The New Storytelling

07.28.10 | 8 Comments

CATEGORIES 360 storytelling podcast, audiences, conversation starter, ideas, non-profit theatre, theatrical ecosystem

Performance Art.  Spoken Word.  Don’t stop reading yet.

David Sedaris comes to my town fairly often, once or twice a year.  He can fill up a 4,000-seat theater, or quickly sell out an eight-night run at a smaller one.

Last year, the Associating Writing Programs conference, a gathering of folks affiliated with BFA and MFA writing programs, took place over a long weekend in Chicago.   A few writers held a reading in an El car, then walked to a bookstore for the proper event. 

Every month at the Makeout Room in San Francisco, the on-line magazine The Rumpus hosts a night of entertainment: food, music, writers, comedy.  And it’s some of the city’s best musicians, published novelists–the folks who are at the center of making new work in their city in 2010–hanging out, casually, in one place.

One of the most successful emerging theater companies in Chicago doesn’t stage plays and doesn’t rent theater space.  2nd Story presents true-life narratives in bars, museums, sex-toy stores, and, occasionally, conventional theater venues like the Goodman.  The performances are one-off, well rehearsed, and portable; they have freed themselves from the conventions of the six-week, four-show-a-week run.

These venues are the social and artistic hubs of live performance in 2010, as essential to the culture of a city as any theater.

In Toronto, the Trampoline Lecture Hall series features three performers at each event.  Each person gives a lecture  on a subject on which they are not a professional expert: The Perfect Baguette; How to Dance in Public; Wigs.

Pecha-Kucha nights are selling out worldwide.  Each participant gives a lecture with 20 slides, and is given 20 seconds to talk about each slide.

Our own 2am host, David Loehr, has created 360, an “open source” format for live storytelling events.

Variety shows have sprung up all over my town, from the Reconstruction Room to Cabaret Vagabond to Quickies  to The Paper Machete (where, this coming Saturday, I will be giving a short lecture on why “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas has become the centerpiece of wedding DJ setlists).  New York has the Moth and the Happy Ending series.  Some are purely literary.  Some, like the Literary Death Match, combine published writers with parlor games.

Some of these are full-fledged not-for-profits.  Others have no overhead and use a microphone and the bar’s sound system.  Most feature published and recognized writers, musicians, and artists.

None of this is called Spoken Word.

None of this is called Performance Art.

None of this has the burden of easy-to-ridicule stereotypes. 

And yet these nights carry the same qualities that those terms once carried, before they became dated and ridiculous. 

Some of what these nights offer is:

  1. Value, for both hosts and audience.  Low overhead, reasonable prices.
  2. Talent.  Established writers and performers.
  3. A home away from home.  A gathering of regulars.
  4. Parlor games. 
  5. Amateurs and Professionals.  Talented folks in an intimate environment
  6. A group curated by its own social circle.
  7. A social environment.  Someone could get to make out; someone could get a job.

Sometimes the only way to reinvent theater is when nobody calls it theater: not the audiences, not the hosts.

There isn’t even a proper place to list these events in most newspapers and magazines, because there isn’t yet a simple buzzword.

It’s theatrical and social; it’s literary and casual.  And it’s happening now.  It could be happening at your theater.

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • Ian Belknap

    Excellent points, all. But you forgot WRITE CLUB – now monthly at Hideout.

    And I would advocate for us all to remain resolute in slipping the buzzword bonds – a virtue of these shows is their sui generis-ness, though as you rightly suggest, they share certain things in common in their approach/voice/world view, etc.

  • Ian, I agree — I'm excited that there isn't a reductive way to describe these events.

    And I forgot to mention WRITE CLUB. My bad. For everyone else, this Time Out article gives a good idea of what it is (and I loved taking part in the “Sex vs. Death” bout in January):

    Also, this week's Austin Chronicle gives an extended overview of this type of event in that city, including my friend Elizabeth Crane's own The Awesome! and Great! Reading Series!:

    The article describes five separate events currently happening. Crane's concept is “you have two writers and one musician. And the writers will read an original story that they wrote for the show, loosely inspired by a song that I give them. And then the musician does a song that's loosely inspired by a story. I try to draw from a broad range of music, something that suits what I know of the writers' work, but sometimes I'll just give them some weird, random thing. So we'll have a reader, then a song, then a reader.”

    All of these shows have an element of performance, a playful structure, and a balance between inclusive, participatory, and talented.

  • Needless to say, a 2amt podcast profiling some of these formats would be a good idea, yes?

  • Definitely. Please.

  • Ian Belknap

    While my tender, tender feelings are still smarting a bit, all is forgiven.

    If we could figure a way to put a stake in the heart of reductive, we'd really be getting someplace. And Elizabeth, I'm abandoning my family and moving to Austin to take part in your show. I can crash on your couch, yeah?

  • Megan

    Hi, David! 2nd Story has a podcast series going, available here: http://www.2ndstory.com/whatis/videos.php

  • I know, I've been watching for a while now. We should definitely get you on a 2amt podcast about storytelling. (Not like any one 'cast will exhaust a topic, of course…)

  • Megan

    Awesome, David! We'd love to be a part of the 2amt conversation!