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Exploring the Unknown

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Iowa City is set to kick off one of its newest community festivals since 2015: Witching Hour. From Friday, October 20, to Saturday, October 21, the collaboration between the Englert Theatre and Little Village magazine will host writers, producers, musicians, and comedians and more downtown.

Among those set to perform are comedian Aparna Nancherla from Master of None and Love; Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale; and Brooklyn-based indie rock band Beach Fossils.

“Our slogan is ‘Trust us,’” said Amanda West, Co-director of Witching Hour. “It’s called ‘Witching Hour’; it’s in October; it’s kinda mysterious—but behind the scenes, we have this goal to inspire.”

West primarily helps with programming, marketing, and production of the festival. After a yearlong maternity leave, she returned with a new goal: Not just showing performances that are already built for big audiences, but using music and comedy to show individuals’ processes of making new work.

“There’s a whole process that goes into it. We’ve done public calls for people to share what they’d like to present, to bring forward deep issues and host discussions around them,” said West.

With access to numerous publishers and agencies, Witching Hour has the opportunity to pursue its underground agenda. The team purposefully seeks obscure names, foregoing concrete proposals for instead the creative credibility to do something that few others are.

“We say, ‘Look, we want people that nobody’s heard of before, but someone we can afford who’s gonna blow up in two years’”, said Matt Steele, publisher of Little Village and a producer of Witching Hour.

Even while featuring scholars, artists, and cultural ‘top-thinkers’, hosting a diverse lineup remains a key for the team. Steele recalls putting together 2017’s lineup with Englert director Andre Perry.

“There was a moment early in the summer when we were about a week past our deadline to announce to lineup,” said Steele. “[Andre] sent an email to everyone saying, ‘We have to push the announcement back —indefinitely —until we’ve addressed the gender imbalance in our lineup’.”

The team was supportive and agreed to correct the problem in the following two weeks.

“That was important to me,” Steele said. “I called Andre and told him, ‘I think that’s the way it should be.’”

“We don’t say it much in our marketing department,” said West, “But if you look deeply into the lineup, what we’re trying to do is really inspire the community to pursue their own creative work.”

Steele says this creative work can come in different forms, from personal development to understanding what it means to be human.

“There’s a creative process driving most fields, and it’s not limited to art,” Steele said. “People in Midwestern mindsets may not like to call themselves artists, or think of their work as creative. “But it’s a major misnomer to think of farmers as non-creative. That’s not true.”

A running theme for 2017’s artists is American history. Although a little tongue-in-cheek, says Steele, the “laziest country” is complicated.

“We’ve worked to find people this year who confront deep psychological conditions of American culture, advancing conversations around gender, race, technology, and the environment,” he said. “We even have a video opera about global warming.”

Katie Roche, Development Director for the Englert, oversees individual giving to the WH and sponsorship.

 “I think we are a deeply curious and engaged community,” Roche said in an email. “Witching Hour has, for the three years it has been around, been a reflection of the interests of our community, as well as a challenge to dig more deeply into less-familiar territory.”

Witching Hour has been described it as ‘America in 2017’ and ‘the event version of a speakeasy.’ With a vast network of attendees, figuring out what it means for Iowa City when a gathering of 2,000 people wouldn’t be there otherwise—is complex.

Nonprofit arts and culture are a $79.8 million industry, according to the Iowa Cultural Corridor, a partnership of Midwestern cultural organizations. The industry supports more than 2,761 full-time equivalent jobs, generating over $7.4 million in local and state revenue.

From a 2012 study, this also includes the Englert, whose total impact is more than 2.15 million.

Arts and Economic Prosperity IV defies a common misconception that arts and culture are supported at the expense of local economic development. In fact, it proves an industry that supports jobs and serves as a vital part of local tourism.

With a one-day pass of $40 and a weekend pass of $65, Witching Hour’s admission fee is humbling for its long-term outcome.

Festivals can function as umbrellas, guiding participants to new art and ideas. When community members attend even one event, they’re entering a contract to do more than just show up—but to instead participate with curiosity, critique, and attentiveness.

But it doesn’t have to be as lofty as all that, said Roche. “You can just come, nervous, excited, wondering what you’re getting ourselves into and you’ll leave with a better understanding of how we wrestle imagery, words, and thoughts from the unknown.”

Witching Hour doesn’t feature any one big headliner. Its cultural impacts require people to attend, even if they may not know what the festival truly is. It’s unlikely for one to go to Witching Hour and hear their favorite song played, but instead hear a song that’ll debut on a singer’s first album.

“When you don’t know anyone in the lineup, that’s on purpose, because here’s an opportunity to come and know emerging people that will have bigger and bigger names in years to come,” said West. “Once you see them, you’ll be really glad you did.”