Old Town festival celebrates great American literature

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

On Aug. 18, locals gathered at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park for TwainFest, a free and family-friendly festival.

Produced by San Diego’s Write Out Loud, a live literary performance group, TwainFest offered a smorgasbord of experiences intended to introduce all ages to the joys of 19th-century literary classics and their authors.

Now in its ninth year, TwainFest is named for Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, a U.S. literary hero with an acerbic wit often used to skewer the famous and foolish of his era.

(l to r) A Kamishibai storyteller and an actor portraying author Mark Twain (Photo courtesy of TwainFest)

In addition to Twain, festival-goers enjoyed cleverly fun experiences with an array of works and their authors, including, Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Woman”; Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre short story; beloved poet Emily Dickinson; renowned African-American poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar; “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll; and the children’s poet famously illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, Eugene Field.

The festival grew from a Write Out Loud concert program of Twain works, according to the organization’s artistic director, Veronica Murphy.

Actor Monique Gaffney tells a story (Photo courtesy of TwainFest)

“We realized Twain had a big draw,” Murphy said. “We thought: Twain was from the 1800s, and we had the Old Town state park, and they were happy to help us make [the festival] happen. Chuck Ross, of Old Town’s Fiesta de Reyes, has been one of our financial sponsors from the start. We also get money from the county, the city, several small foundations, and we have partners who provide in-kind things for us. And the library helps us market it. One of the great things about its being free is it’s accessible to anybody. We want anyone — anyone — who is interested to be able to come, so it is completely free.”

Festival events for readers of all ages — and those still working on the alphabet — were included local San Diego actors performing 19th-century stories and poems by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and others; The TwainFest Cakewalk, Needle in a Haystack game for children; Tom Sawyer’s Fence Painting and much more.

Giant puppets of 19th-century literacy roam the park (Photo courtesy of TwainFest)

In particular, the Authors Salon provided a very special opportunity to meet a star-studded list of authors, portrayed by local actors. Visitors to the park’s Cosmopolitan Hotel were greeted by Emily Dickinson, played by Rhianna Basore; Charles Dickens, by Paul Jacques; Mark Twain, by Tim West; Helen Hunt Jackson, by Elizabeth Matthews; Henry David Thoreau, by Steve Smith; Louisa May Alcott, by Melissa Baldwin; and Walt Whitman, by David Cohen.

Additionally, live period music was heard throughout the day, played by the Armory Band on vintage instruments. A Civil War Field Encampment was also featured, which replicated the roles of soldiers and nurses, and provided classes for all ages in fife and drum. Some attendees even dressed up in period attire for 19th Century Literary Costume Contest.

For more information about the annual TwainFest festival or Write Out Loud, visit

—Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She now writes for her site and she is the publisher of She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read author series and open mic, and teaches Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Cal State system. Reach her at

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