W. Kamau Bell stars at Wine Country Spoken Word Festival
Dave and Juliet Pokorny had big plans for the first “Wine Country Spoken Word Festival” on Oct. 13 last year in Petaluma, which took place six days after the Northern California wildfires hit Sonoma County. Despite that, the show continued, with some consequences.
They didn’t get to tell ghost stories on Friday the 13th to start their three-day event; they had to sell discounted tickets and gave many away to shelters where evacuees were stranded. The Pokornys are doing things differently tonight and through the weekend, in the second annual event, the only U.S. festival to merge all forms of spoken word.
The number of headliners doubled from three to six, featuring the Bay Area’s own W. Kamau Bell. From Palo Alto and well known in San Francisco’s stand-up comedy scene, Bell is a two-time Emmy Award-winning host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” TV series.
“We had gotten him before the second Emmy; we were on board at the first,” said Dave Pokorny in a phone interview. “We’re not jumping on the Kamau bandwagon.”
There are at least 10 artists instead of the 25 booked last year, including stand-up comics, poets, national storytellers and best-selling authors, with events consolidated into two venues in Petaluma. Daytime events will be in Hotel Petaluma for $10, and night performances at The Mystic Theatre for $48. Tickets for both evening performances can be purchased for $75.
Tonight at 7:30 p.m. are returning headliners Bil Lepp, a five-time West Virginia Liars Contest champion who’s become skilled at spinning stories, and Steve Connell, who has performed privately for Oprah Winfrey, the U.N. and former President Barack Obama.
Newcomer Zahra Noorbakhsh, the host of “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” podcast, is a comedian who did a guest set when the Pokornys saw Bell in San Francisco. They were in the same room with both of them, and thought, what better time to book both artists.
“We wanted to produce a festival that we would want to see, and this year, we’ll get to see,” said Pokorny. “I’m a big fan of all these performers, we wouldn’t book them if we weren’t. I can’t wait to see them all this year.”
Saturday’s events will include all six headliners, with award-winning storyteller Elizabeth Ellis starting things off in “Creating Characters that Pop” at 9:15 a.m. She is a reoccurring favorite at the National Storytelling Festival, who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains.
Shortly after, Connell gets “Up Close and Personal” at 10:30 a.m. before a taco bar lunch at 11:45 a.m. A $15 ticket will include lunch and the 12:15 p.m. performance of Noorbakhsh doing “Funny is Funny,” where she’ll answer questions related to political correctness in comedy.
Next at 1:30 p.m. is “In Conversation” with Bell, facilitated by Pokorny, where they’ll discuss his path to becoming a household name and his early days as a sociopolitical comedian. According to the website schedule, this Q&A event is completely sold out.
“We think it’s going to turn out really well for the way this festival is going to work,” said Pokorny. “We’re looking forward to going bigger next year. Go big or go home.”
Women of the World Poetry Slam champ Denice Frohman will talk at 2:45 p.m. with “Poetry in a Time of Despair,” and why it matters. She’ll go into detail about her journey to finding a voice and understanding identity through poetry and spoken word alike.
At 4:30 p.m. Lepp will tell a story, “Bil & Skeeter Break the Ocean,” about two kids who, via numerous misadventures, think they stopped the flow of water to the Atlantic Ocean. Later, the remaining headliner acts - Ellis, Frohman and Bell - will perform at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday starts at 10 a.m. with “A Look Into the (Off Stage) Lives of Elizabeth Ellis & Bil Lepp” as co-chairwoman of the Storytelling Association of California, Sara Armstrong, helps find the ins and outs of oral tradition, and what these tellers do to stay on top of their game.
“This is only our second festival, and we brought Bil three years ago because we knew how wonderful he was,” said Pokorny. “This area is going to love him - the West Virginia liar.”
“Leaping and Looping: The Winding Paths of Storytelling” will be a mini-workshop at 11:15 a.m. by novelist and last year’s storyteller, Amanda McTigue, who will explore how stories can be widened, deepened and go from being pretty darned good to fantastic.
The Pokornys will host a seminar at 12:30 p.m. going over the history of West Side Stories Petaluma, titled, “If You Build It … Will They Come?” Audiences will find out things that worked, and what didn’t, detailing how to find one’s tribe and getting them to join a vision.