On a recent Friday afternoon, Genevieve caught up with Fiona Razvi, Festival Director of Wimbledon BookFest to learn about the magic behind the festival and discuss how it has grown to become one of Wimbledon’s most talked-about events of the year.
Wimbledon BookFest is branded as 10 Magical Days on Wimbledon Common, so where did the magic initially begin?
Wimbledon BookFest works with schools all year round, so 10 days on Wimbledon Common is only part of the magic. The magic really begins by putting the audience (our community) in contact with the authors and creators, and then bringing them all together. There is also something special about the temporary nature of our set-up because what may be considered as a piece of land on one day, is transformed by a couple of tents and turns into a huge party the next day. In the same way that Wimbledon Common is owned by the community, Wimbledon BookFest is also owned by the community, and it is these connections that create the magic.
Wimbledon BookFest is a registered charity; did you begin as a charity from day one?
We have always been a charity; it has always been about the community and not financial gain. Tony Kane and I previously worked at Time & Leisure and kicked this off on the side of our journalist jobs. We both wanted to be engaged with the community of Merton and often spent time talking to and interviewing local musicians and artists. It was after attending the Hay Festival in Wales, probably one of the biggest book festivals out there, that we decided that we wanted to replicate this concept closer to home.
As a cultural and educational charity, our ongoing charitable efforts are delivered through a lot of our educational work which is borough wide. We engage over 70 schools within Merton in our annual Young Writers Competition, and whilst it is still growing, approximately 62 schools have taken part this year. Each year, the prize giving ceremony for this competition takes place at Wimbledon Theatre which is another valued space within our community. We have run this competition for the past 13 years and have worked with lots of different partners including the Merton Music Foundation, Wimbledon Film Club, Jigsaw Players and much more. Being a festival allows us to work with many different local groups and organisations, and from venues to our partners you can see that everything is about giving back to our community.
What would you say your role, or the role of Wimbledon BookFest is in the community?
Whilst Wimblecomm is a hub, Wimbledon BookFest is also a hub but in a different way. Through our activities, we connect schools, the public sector, businesses, and the local council. Some of the organisations that we have worked with most recently include Merton Libraries and the Merton Chamber of Commerce.
Throughout the year, we put on over 100 events! Earlier on in the year, we visit publishers and pitch for them to feature in the festival. We always celebrate World Book Day, and we run our Robert Graves poetry competition which is awarded to the winner(s) during the 10 days on the Common. This year, we also launched our first Spring BookFest which is now being scheduled for every 2 years.
For residents, we provide entertainment for all to enjoy and events are already selling out for Wimbledon BookFest this year. People tend to buy tickets to more than one event and have said that BookFest is something to look forward to and something that lifts their spirits when they come back from holiday. To help us run the festival, we have over 150 stewards, of which many are volunteers. A lot of our volunteers come from local secondary schools, but also include stay at home parents, people who are retired, and generally people from all different walks of life. They really make it happen.
Having been founded by yourself and Tony Kane in 2006, how have you managed to keep the festival growing?
The festival continues to grow because of the love that the team have for it. Whether they are on the board, or part of the programming, most of the team have been with us for the entire 13 years. As a charity, sponsorship accounts for a third of our income in addition to support from grants, Friends, donations and ticket sales. Considering this, raising funds is always a part of our work and is one of my main tasks alongside scheduling.
Earlier you mentioned the large volunteer input that you have every year and how fundamental these volunteers are to Wimbledon BookFest. It would be interesting to know how you maintain so much interest from volunteers.
With Wimbledon BookFest, volunteering is not a year-round commitment and once volunteering, you quite easily become a part of the festival. Our volunteers tend to be local so the Common is their land, they are proud of what we’re doing, and they want to be a part of making it happen. When volunteering with us, they can see the direct consequence of their actions; they are at the front welcoming attendees, they are handling the tickets, and they are very much a part of the experience.
How can people get involved with BookFest, from local writers to people interested in volunteering?
We always try to program local authors and encourage them to do something on their home turf. Writing workshops are very common to Bookfest although there isn’t one this year. In terms of getting involved, we simply invite people to buy a ticket, steward, or even enter a competition.
Finally, where would you like to see Wimbledon BookFest in the next 5 years?
For us, it’s not about expansion, it’s about continuing to be engaging and that is an artistic challenge. We always want to make the community interested, so by wowing them every year, we hope that we can continue to make them want to be a part of it. Young people are also very important to us, so we take pride in having a Wimbledon BookFest Student Panel who work with sixth formers from local schools to programme and run events that interest a younger target market.
It is evident that Wimbledon BookFest is still very much an event by the community for the community, and one that I look forward to engaging with further as we step into 10 days of magic on Wimbledon Common on the 3rd October. Click here for more information on this year’s events, and visit their official website at https://www.wimbledonbookfest.org.
Written by Genevieve Etienne-Farrell