Interview: Philebrity’s Joey Sweeney on taking the reins at the 215 Festival
After a three-year hiatus, the 215 Festival – a literary arts showcase launched in 2001 by the venerable McSweeney‘s crew – kicks off tonight and runs through Sunday. Taking the reins this year is Joey Sweeney, a notable local writer, musician and founder of Philebrity.com. In the spirit of festivals past, the lineup he and his collaborators pulled together is very eclectic, including not only author readings but comedy (local favorite Juliet Hope Wayne), music (the Bibilodiscotheque Dance Party oughta be a good show) and visual art (something Mural Arts put together called the Mobile Campfire). When City Paper featured Sweeney on its cover earlier this fall, one theme that kept coming up was “fun” – as in how author readings were typically stuffy, but 215 Festival was something more alive. We swapped e-mails with Sweeney this week to get his thoughts on keeping that campfire burning as the festival prepares to re-launch.
The Key: So it’s your first time steering the ship at this festival, which I imagine is a way more intense undertaking than just sponsoring or presenting. How are you holding up?
Joey Sweeney: I’m a little crispy for sure, but in the best way: I’m super excited for the festival, and have had some really great help along the way, including Noelle Egan, Mary Richardson Graham and Elisa Ludwig, who are all 215 Fest veterans – as well as all of our sponsor and partner organizations. Any time I’ve been freaking out, they’ve stepped in and made any boo-boo’s better. There haven’t even been that many, to be honest — working on the 215 Fest has been a universally positive experience. I think absence really did make the heart grow fonder, and people are very excited about it.
TK: There’s a great mix of events – music, comedy, film screenings – in addition to readings and discussions. Is the thought to get people to interact with cultural scenes outside of their own sphere? Like “hey, music person, you might not normally go to a poetry reading, but you’ll probably dig it”?
JS: Thank you! I think that definitely nails the spirit of the thing — as well as the notion that, if you’re a creative person, you are to some degree always working with words. And that if you appreciate art in any form, you also appreciate words. For this year’s fest, we were also really trying to both re-introduce the original vibe of the festival — which is a pretty freewheeling, anything-can-happen, pure creative expression mode — and also establish some new traditions, like this Mural Arts Mobile Campfire thing…
TK: What’s exactly is the Mobile Campfire that Mural Arts is staging throughout the festival? Will marshmallows be involved?
JS:… ahaha. OK, so, in my original dream for this year’s 215 Fest, I wanted to actually do bonfire readings — inspired by Joe Strummer’s legendary campfires at Glastonbury. But of course, one of the first things I realized when we started to put the Festival together is that A) this is very dangerous and B) highly illegal. But then Leah Murphy at Viaduct Green suggested, ‘Well, why don’t you do something with light that mimics a campfire’s glow?’ — which I thought was a great idea. So we pitched it to Mural Arts, who’ve been doing a lot of cool things with light sculptures lately, and we all teamed up with the artist Juan Dimida, and boom! It all came together.
So now we have this portable, LED-powered campfire art object thingy, and throughout the festival, we’re going to be doing readings around the neighborhood in various pop-up outdoor locales. It’s hard to say how it will go, but I know for sure it will do one thing very successfully: MAKE MEMORIES.
TK: There’s a lot of focus on the festival being set entirely in the Eraserhood this year. Why is that location important?
JS: I think it’s important for a few reasons: One is that this neighborhood actually does have a strong place in Philadelphia’s fictive or imaginational landscape. David Lynch lived and took inspiration for Eraserhead here. The great crime writer David Goodis wandered these streets looking for ideas. Poe himself lived just a few blocks out of here.
Another is that a lot of exciting stuff is happening here right now: the excitement about the Reading Viaduct, new venues like Underground Arts, and just a lot of great energy — we’re honored to be the first festival to really come in and truly utilize as much of the neighborhood as we can. Still another reason is that we wanted to make the 215 Festival geographically compact, so that people could bounce from one place to another with great ease. It seems like that’s the only way you can really cultivate a festival atmosphere.
TK: Which event(s) are you most excited to present?
JS: The Mural Arts Mobile Campfire readings for sure, just because they call on people to give themselves over to being goofy and a little bit brave at the same time. It’s a lot to ask, for sure, but I think the payoff will be a really cool experience. And of course the big headliners like Cabinet of Wonders, Damien Echols and John Hodgman, but also the David Kessler/Lord Whimsy Pines thing and the YA Saturday and… all of it. I am stoked for all of it. That is my final answer.
TK: Will you / Philebrity be back for 215 Festival 2013?
JS: Undoubtedly, unless I totally mess up and somehow manage to bring great shame to the 215 Festival; a crime for which I would punish myself with nothing less than seppuku. Look it up. It’s not pretty. That’s how strong my love is.
The 215 Festival kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. with a reading by Buzz Bissinger and the Mural Arts mobile campfire at 319 N. 11th Street, followed by the West Philadelphia Orchestra’s Balkan dance party at Underground Arts. The Festival runs through Sunday, November 4. For more, check out the full schedule here.