A new breed of events is turning the traditionally highbrow world of literary performances on its head
WRITER TIM JONES-YELVINGTON STANDS ONSTAGE at the Hideout, a Chicago bar that lives up to its name tucked away on the edge of the North Side’s old steel district. Out-of-season Christmas lights droop from the ceiling, and taxidermied fish line the wood-paneled walls, their shiny eyes fixed, like those of the standing-room-only crowd, on Jones- Yelvington, who has been called the Lady Gaga of the Chicago literary scene.
Jones-Yelvington is a vision in a handmade costume twinkling with black sequins. He stands next to a life-sized cutout of teen heartthrob Taylor Lautner of Twilight fame, a prop to support the funny, feel-good short story, “This Is a Dance Movie,” that he’s performing. The audience laughs, groans, sighs and cheers at all the right moments, as do the three judges— Zach Dodson of Featherproof Books, standup comic Cameron Esposito and Tiffany Joy Ross of Trap Door Theatre. Sit- ting behind Jones-Yelvington, they evaluate him as they do each of this evening’s four participants, according to literary merit, performance and “intangibles.” Jones- Yelvington may be reading literature, but this is no ordinary literary reading.
This is Literary Death Match, a traveling series with the goal of marrying “the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, [the] rapier-witted quips of American Idol’s judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare.” In every install- ment, four readers compete in one-on-one match-ups for the first half of the show, with the winner from each pair advancing to a finale that shrugs off literature in favor of a comical contest that could be anything from musical chairs to a portrait draw-a-thon.
LDM is one of a growing number of literary events that deliberately seek to subvert audience expectations by taking something the general public perceives as highbrow—serious literature—and making it accessible and fun. LDM, which has hosted 97 events in 23 cities around the world, has successfully merged literature with pop culture, featuring celebrity judges like the musician Moby, the model Paulina Porizkova and 24 actress Mary Lynn Rajskub. “Mostly, we just wanted to shake people and say: ‘Literature is fun! Now, duck, because that Nerf bullet is about to hit you in the haircut,’” says co-founder Todd Zuniga.
ZUNIGA ISN’T THE ONLY ONE TRY- ing to spread literature’s good word. Mary Hamilton and Lindsay Hunter—recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s creative writing program— founded Quickies! in 2007 out of a shared desire to combat “the same old boring reading series where three people read for half an hour each,” Hunter says. “We saw the potential for a reading series that was guaranteed to be short and painless.”
The resulting series is a fast-paced and raucous showcase of an increasingly prevalent genre: the short short story, typically defined in print as a piece of no more than 1,000 words. According to Hamilton and Hunter (who both perform at almost every event), it’s one that can be read in less than 240 seconds, including banter. (The clock starts ticking once the writer has read the title.) “I wanted Quickies! to also be a showcase for the power of the short short story,” says Hamilton, explaining that her former classmates often said her stories were too short. (They can now pick up Hamilton’s debut book of flash fiction; Hunter has one coming out this month.)
“We love the idea of flash fiction because you can experience an entire piece—even an entire world—in four minutes or less,” Hunter says. “The constraint on time closes a lot of doors, but it sure opens up some new, less frequented ones, too.”
Quickies!—held the second Tuesday of every month—features about seven invited readers, all of whom are held to strict rules: “Each reader has four minutes to read a complete work of prose. No poetry. No excerpts. No cheating.” Should a partici- pant—no matter how talented—exceed the allotted time, he or she is whistled offstage mid-sentence.
Such a high-energy concept could only exist, of course, in a venue with an atmo- sphere to match. Enter the Innertown Pub in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. “We love that our series is in a bar—replete with the sounds of clinking glasses, burpy murmur- ing, the occasional arcade game playing itself, a man selling tamales from a cooler,” Hunter says. “We want our audience to get good and loose, to feel like it’s not the end of the world to breathe or cough or let fly that embarrassing donkey laugh.”
THE READING-GOER WHO WANTS more than four minutes of literature can check out The Dollar Store, a quarterly series in Chicago organized by writer and editor Jonathan Messinger. Also held at the Hideout, the series lives up to its name: It costs just $1 to get in. And in the weeks before each event, Messinger gives each show’s handful of fiction writers, playwrights, monologuists, comedians and even dancers an object purchased from an area dollar store around which they must compose a story or performance. Messinger calls the objects “evocative crap.” “It’s either surreal junk or sometimes the most down-market version of an everyday item,” he says.
Messinger began using these innovative prompts when he founded the series in 2004. “At the time, I had a lot of friends involved in the very active improvisational comedy scene here in Chicago, and I loved the way improv shows based everything on a suggestion,” he says. “The actor calls out for ‘anything at all,’ and then the actors have to make art out of that anything. I loved the idea of doing that with writing, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too self-serious.”
And because the item, which is either displayed during or incorporated into the performance, is often both ridiculous and contextless—a child’s pink plastic makeup compact, say, or a canvas tote bag covered in silkscreened cuts of meat—it provides performers with an impetus to create imaginative, and often absurd, narra- tives. To add to the silliness, each piece is followed by a musical interlude based on the performer’s material and composed on the spot by songwriter Adam Levitan of the band Baby Teeth.
Poets & Puppets also uses inventive props—only these are usually made from socks and worn on the poets’ hands while they recite original works. Curated by the poet Leigh Stein, the biannual series—which started in Chicago at a 2009 writers’ conference but now makes its home in Brooklyn, NY—intends to put “the best voices of contemporary poetry into tiny bodies.” Like her fellow extreme literary series impresarios, Stein is trying to prove that poetry readings don’t have to be snooty, dull or hard to follow.
“Often when I mention to someone outside the poetry community that poetry readings are something I do, I’m met with a flinch and a grimace,” she says. “If I mention that ‘puppets’ are something I do, I’m more well-received. Am I trying to trick people into coming to poetry readings? Maybe. Do I think someone who comes to Poets & Puppets may be more likely to see or read poetry in the future? Yes.”
Like Poets & Puppets, the acclaimed Moth Mainstage events happen mainly in New York City. The series features 10-minute tales told by such established writers and actors as Malcolm Gladwell, Ethan Hawke and Lili Taylor as well as other unique voices (past performers have included an astronaut, a trash collector and an undertaker). The nonprofit storytell- ing organization also hosts StorySLAMs throughout the country.
StorySLAMs were conceived in 2001 as a forum to prove the old adage that everyone has a story. At the competitions, which take place four times a month in New York, three times a month in LA, and once a month in both Chicago and Detroit, performers are required to rely on pure narrative alone—no notes or books. They must tell their story in no more than five minutes, and it must fit a given theme (“Scars,” “Persuasion,” etc.), which are posted four to six months in advance. Ten stories are performed per evening, and each one is judged by a team of three audience- members who determine a winner. Winners then face off later in a local Moth GrandSLAM.
According to Artistic Director Catherine Burns, making it easier to enter the world of literary performances is part of the StorySLAMs’ goal—which they achieve with the bare-bones, all-you-need-is-a-body-and- a-voice approach. “It is an art form, but it costs nothing to do and anyone who can speak can learn to do it. It certainly is more inclusive,” she says. “You don’t even have to be able to read or write!”
This removal of barriers extends to the performer and audience. Because no one is hid- ing behind a book, prop or piece of paper, the storytellers’ voices connect directly to the ears and hearts of the crowd—which is exactly what’s happening back at the Literary Death Match, as Jones-Yelvington finishes his story and stands before the three- person panel, waiting while they deliberate between him and his evening’s nemesis, slam poet Robbie Q. Telfer.
To the audience’s shock and chagrin, the judges are so wowed that they can’t make up their minds. After a ringing, indecisive and dramatic silence, one of them announces Telfer’s name, which keeps Jones-Yelvington from advancing to the final round. But the runner-up knows as well as anyone else that this is all part of the joy and the heartbreak that is LDM.
“Who cares if they couldn’t make a decision?” he says a few moments later. “[The judges] were really entertaining.”
Even in defeat, Jones- Yelvington recognizes the importance of having fun. With that, he stuffs his book into a bag, waits for the judges to clear the stage, grabs the cutout and exits the bar, black-sequined costume twinkling in the night air.
And the people in the audience? They feel at ease, excited that they were effortlessly able to connect with such a traditionally highbrow outlet as literature, and thrilled to be a part of something truly fresh and strange. Together with the judges, hosts and performers, they are revolutionizing an art form.
LITERARY DEATH MATCH
THE DOLLAR STORE
POETS & PUPPETS
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