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The New Yorker's Rhonda Sherman

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Rhonda Sherman, The New Yorker's director of special projects, came up with the idea for the magazine to hold a festival of readings and performances 10 years ago, but she didn't have a mandate to put it together until The New Yorker's 75th anniversary in 2000. This year, the third New Yorker Festival is expected to draw 15,000 people to 49 different events in 24 venues around the city from September 27 to 29.

BiZBash: How do you plan the festival's content?

Sherman: [New Yorker editor] David [Remnick] and I work very closely together. All of the conceptualizing for the guts of the festival comes out of this office, in consultation with the editors.

How do you decide how many different events are in the festival?

There were 43 events the first year. Last year there were 52. This year we're looking at 49, which seems to me the right scope—under 50.

Why under 50?

We're packing [the festival] into three days, and my concept was to make it different from other literary festivals, which are more slow-moving, take place over a couple of weeks, and are rather bucolic in their feeling. We're a weekly magazine, and this festival is in New York. So it's a rather action-packed, caffeinated festival. Last year, there was too much going on to figure out what you wanted to do. This year seems to strike the right balance.

How do you choose venues?

Friday night is for fiction, and we have 28 writers reading, and we wanted everything relatively downtown. We looked for venues below 14th Street and went to all the clubs that we could find and checked them out. Our smallest capacity venue is 175 people, and our largest is 400 people. Most of the venues are intimate, and the festival offers a very personal, intimate experience with the writer or artist that you pay to see.

On Saturday, during the day, everything is around 42nd Street, in a 13-block radius in Midtown. Saturday night we go back downtown. On Sunday we start with a free event at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Our afternoon event is a poetry event at Town Hall. And during the day our venues are very particular, because our programming is seven field trips—excursions with writers on one-of-a-kind experiences. Every year I'm open to new venues, as long as they fit in certain geographic boundaries.

How do you find them?

People call us. We also collect information year round on places we read about in the media. We're always looking for unlikely venues.

What's the biggest challenge of the festival?

Making sure it's extremely well-staffed. Once we book the festival and market it, it's all about making sure it runs smoothly. For me, the biggest challenge is booking the talent—figuring out who you want, what the balance needs to be and getting them to say yes.

What are your days like during the festival?

I go to very few events. I race around town saying hello on Friday night, but I really only get to hear one writer at the first shift and one at the second. For me it's more important to get backstage and make sure everyone's happy.

Posted 09.23.02
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