Backstage with Arts & Letters Live

Many people have asked me, “How do you plan Arts & Letters Live?” Here’s a glimpse into the process of how we “produced” this year’s series.

In July DMA colleagues Helen Seslowsky, Katie Hutton, and I spent five days in a very hot and humid New York meeting with nearly forty publicists from all the major publishing houses to learn the scoop about new book releases on the horizon for 2011. When we got back to Dallas, we met for about twelve hours to prioritize our wish list of authors and brainstorm about books whose themes resonate with the Museum’s upcoming exhibitions and collections installations. For example, Mexico’s renowned novelist Carlos Fuentes is coming to speak while the exhibition Tierra y Gente: Modern Mexican Works on Paper is on view. In March two biographers will share new insights into the lives of artists Lee Krasner and Amedeo Modigliani, both of whom have works in the Museum’s collections.

Throughout the year, we also travel to hear authors speak at several prominent book fairs—the Texas Book Festival in Austin, the National Book Festival in D.C., and the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan—to discover which authors speak as beautifully from the stage as they do on the page. I heard Annie Proulx, Simon Schama, Pico Iyer, Gary Shteyngart, and others at a variety of these festivals while planning the 2011 season and knew I wanted to pursue them.

From my front row seat at Steve Carell's interview with Tad Friend at the New Yorker Festival. At the 2010 festival, I also heard authors Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr, E. L. Doctorow, Atul Gawande, Yo-Yo Ma in conversation with Alex Ross, and Simon Schama and Annie Proulx -- both of whom we're bringing to Dallas as part of the 2011 season!

And because we want a season of events that will appeal to many people, we book (pun intended) a balance of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, and programs that combine art forms in creative and unexpected ways. In February we’ll feature Eric Siblin, author of The Cello Suites, who will share the story behind Bach’s missing manuscript, its rediscovery, and his own infatuation with this music. To give this evening added flair, we’re partnering with the Dallas Bach Society, and their cellist Gyongy Erody will perform musical excerpts to bring this story to life.

Our next step is to send out proposals to the publishers and anxiously await their responses. The process is like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle—discerning which authors and performers are available and when. There’s been many a time when a requested author wants to come to Dallas, but he’s scheduled to be on the West Coast at the same time we want him to be here in Texas.

Katie Hutton (Interim Head, Arts & Letters Live) at The Library Hotel's rooftop bar after a long, but fruitful day of meetings with publicists in New York. The team enjoyed "Red Badge of Courage" cocktails!

Throughout the summer and early fall, we also spend at least one day every week vetting short stories for our Texas Bound series, where Texas actors read short fiction by Texas writers. Lone Star State–connected authors from all over the country submitted nearly two hundred stories for consideration. Our team reads them and brings the strongest contenders to read-aloud sessions with our director Raphael Parry, who many people know as the Executive and Artistic Director of Shakespeare Dallas. We debate the merits and potential shortcomings of each story. Does it hook the audience’s attention and follow a cohesive narrative arc, or does it lag in the middle? What actor do we imagine bringing the story to life? Constructing a program of three or four stories is like creating a chef’s tasting menu—a short, funny appetizer followed by a hearty, more serious entrée, and finally, a dessert.

Arts & Letters Live will celebrate its 20th anniversary season in 2011! I’ve been with the series nine of those years. It’s heartwarming to hear vivid recollections from many of you—what an author said to change your perspective or transport you out of the everyday. Or the “aha” moment you had in the middle of a performance combining art, music, and poetry. I hope you’ll share your favorite Arts & Letters Live moments by commenting on this post. Check out our exciting 2011 season lineup here!

Carolyn Bess is the Director of Programming at the Dallas Museum of Art.


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