriad ways, from writing workshops to author talks. Three years ago, we did not have the threat of the pandemic; no-one wore masks; events were face-to-face, and the first festival had some events with attendees cheek-by-jowl in beautiful buildings, listening with rapt attention, or taking part in creative projects, such as sign-making and telling stories through origami. Its second year was similar – but we’d learned a lot from the first year, what worked, and what didn’t, as well as what people wanted. When 2020 rolled around, and the planning process began, it was a whole different ball game.
The pandemic has evidently impacted on many aspects of our lives the world over. In terms of StoryTown, which always takes place in the autumn, we didn’t know where we’d be by October – not when the world was closing down in March 2020. When it became clear, after lockdowns and significant Covid-19 cases rising in many areas of many communities, that our usual face-to-face festival couldn’t take place in the library, in the town hall, in the arts centre and local cafes, we had to adapt – and it was this that has opened up the festival in so many different ways.
Our priority, of course, was the health and wellbeing of people in the community. It soon became clear that – as we moved out of a long summer lockdown and into autumn – the pandemic wasn’t just going to disappear. We made quick decisions to maintain the creativity of the festival, whilst also maintaining people’s safety. As with many of us, ‘Zoom’ became more than just a verb – it was one essential way of staying in touch, and it ended up being a brilliant platform for the delivery of many events, as did Crowdcast, with its more refined, interviewer and interviewee style. We advertised for facilitators, workshop leaders and others in the creative industries and received applications from all over the UK: Nottingham, Cornwall and Suffolk, for instance. We were fortunate to be able to host some face-to-face events, ensuring that they were Covid-secure, and had gallery-based poetry workshops, through to the brilliant Poetry Takeaway (https://thepoetrytakeaway.co.uk) and The Bookshop Band – live-streaming from Scotland (https://www.thebookshopband.co.uk). Moving with the times enabled many people to access events regardless of their geographical position. A poetry competition focused on ‘peacocks’ – a famous mainstay in Corsham – received over 150 entries, including a considerable number of international ones.
Early in 2020, the pandemic was not on many people’s minds. Thinking back now, it is incredible what the world has been through over the last 18 months. With StoryTown, we were open to suggestions and have always been fluid and flexible with our approach. This meant that we were able to offer quality events, as well as enable people to access these, even if they were self-isolating and leaving the house was an impossibility. Without moving most events online, it is unlikely that we would have had an inspiring ‘path to publication’ talk from a debut author with a leading international publisher. We also wouldn’t have had the innovative ‘free-writing’ and yoga workshop from the glorious Cornish countryside. Yes, we had some technical problems, and sitting in front of a screen is not always as inspiring as sitting in an ornate room with fantastic acoustics and people to share the experience with. But, we embraced a difficult situation – and if we hadn’t, we would have been much more deprived in terms of immersion in culture.
As we plan for 2021’s festival, we’re keeping flexibility at the forefront. Yes, we want to return to physical events, to seeing people, in person, enjoying the arts. We also know, however, that accessibility is fundamental and if we need to move events online, we can. Since StoryTown started in 2018, it has evolved in different ways – and this year, with its strong focus on the community, will hopefully see it go from strength to strength. When people pull together and believe that anything is possible, success is often achieved – and here’s hoping that this applies to our upcoming event, as well as those in the future.