With the assistance of what she calls a “great team,” Arts & Letters Live director of programming Carolyn Bess has solidified the reputation of Dallas’ premiere performing arts series during her 10-year tenure.
As the scope of Arts & Letters Live has grown, the link between its featured authors and performers and the Dallas Museum of Art’s collections and exhibitions has become stronger, broadening its appeal far beyond the bastion of bookworms who snap up tickets every year.
The 2013 program, which kicks off January 17, is particularly eclectic, offering something for everyone from literary politicos to collectors of artistic pop-up books to fans of such crowd-pleasing authors as Margaret Atwood, George Saunders and David Sedaris. Bess shared a sneak peek at what else to expect in this exciting series.
CultureMap: There seems to be a very careful balance between all of the featured authors and performers this year. Do you schedule each season with this in mind, or is this one unusual in its “something for everyone” approach?
Carolyn Bess: Every year we aim for there to be events that appeal to everyone’s taste and reading preferences — no matter whether you prefer literary fiction, nonfiction, memoir, humor, history, biography, poetry, short stories, art, music or dance.
Woven into all of Arts & Letters Live’s programs is an emphasis on and celebration of the creative process; these experiences allow people to hear the inside scoop from authors and performers about how they came to write a particular book or choreograph a new dance inspired by art.
CM: Who do you anticipate being the year’s hottest ticket and why? Is anything sold out already?
CB: Nothing is sold out yet, though tickets are selling well. Even though David Sedaris has done annual appearances with us for the past five years, he is still very much a hot ticket because he reads new and unpublished material every year.
He loves to test out his new essays in front of live audiences and make notes about what people find funny. We still have tickets available for David Sedaris. This year it is held at the Winspear Opera House.
Other hot tickets this year include Margaret Atwood and Temple Grandin. We’re exploring moving both events to larger venues downtown because we’ve almost surpassed our seating capacity at the DMA. Because they are still at four months away, we don’t want to turn away people who want to attend.
Atwood is a literary icon and an amazing speaker. Many people are interested in hearing Grandin, both for her insights into autism and her work with animals.
CM: Can you talk about how the series has evolved and continues to evolve?
CB: Arts & Letters Live is celebrating its 22nd year in 2013, and we’re so thankful that it has developed a loyal fan base in North Texas. In the early years, the core programs were the Distinguished Writers series and Texas Bound programs. Our founding producer emerita, Kay Cattarulla, co-founded Selected Shorts and got it on public radio when she worked for Symphony Space in New York City.
When she moved to Dallas in 1992 and fell in love with Texas literature, she gave the Selected Shorts model a Texas twist, and our Texas Bound series was born. It features Texas-connected actors reading short fiction by Texas-connected authors. She developed relationships with iconic actors and authors, such as Tommy Lee Jones, Kathy Bates, Doris Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden and many others. That series continues to be popular today, and we’re always finding and featuring new actors with Texas connections.
People won’t want to miss the February 11 Texas Bound event with actors Matt Bomer (who plays Neal Caffrey on the hit series White Collar) and Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, who has appeared in over 100 movies and 200 television shows (Glee, Groundhog Day, Seinfeld).
I also think it’s important to commission new work from writers inspired by art in the collections. This year, we’re commissioning two award-winning poets, Paul Muldoon and Nikky Finney, to each write a new poem in response to a work of art that strikes their fancy; they will read them as part of their event for Arts & Letters on April 3 in celebration of National Poetry Month.
I’ve also worked on expanding our programs featuring children’s and young adult authors and illustrators.
CM: What is the most surprising performance you’ve had in recent years?
CB: At radio icon Ira Glass’ event, I was surprised by the intricacy of the production process and the layers of information, stories and music he seams together in such a seemingly effortless way.
In terms of a performance, I was mesmerized when the Booker T. Washington Dance Repertory Company created an original suite of dances inspired by the “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor” exhibition. They worked for a month with artist-in-residence Jessica Lang, a dancer and choreographer; the depth of the students’ understanding of Matisse’s art and their beautiful expression and interpretation of it with their bodies was a night that will stand out in my memory for a long time.
Lastly, here’s the scoop on the most surprising thing that has happened at an Arts & Letters Live book signing: A female fan, who already had a geisha tattooed on her thigh, asked Arthur Golden, author of the bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, to autograph her thigh alongside the geisha. He blushed a bit but agreed to do it!