Friday August 10, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Beginning this weekend, downtown Pitts field will be all about singing, speaking, and "slamming" words, with out-of-town visitors and Berkshire County residents alike participating in the fourth annual WordxWord Festival.

Running for eight days starting Saturday, the festival is a celebration of the power of language, with actors, spoken word poets and musicians scheduled to perform in about a dozen venues along North Street and elsewhere downtown.

For Jim Benson, the festival's founder, WordxWord fills a void in the county's performing arts scene by supporting the kinds of artists who he said had not been given much exposure in the past.

"I've never been one to follow the beaten path," Benson said. "We already have successful music and theater festivals, and I thought it would be interesting to bring stuff that is sort of underground to the forefront -- there are a lot of artists out there struggling to be heard."

It's an idea that Benson had for awhile. A local restauranteur who owns and runs yBar, Arizona Pizza Co., and Mission Bar and Tapas, Benson had long hoped to bring spoken word and slam poetry to Pittsfield, but did not decide to make that a reality until he opened Mission in 2008.

By the following April, he began to plan the first WordxWord Festival, which was considerably smaller than it is now. Only three venues were used with the events attracting relatively small crowds. At first, it was a challenge to generate interest and communicate to area residents exactly what the festival was.

"It's difficult to explain the concept to somebody," Benson said. "No one knows how to pronounce the title of the festival, and people don't always know what we mean when we say it is a festival about the written, spoken, and the sung." What the festival did have was the ability to attract renowned artists to Pittsfield. In its first year, the festival featured popular slam poet Taylor Mali, who Benson had met several years earlier. With each successive year, the number of high-profile performers has grown along with interest in the event. This year, Mali will be one of nine featured spoken word artists, and there will also be events that give local artists the opportunity to perform..

"Last year, we saw the first evidence that word about the festival was spreading outside of our area," Benson said, adding that he expects to see another significant bump in attendance this year.

Adding to interest is the fact that all official WordxWord events are completely free, with only three events sponsored by venues that are "friends of the festival" charging admission.

Benson said the operating costs will probably exceed last year's roughly $40,000 budget. Funding comes from donations from area businesses and individual donors.

The festival received a financial boost from Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Develop ment, which gave $3,000 to the festival from a competitive eight-year grant the city received from the Mass achusetts Cultural Council. For Megan Whilden, the office's director, WordxWord exemplifies the kind of growth that she said has helped put the city on the map as one of the state's main cultural destinations.

"The festival is so innovative and very creative, and does so much for Pittsfield," Whilden said. "Every time someone comes to the city for a spoken word event or a concert, they discover what else is downtown, from the new shops to the restaurants. It brings positive attention to the city."

And for Whilden, one of the festival's most appealing aspects is its celebration of the area's rich history with the arts and writing.

"We are all using words all the time, and the language that we use and the words that we use can be so powerful and transformative, funny and surprising," she said, adding that the festival "makes the community more aware and excited about language and literacy."

An examination of the use of language is exactly what the women behind the Pittsfield-based WAM Theatre hope to explore over the course of the week. Leigh Strimbeck, artistic adviser and co-founder of the theater company, which is officially an artist-in-residence at the festival, will be directing and conceiving a performance piece called "like/unlike" that will explore the influence of social media on the lives of women.

With no script written, Strimbeck will work with four professional actors during rehearsals open to the public at the Upstairs of Spice Dragon at 297 North St. They will work together to create the piece that will be staged in a workshop performance next Friday at 8 p.m.

"The festival is so interesting because how we use words now is changing so rapidly," Strim beck said. "A lot of social media is done through the use of words -- language is how we relate to each other, our choice of language and what words we use really impact how we see each other."


If you're going . . .

Saturday: Opening rooftop party, Greystone Building, North Street, Pittsfield.

Monday-Tuesday: "Page+Stage," poet-to-stage event.

Monday-Friday: Songwriters at The Lantern.

Monday-Friday: WAM Theatre "like/unlike" open rehearsals at the Upstairs at Spice Dragon, North Street, Pittsfield.

Thursday: Third Thursday 'pop-up' poetry events.

Friday: WAM Theatre "like/unlike" at the Upstairs at Spice Dragon, North Street, Pittsfield.

Saturday, Aug. 18: Poetry Slam finals at Shawn's Babershop; Poetry Olympics Finale.

On the Web: For schedule info, visit wxw12.org.