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The Milford Readers and Writers Festival: How it all Got Started

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By Suzanne Braun Levine
August 28, 2016

Like many good ideas, this one began with a “what if…” Sean Strub, Amy Ferris, Bob Levine, and I were discussing the many writers conferences we had each attended, how much advice, constructive criticism, and moral support they offered aspiring writers. “But what about the readers?” I wondered. “Why aren’t there conferences for the people who love to read?” As a writer myself, I know how exciting it is to have a conversation with a thoughtful reader.

Why not create a readers festival, we all chimed in. We would invite writers whose work is serious and creative to meet with a Milford-wide readers group.

As we talked about the idea with friends, the momentum began to snowball. We could put together a daylong program! Or make it an entire weekend! We would bring together three very different writers and facilitate freewheeling exchange for each one with people who have read and thought about their books, with a wrap-up conversation among all of them at the end of the day. “Let’s try to get the Milford Theatre,” Bob suggested. Why not!

Signing up the writers turned out to be the easiest part. Everyone we approached loved the idea. Sean contacted his friend John Berendt, the author of the all time best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I couldn’t wait to ask my friend and long-time Ms. Magazine colleague, Gloria Steinem, who had a new book, My Life on the Road just out. And Amy contacted MK Asante, an impressive young writer she had met at the Woodstock Writers Festival, whose memoir, Buck, was a bestseller. They all said yes!

From that point on, the original What If became reality. But the good ideas kept coming. Sean, who had just been appointed Milford’s mayor, saw possibilities for the community at large and called a meeting of people interested in getting on board and the festival began to grow.

Volunteers teamed up to take charge of essential tasks like publicity (Edson Whitney, Amy Ferris, Jessica Gardner, Matthew O’Sullivan, Preston Ehrler), fund-raising (Jennifer Ziegler, Diana Weiner), volunteer recruitment and management (Roland Edwards), venue logistics (Rocco Zappile) and ticket sales (Michael Trenner, Cindy Stine). Colin Dickerman recruited a friend to record the main presentations to be available as podcasts. Bob Levine worked with Jerry Beaver to secure the Milford Theatre.

The amazingly talented designer, Barbara de Vries, offered to create a logo, website, promotional materials and a line of branded merchandise, which she did in record time, and produced the program with Carmichael Productions, with eye-catching results.

Lillian Longendorfer agreed to work with Lori Strelecki to organize a panel at the Pike County Historical Society’s Columns Museum highlighting Milford’s history with science fiction writing, particularly the so-called Milford Method of mutual criticism, followed by a reception and film. Grey Towers, the Pinchot family home that is now a National Historic Site, will be the setting for a discussion of writing about the natural environment and conservation, organized by Nancy Pinchot. Barbara Zappile and Barbara Whitney worked with Rose Chiocchi at the Pike County Public Library to create programs for children of all ages, and young writers. Ruby Willis has recruited writers and spoken word performers for an open mic night upstairs at the Dimmick Inn. Other panels still getting finalized will focus on gardening, cookbook authors, novelists and women’s experience and will be held at the Waterwheel Restaurant, Fauchère Meeting Center and other venues.

A particularly outside-the-box suggestion came from Diana Wiener, to invite a group of young dancers – The Humans Collective – to perform a work based on Maya Angelou’s poem “Alone”. Their performance will kick off the festival on Friday evening, September 30, at the Milford Theatre. All day Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2, the Patisserie Fauchère will be the site of a “pop-up bookstore” organized by Narrowsburg’s One Grand books, with a day-long schedule of local authors available to sign books and meet readers.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney are remembered for their enthusiastic invitation to do the impossible “Hey Gang, Let’s put on a show!” (In the classic 1943 film “Strike Up the Band”) We know just how they felt.

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