Primadonna Festival has a new home for 2021

Audiences enjoying the first Primadonna Festival in 2019.

Audiences enjoying the first Primadonna Festival in 2019. This year it returns with a new home at the Museum of East Anglian Life - Credit: Adam Razvi

One of Suffolk’s latest events, the Primadonna festival is going ahead this summer, at its new venue in Stowmarket: the Museum of East Anglian Life. 

Primadonna is the first literary festival in the UK to specifically give prominence to the writing of women and non-binary people, as well as artists of all genders, ethnicities and economic status whose voices are not often enough heard in the mainstream. 

Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Primadonna Festival, speaking at the first event in 2019

Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Primadonna Festival, speaking at the first event in 2019 - Credit: Adam Razvi

Co-founder Catherine Riley said: “We focus on writing and reading but we also showcase the best of the arts, from music to film, theatre to comedy. We call it ‘the world as it should be, for one weekend’.

“All ideas, and all kinds of people, are welcome: most especially those that might not think a literary festival is ‘for them’.”

The first Primadonna festival was held in 2019 and featured such leading names including Bernardine Evaristo, Elif Shafak, Luke Jennings, Diana Evans, Katy Brand, Sinead Gleeson, Louise Doughty and Konnie Huq.

Audiences enjoying the first Primadonna Festival in 2019.

Audiences enjoying the first Primadonna Festival in 2019. This year it returns with a new home at the Museum of East Anglian Life - Credit: Adam Razvi

Last year the Covid lockdown forced the event to go online but the programme still featured such distinguished guests as Marian Keyes, June Sarpong, Sophie Williams, Mikki Kendall, Michael Donkor, Anneka Harry and Stella Duffy.


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This year, Primadonna will run from July 30 to August 1. The programme features a mix of big names and emerging voices in fiction and non-fiction, as well as comedy, live music, food, performance and more.

The Primadonna Festival is the brainchild of 17 women across the arts, including Kit de Waal, Sandi Toksvig, Catherine Mayer, Jude Kelly, Dr Shola MosShogbamimu and Athena Stevens.

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“This year will be really special,” says author and activist Mayer. ‘To the intense joy of the festival add the sheer delight of interacting with other people in real life and real time.

"We’re excited to put on an event that will help lift people after the collective hardship of the past year,’ Mayer continues. ‘There is a wonderful programme in progress and plenty of fantastic talent already confirmed to participate.”

Panel discussions are an important part of the Primadonna Festival

Panel discussions are an important part of the Primadonna Festival - Credit: Adam Razvi

The talent includes Grace Dent and Andi Oliver, queens of the TV top table, who will talk food and much more in an intimate, irreverent conversation that they promise will satisfy all appetites.

Dent said: “Primadonna is one of the UK’s most exciting new cultural events. I cannot think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in July than on stage with my friend Andi Oliver talking and laughing about life, food and the paths that led us here. It’s already in my diary under the heading JOY.”

Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Primadonna Festival, speaking at the first event in 2019

Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Primadonna Festival, speaking at the first event in 2019 - Credit: Adam Razvi

Shola Mos-Shogbamimu (famously Piers Morgan’s nemesis and author of This is Why I Resist) will feature in ‘Piers Off’, a session looking at resistance and changing the narrative, taking down a target or two along the way. And journalist and author Bee Rowlatt, who led the campaign for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green – which became one of the most contentious pieces of public art this century – will talk all things monumental with historian Alex von Tunzelmann and other experts in an event on the problematic issue of public statuary.

Additional names confirmed so far are Exciting Times author and Women’s Prize longlistee Naoise Dolan; Michele Roberts, author of 12 highly acclaimed novels and former Booker shortlistee; Adele Parks, author 20 bestselling novels in 20 years; anti-racism advocate and activist Sophie Williams, author of Anti Racist Ally and the upcoming Millennial Black; and writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy, author of 16 novels, 65 short stories, and 14 plays. 

Catherine Mayer, who has written Good Grief, a memoir about her widowhood at the start of the pandemic, will urge a fresh approach to grief, all the more urgent at a time not only of widespread bereavement but other forms of loss.

Funny women will also feature, with Helen Lederer in conversation with publisher Lisa Milton (one of the festival co-founders) in a no-holds-barred confessional covering the highs and lows of these two indomitable women’s careers.

As before, Primadonna will be lining up top talent from across the book world – including agents, publishers, promoters and journalists – enabling attendees to directly pitch their work or ask industry figures for advice. Two aspiring writers who went to the first Primadonna came away with book deals, and one of the virtual festival’s participants now writes for Radio 4’s NewsJack under the mentorship of Sioned William, a Primadonna co-founder and BBC Radio 4 commissioning editor for comedy.

Opening up access to literature and the arts is one of the festival’s main aims. It will run its own Creative Writing ‘Masters’ programme, with teaching modules delivered by Kit de Waal, Shelley Silas, Christy Lefteri and other celebrated authors. With Creative Writing MAs now an established route to getting published, the Primadonna MA won’t require the financial and time commitment of an academic course, but it will not stint on the quality of its teaching. Or of its certificates.

“We are putting together a weekend of big ideas and small wonders,” says festival director Catherine Riley. “We see Primadonna as ‘the world as it should be, for one weekend’ (also the name of the Primadonna podcast) and we’re working hard to make it three days of creativity, joy and laughter that might change more lives. That’s pretty good for the price of a festival ticket.”

This year’s Primadonna festival takes place from Friday July 30– Sunday August 1 at the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket. Tickets are on sale online.

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