Lawnya Vawnya’s IRL Return Puts the Audience First

Lawya Vawnya feels a little different from other festivals.

First, they consider—really consider—the experience of the audience.

This year’s festival happened in person. After two years of film screenings, concerts, and theatre enjoyed via a screen in my living room, I was excited to see live music with other people. Being in a tight, crowded sea of bodies was one of the experiences I’ve missed the most, but I also approached the festival with apprehension. I had things to do the following week; this wasn’t the time to get hit with the latest wave of Covid. Luckily, this is the kind of thinking/planning that Lawnya Vawnya thrives at.

“We know that people are still nervous, so we made sure to include events that people can enjoy at home,” marketing coordinator Nora de Mariaffi told The Independent. “Not everyone is ready for a rowdy show, so it’s nice to have other offerings.”

I decided to attend the events that would work for the Covid nervous. I watched the Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documentary and the Q & A with Renee Sharpe, attended the Riddlefence event at Bannerman, the merch fair, a comic-making workshop, and the closing night show with the consistently excellent Phlegm Fatales.

The programming committee didn’t just consider the Covid nervous. On the Lawnya Vawnya website, I noticed that each venue contained information regarding wheelchair access and the availability of gender-neutral washrooms. The washrooms are described in detail (tall stalls vs. short stalls etc.), and how wheelchair users can enter different buildings is mapped out clearly.

Finally, Lawnya Vawnya organizers stressed safety. The NL Sexual Health Crisis and Prevention Centre was present at many of the events; they gave out STD kits and free Covid rapid tests and were there in case any audience members felt anxious or unsafe. Operations Manager Libby Dane told The Independent that having the presence of groups like this makes a big difference.

“Someone who feels unsafe may not want to share that experience with the Lawnya Vawnya organizers; having this outside presence helps people feel safe, and we’re all about that,” she said.

“Plus, they were giving out free rapid tests,” Dane added with a grin. “I mean, those are like thirty bucks at the store.”

Lawnya Vawnya 12 took audience safety and accessibility seriously. Photo: Andie Bulman.

Lawnya Vawnya Thrives Off a Spirit of Collaboration

Lawnya Vawnya partnered with the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, First Light St. John’s Friendship Centre, Eastern Edge, Riddlefence, and St. Micheal’s Printshop. That’s a lot of collaborations.

“We’ve worked hard to build these relationships, and we think the festival is better for it,” de Mariaffi explained. “I love that there’s music, but I also love that we offer print workshops and that there’s a merch fair, all-ages events, and panel discussions. There’s something for everyone.”

This collaboration works. Screening the Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documentary was an idea put forth by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. Following the film, there was an (incredibly moving) Q & A with the filmmaker Celeste Ball and Renee Sharpe. This was available for festival goers to watch from home for 24 hours.

The documentary is fantastic.

It’s about the life of X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene (or Marianne Joan Ellitio-Said), and it highlights her struggles with cultural identity, mental illness, and fame as she struggles to find her place in the early London punk scene. Styrene was the first woman of color in this punk scene and was subjected to A LOT of veiled racism. She died of metastatic breast cancer in 2011, and the documentary is very much told through the eyes of her daughter Celeste Ball—with whom she had an extremely fraught relationship.

The film is primarily archival footage and some B-roll shots of urban landscapes. I Am a Cliché is not unique because of the camerawork; this is a documentary that’s very driven by story instead. And the story is sad and moving and important.

One minor quibble, I wish that the film and Q & A with Sharpe had been available for the entirety of the festival and not just for a single day. The conversation about parents with mental illness was something I wanted to watch again, the kind of conversation you can glean more from on a second viewing, and it was unavailable so quickly.

Next, I attended the Riddlefence event.

Riddlefence and the festival have been partnering for some time now, and it’s another collaboration that works beautifully. Full disclosure: I’m the co-editor of the Creative Non-Fiction, Features, and Reviews section, and some writers I’ve worked with were reading their pieces aloud. 

Obvious bias aside, it was a fantastic event.

Hosted by Megan Gail Coles (who’s really funny, btw), the event featured readings with both emerging and experienced writers. I loved that the organizers of the event didn’t present the writers alphabetically or thematically—instead, there was this arbitrary, spontaneous feeling of discovery with each reading. I found myself watching people watch the writers, and seeing other people process the work was extraordinary. 

A poem by Douglas Walbourne-Gough stood out. It was about presenting his grandfather with a fish. It’s pretty hard to describe the power of a poem, but it reverberated around the room, transmitting its own signal—a real treat. I did have a minor quibble with this event. I wish there had been more time for questions about the work. I think it would have been fun to hear more about each writer’s process and to have a round table discussion with the writers at the end of the event. Again, a pretty minor thing, and something I assume that the planning committee nixed for good reasons that I haven’t thought of yet.

Lawnya Vawnya usually has some all-ages events. The music crawl, this year’s show at the Masonic Temple (which also had a bar for folks looking for that), and most of the panels are open to people of all ages. I wanted to attend at least one of the all-ages offerings and landed on the comic jam because drawing alongside people is my idea of a waking nightmare, and I wanted to see how it felt. 

The jam was, surprisingly, really soothing and not frightening at all. The event took place at Eastern Edge Art Gallery and was run by marketing coordinator Nora de Mariaffi.

“I grew up attending art jams,” she explained. “My dad creates comics, and his friends often host comic-making workshops or jams at bars, so I thought it would be a good offering. Something a little slower that challenges people to create.”

Scenes from the Lawnya Vawnya 12 Comic Jam. Photo: Andie Bulman.

The comic jam was lovely. In my grown-up life, it’s not often that I get to sit around with strangers and draw and color and share ideas with ambient music playing softly in the background. When I left the event, a group of teenagers was shuffling in, and there was something so charming about that.

The last event I attended was the closing party, hosted by the Phlegm Fatales, who put on an actual musical. It’s almost hard to describe in the tiny space I have left in this review, but it was better, more creative, and more thought out than most of the Rusicals you’d see on Drag Race. There were elaborate costumes, bright colors, and references to a slew of horror movies. The music was terrific. I’m writing a separate piece devoted to this event because it was unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it just deserves its own word count. 

This event was a popular one, but it was held at the SPACE, and there was, in fact, a ton of space. It didn’t feel too crowded at all. I could see free rapid tests and boxes of masks, and I watched staff sanitize different surfaces. Kudos to the organizer of Lawnya Vawnya for excellently choosing the right venue for the right events, offering an incredibly diverse program, making thoughtful partnerships, and keeping everyone safe.

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