Arts and Entertainment

A Quintessential New York Cultural Tradition

Director of The New Yorker Festival Katherine Stirling discussed the mission, making, and content of the annual cultural celebration in an interview with The Spectator.

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The New Yorker Festival has become a much anticipated cultural event held each October since its inception in 1999. Over a three-day period, the editors and writers of The New Yorker engage in conversations with cultural luminaries from the worlds of literature, the arts, politics, science, music, and entertainment. Interviews are conducted with literary figures on their new books and the creative process, directors and actors present their upcoming works, political advisors and commentators opine on the current state of the country, and singers and musicians perform and provide insight into their inspirations. Notable past guests include Toni Morrison, Billie Eilish, Anthony Fauci, Steve Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and SNL cast members. The Spectator sat down with the Festival’s director, Katherine Stirling, over Zoom to get an inside look behind the scenes of this colorful fall tradition.

Since the Central Park poetry readings of its inaugural event, the mission of the Festival has always been to transform The New Yorker magazine into a “three-dimensional form, so readers can engage directly with The New Yorker, the kind of journalism it practices, and the voices it amplifies,” Stirling commented. “We like having a mix of household names and people who are specialists in their fields or just people involved in the culture, in the zeitgeist, that seem appropriate. Who are the people shaping the world we live in?” 

The Festival typically has an audience of up to 20,000 people, most of whom are New Yorkers. The Festival’s events not only offer readers an opportunity for Q&As with speakers, but also the ability to share a room with cultural figures and be a part of a dialogue happening in real time.

Planning for the Festival begins in January, when logistics like venue locations and special guests are determined. In the spring, the staff starts to extend invitations to attendees. As the director of the Festival, Stirling’s primary responsibility is to develop a lineup that captures the magazine’s breadth of topics, from cultural reporting to politics to humor. The program is released in early September when tickets go on sale to the public. The average ticket price for events is $49 for general admission and $39 for student and educator tickets, though many past interviews and panels can be accessed on YouTube and online.

Despite the Festival’s wide-reaching subject matter, it isn’t themed: “We try to cast as wide a net as we can, but there are different things that come into focus each year. Certainly in election years, there’s more politics,” Stirling revealed. For instance, during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, a panel discussion on the female vote was conducted, titled “The Fifty-one Per Cent,” and featuring Republican strategist and pollster Kellyann Conway and Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards. The majority of the Festival, though, “involves taking stock of things that are kind of eternal—things that are always with our culture, like science, the environment, politics, literature, and the arts,” Stirling continued.

Stirling expressed that the two moments from last year’s New Yorker Festival that she found most memorable were an interview with writer and comedian Quinta Brunson on her show Abbott Elementary (2021-) and David Remnick’s interview with Bono. “It’s always exciting to showcase someone who is a bit newer in the cultural scene,” Stirling said of Brunson.

When Stirling took over during the pandemic, the event had to fully transition to online. While this detracted from the Festival’s characteristic live experiences, broadcasting meant that the “program didn’t have to be geographically tethered.” In 2021, British primatologist Jane Goodall and Israeli author Yuval Harari took part in the virtual panels from halfway around the world. “But these [past] two years, [the Festival has been] back in person, and that is what people respond to—being in the same room as people they admire and want to hear from,” Stirling explained.

The Festival’s lineup this year includes filmmaker Spike Lee, ballerina Misty Copeland, singer-songwriter David Byrne, and writers Judy Blume, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ling Ma, and Michael Pollan. Stirling commented that The New Yorker staff wanted to touch on the omnipresent AI issue in the news, but frame it from an angle interesting to The New Yorker’s audience. Writer Ted Chiang and Professor Daniel Dennett will discuss the philosophy, ethics, and future of artificial intelligence. On a more lighthearted note, the cartoon improv on Sunday evening also may be of interest to Stuyvesant students.

As The New Yorker Festival enters its 24th year this October, it has been firmly established as a cultural staple for enthusiasts of the arts, literature, and general intellectual discourse, as well as New Yorkers, of course. “It’s a wonderful way of connecting to our community of New Yorkers who read The New Yorker,” Stirling remarked.