We recently sat down with Jane Davidson, the Artistic and Executive Director of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts (and former General Manager of the Vancouver Writers Fest!), who is passing on the torch after 15 years. Read about what makes this year’s 40th anniversary festival special, and some of Jane’s favourite memories and achievements from her tenure.
The 40th annual Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts takes place August 11–14, 2022, in-person at the Rockwood Centre in Sechelt. View the lineup and get tickets at writersfestival.ca.
This year the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts is celebrating its 40th anniversary, which makes it Canada’s longest running summer gathering of Canadian writers and readers. Can you tell us how you’re celebrating? What is special about this year’s festival?
Probably the most special thing about it is that we’re together. We’re together again. We didn’t have a festival in 2020—instead of a festival we produced an anthology of writing from pieces written by authors who were to have come. We had a very different version of the festival last year, where we ran a series of events with a maximum capacity of 50–60 people in our 400 seat open air theatre. For this year’s festival, we’re marking it with a really beautiful archival piece created by one of our directors, Sean Eckford, with the assistance of local journalist Sophie Woodrooffe. They have made a two-part 40th anniversary podcast that is a beautiful history of the festival, starting back with our founding mothers who launched this whole thing in 1983.
We’re also honouring it by doing a free public event after the festival in collaboration with the BC and Yukon Book Prizes, called Walking With, on Saturday, September 10, featuring three Indigenous voices. And we have a special raffle prize for the 40th anniversary; the Suncoast Woodcrafters Guild has created this one-of-a-kind, very unique bookcase and we’re filling it with the festival 2022 titles.
Can you tell us about some of the top events happening this year—the ones that will really blow people away—that tickets are still available for?
It’s hard for me to pick just one! I’m always trying to dispel the myth that the festival sells out. The festival does have a reputation for the first day of ticket sales sort of blowing the roof off, and some passes and individual events do sell out. But we have a series of 21 events happening consecutively, and the Saturday night Rockwood Lecture, which is being delivered by Sheila Rogers this year, is the only event that has sold out. So for the first time ever, we have tickets left for every other event.
Our crowds are going to be smaller this year, and I think a lot of that has to do with the times that we’re living in. So I want to announce loud and clear that people shouldn’t feel they need to make a decision right now—wait until festival weekend, and see how comfortable you’re feeling about being with people. We will have tickets available. We open on Thursday night with Ivan Coyote, and we have a really fabulous lineup of 25 writers. It’s hard for me to say what I’m looking forward to most. I’m looking forward to all of them! I’m thrilled to welcome Joshua Whitehead to the festival this year; Marsha Lederman and Jen Sookfong Lee are coming; and we have a New Voices event with Cedar Bowers and Francesca Ekwuyasi.
Jane, this is your 15th, and final year as the long-time Artistic and Executive Director (the only full-time employee of the festival!) before Marisa Alps takes the helm. What has been your favourite part of running the festival?
That’s a tough one, but I think what it comes down to is bringing writers and readers together. And the year I started here, we started a schools program with our community partners, that we’ve been able to develop over the years. Our prime partner remains to this day school district 46. We have a program called Celebration of Authors, Books and Communities (CABC) where we take writers into classrooms, and that was in response to the fact that children’s events at the festival didn’t really capture an audience; summertime is a hard time to attract people inside a theatre, even if it is in a beautiful park. So we decided—because our mandate is to bring readers and writers together—we’ll take the writers to the readers. We’ve got this really robust schools’ program that has just been a great source of joy for me.
As well of course as the annual festival—it’s just a beloved event! I honour my foremothers for that. It’s a situation that I inherited, and there’s so much community support. We have long, long-time volunteers, and a long-time audience who return year after year after year. And the writers that I’ve been able to meet, it’s been such a privilege. The Vancouver Writers Fest has a reputation for treating its writers very, very well—so I learned from my colleagues at the Vancouver Writers Fest, and from Alma Lee who was the Artistic Director that I worked with. You know, you take really good care of the writers, and then you get some mighty fine, generous programming on your stages.
Do you have any favourite memories or anecdotes from your past 15 years that you’d like to share with us?
I use the same one again and again, but it really was quite a life-changing moment for many of us. Back in 2009, Richard Wagamese, a beloved Indigenous writer, appeared on our stage for the first time and delivered our Saturday night lecture. He began the lecture by drums to the beat of a heartbeat, and he called in the ancestors, and he said: feel them around you, they’re over your shoulder, they’re over here, and here. And honestly, we all did. It was deeply moving.
And then he proceeded to talk for an hour with no notes in front of him, no script. It just flowed out of him, and it was articulate and gracious and generous and funny, and deeply, deeply moving. It was an astonishing experience. He really taught me a lot that night. At the heart of what I do—it’s pasted on my shelf right above my desk—is “we change the world, one story at a time.” Sounds very simple, but we do in fact change the world one story at a time. And the key piece to that is being the reader, and the listener. A story that is understood and heard can in fact be life-changing.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts?
That long may it soar. I feel so confident about its future; we’re in a really, really good place. The board of directors is a strong, tight, cohesive unit. Financially we’re secure, through the great public sector support we receive, and our own sponsors and donors, and we’ve built our endowments to one million dollars. But most of all I have such faith in Marisa, so my hopes and dreams for the festival are to see Marisa realize her hopes and dreams, and I mean that quite sincerely. We are in such great hands, and I can’t wait for her arrival on August 1st when we start working together.