In years past, The Cabin attached its annual gala to its highest-profile Readings & Conversations Series presentations of the year. In 2018, the guest of honor was Evicted author Matthew Desmond; in 2019, it was The Dutch House author Ann Patchett. When event organizers started thinking about what they’d do in 2020, they faced a problem, namely: how to give donors and Cabin supporters a premium experience that wasn’t, you know, in person.
“That obviously wasn’t going to work this year,” said The Cabin Development Manager Joel Wayne. “We saw the writing on the wall.”
Rather than cancel the gig, Wayne et al went on the offensive. They got creative. They decided to deliver. In 2020, The Cabin will once again make its gala the cherry on top of a readings-style event, one of the most expansive and accessible in its history, the Words Progress Administration, on Friday, Dec. 4. WPA will pipe pre-recorded segments by some of the most popular R&C speakers to Boise over the web on a pay-what-you-can basis for 90 minutes of world-class literary delights. Gala “attendees” will get a live Q&A with Song of Achilles and Circe author Madeline Miller, and some (virtual) face time with John Grisham—yeah, that John Grisham.
The Cabin has always fought to keep the R&C series in reach of the general public. In the past, it has filled The Egyptian Theatre and even the Morrison Center with big-name authors and speakers like Desmond, Gloria Steinem and Ta-Nehisi Coates. This year, as events moved online, the new, virtual format scratched out ticketing limitations. Guests like Patti Smith and Barbara Kingsolver have read from the recording studio and home in the woods, respectively, to Boiseans sitting on their couches or lying on their beds.
WPA is an extension of that concept, but instead of hosting a single speaker, it will consist of a collection of pre-recorded readings (and maybe a musical performance or two) by Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, Idaho-based musician and author Josh Ritter, Lincoln in the Bardo author George Saunders, the aforementioned Madeline Miller, The House on Mango Street author Sandra Cisneros, crime author and Bones inspiration Kathy Reichs, surrealist author Aimee Bender, Idaho author Emily Ruskovich, TransAtlantic author Colum McCann, Swamplandia! author Karen Russell, Florida author Lauren Groff and a handful of local writers. The whole thing is slated to take about 90 minutes.
The idea came from an event held early in the pandemic by Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, which, for a modest fee, gave digital attendees access to a series of 10-minute readings recorded in the authors’ homes and broadcast via Zoom.
“It was a 90-minute program and it just flew by,” Wayne said about watching the readings. “Some didn’t even read their own work. So I thought, this could be an interesting format. We have good relationships with people who have come for R&C, and I floated that idea as something attached to the gala. … We started putting feelers out there, and it was surprising how many people got back to us—and really, really quickly.”
The gala, which will take place immediately prior to WPA, is, both in content and in price, a bit extra. For $125, donors will get a three-course meal from Crave, flowers, wine, a cocktail you mix yourself (with the help from a how-to video recorded from The Cabin itself by Los Angeles-based mixologist and Eat Your Drink author Matthew Miancaniello), a collection of books and some extra swag delivered to their homes, and for 45 minutes, they’ll enjoy a live Q&A with Miller, who was the last R&C speaker; and bestselling author John Grisham, who may also conduct a Q&A, and/or read from his October 2020 novel A Time for Mercy, which is follow-up to his novel A Time to Kill. Grisham, Wayne said, has long been on The Cabin’s wishlist for R&C speakers and has expressed a desire to one day meet Idaho author Anthony Doerr, but the stars have never aligned such that he could be brought to the City of Trees.
“This would be great, but it never quite worked out. We have specific dates that we have to fill the Morrison Center, and depending on whether an author is on a book tour or when he’s available, if he can’t make it work, we just have to move on,” Wayne said.
This year, the gala will be a tux-over-sweats kind of evening, but the prestige of the event has not diminished. The cream of the night, however, will still be the WPA, which organizers hope will introduce new people to what The Cabin has to offer.
“It feels like a better opportunity to show people what we’re about,” Wayne said. “It’s a chance to widen our net a bit more.”