What to look forward to at Witching Hour 2018

Witching Hour

Various Venues — Friday, Oct. 12-Saturday, Oct 13
Passes: $20-55

Punk rock pioneer Richard Hell. — photo by Rebecca Smeyne

Now in its fourth year, Witching Hour, the festival dedicated to exploring the unknown and engaging the imagination, returns this year on October 12 and 13, 2018. Presented once again by the Englert Theatre and Little Village Magazine, the program features cutting edge comedians (including Janelle James) as well as musicians whose undeniable talent is accentuated, not diminished, in their giving permission to their particularities (see: Puddles Pity Party). Witching Hour continues to be one of the best-kept treasures in Iowa City’s cultural landscape, providing participants with a curio cabinet of concepts, sounds and perspectives that, in turn, are fodder for conversations throughout the day. It is also one of the few festivals on the scene that prioritizes equal representation among its performers.

As was true in previous years, the festival features discussions with notables from the music scene, who offer a perspective rather than a performance. This unique feature of Witching Hour develops a deeper, different approach to engaging with art. Featuring Richard Hell and Lisa Jane Persky, with nationally recognized music critic (and University of Iowa Communications professor) Kembrew McLeod moderating. Friday night is filled with music, as pass holders are invited to stroll from Gabe’s to the Mill by way of the Englert to check out a variety of musical acts: Julie Byrne and Here Lies Man will delight those looking for new sounds, while the inclusion of Younger, on the cusp of a new record, will reward their ever growing number of local and regional fans.

“I am really excited to see Puddles Pity Party, who has been on my Witching Hour wish list since the festival launched,” said Aly High, Witching Hour marketing director. “Puddles carries the tradition of a sad Pagliacci clown, but reinvents modern cover songs with this singular voice that is warm and sorrowful. His work truly transforms music you thought you knew in a live performance of pure human connection.”

Saturday morning and afternoon of Witching Hour continue to feel like the core of what makes the festival special. This year, the curators have decided to allow participants to engage more deeply in the offerings — and the conversations that inevitably follow — by reducing the number of workshops and presentations offered throughout the day. This single act not only will diminish the number of people who leave early and come late in the hopes of getting a glimpse of a presentation (which generally doesn’t work as well), but it also will allow people attending the workshops to gain a better sense of those around. The schedule has also been rearranged to allow morning presentations to be followed by afternoon workshops led by those who presented in the morning. This approach already feels more intuitive and promises to provide a greater sense of continuity.

“This year, festivalgoers can learn how to have affirmative, informed conversations with sexual partners, better communicate and relate with a loved one who may be struggling or suicidal, build locally-rooted economic justice campaigns, examine the use of space in their creative practices and more,” said High. “No matter what you attend at Witching Hour, you will come away informed and inspired.”

The content this year is less esoteric than in past years, with the focus more on the political rather than the metaphysical. That said, the explorations of economics and the alt-right will satisfy those who desire to know more about national affairs, while more presentations on the erotic and suicide will interest those whose curiosity rests closer to home.

The later afternoon will provide iterations of long standing literary events in Iowa City, including the Writers of Color Reading Series and Notes from the Underground, followed by the comedy headliners and some experimental jazz at Gabe’s. The pacing of the schedule is one that accommodates talking between parts, rather than rushing from one spot to the next. Contemplation requires leisure, and Witching Hour is becoming ever better at making space for that kind of careful thought.

Witching Hour is unusually wise in its expansive treatment of what constitutes art. From a fashion show to a dinner (this year: St. Burch, in honor of Anthony Bourdain), from a pop up photography and record store to a workshop on movement with a choreographer, the ability to experience and think through a truly diverse line up is a gift. The narrowed schedule also means that the festival is more able to include those who would like to come but lack the funds to do so.

“We are attempting to make Witching Hour as accessible as possible to any community member who is open to trying something new, whether that’s a conversation about what our future economy might look like, a searing performance by an emerging comedian or an awesome set of music by a band like Here Lies Man,” said festival director Andre Perry. “One way of doing so is by having a number of free events. The Iowa City Public Library’s sponsorship of the festival for the last four years has made all events there free and open to the public.”

“Also,” Perry continued, “if anyone wants a pass to Witching Hour but this isn’t the right time to pay money for it, we encourage them to stop by [the Englert] box office, where we are happy to provide a complimentary pass to the festival. Making the festival financially accessible is only part of the necessary work. We also work on — and need to get better working on — reaching out to various community organizations and inviting people out to the festival who might not see a connection with the program immediately or even be reticent to engage in anything that’s happening in downtown Iowa City. We’ll just keep working on it. The more we can get different cultural backgrounds and perspectives in the room for Witching Hour the more fulfilling the experience will be for everyone involved.”

High added, “So often today we can feel helpless and adrift. What I love most about Witching Hour is the workshops and presentations we present offer attendees real, tangible actions to take in their daily lives to affect change, open their creative minds, or connect more thoughtfully with their community.”

Overall, 2018 looks to be the most cohesive program that Witching Hour has put together yet — I will hope to see you there.

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