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Monday, June 24

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Feature Mon Mar 09 2009

The Show That Cracks Open the Book of Knowledge

The Encyclopedia Show is a monthly mash-up of performance -- stories, poetry, music, comedy, tragedy and all the rest - centered on a topic. Each month's topic (bears, explosives, the moon) binds together an otherwise eclectic showcase of the city's sharpest tacks and brightest bulbs. Launched in December by Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney, a new show premiers each month at the Chopin Theater in Wicker Park.

Telfer graciously emailed back and forth with me about the production -- plus bearcats, beauty, and saving us all from this insane world.

Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney at the Encyclopedia Show
Photo by Elizabeth McQuern

How does the next installment's topic get decided? (At random? Or do you and/or others choose what tickles your fancy?)

Shanny and I pick them. It is mostly random. We picked BEARS as the first topic because our friend Tim wrote a piece called "Kodiak Bear" and we figured that was a good enough reason to build a show around it. The first performer was a trained binturong (or bearcat) that we asked questions of, and then had recite a "Poem Written by a Bear" by Tao Lin. See here.

And here's an article about baby binturongs - they're called bintlets!

Our April topic is THE FUTURE, and we picked it mostly because the set that is at the Chopin right now looks like THE FUTURE. You can see the set (and pictures from our last show, EXPLOSIVES, on facebook.). We also then look at real encyclopedias after the theme is picked and mine them for the sub-topics we assign to our monthly contributors.

What was the inspiration behind the Encyclopedia Show? I'm wondering about your artistic influences, a bit about your background, as well as what made you say, "Yes. I'm really going to make this happen. I'm renting the space. I'm booking the performers."

There are several backgrounds. One important one is that Shanny and I were both trained as spoken word artists together from 2000-2006 when we attended Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. The Normal Poetry Slam was started there by our brilliant friend Joel Chmara, and he based his model of how to run a poetry slam off of the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill (the original slam). In 2006, I got my MA and moved up to Chicago, where I joined Joel as a part of the Speak'Easy Poetry Ensemble (directed by slam founder Marc Smith, who runs the show at the Green Mill still, every Sunday). Essentially, Marc and Joel's model for running a successful spoken word poetry show is to trust that your community will provide you with exciting and challenging content if you give them loose expectations (like a semi-fake poetry competition). Also, I was very much inspired by Jonathan Messinger's Dollar Store Show, where he assigns writers items purchased at the Dollar Store and gives them a month to write a piece. These loose constraints allow for very entertaining and thought-provoking evenings where writers are allowed to showcase their talents within a narrative structure (in these cases with a competition and in theatrical acts, respectively). Shanny and I mashed these ideas together with our personal histories and communities and The Encyclopedia Show is the result. We do the show out of love for community and art -- we feel the problems of the world are solved by both of those things. Also, we had a live bearcat! It licked my ear!

Annalissia-Kiana "KeeKey" Itson at the Encyclopedia Show
Photo by Elizabeth McQuern

Have you refined the format over time, or has it mostly stayed the same?

Each show we tweak the format a little more. We want to build traditions (like utilizing our fictional Fact Checker, Kurt Heintz, who is on loan from the Institute of Human Knowledge and Hygiene), but we also want to make sure the evening is enjoyable for everyone (so for example, we changed the timing of when Kurt checks facts). It's a fun little alchemical experiment that I think we improve upon every show.

How have you found such a wide range of performers for this venture? Any favorite performers that you've loved working with?

We plumb our communities for performers -- from the Chicago youth and adult spoken word scenes, to page poets and authors, to visual artists and musicians, our friends who competed in intercollegiate speech team with us, and family (my brother and dad and Shanny's mother-in-law and husband have all helped out!). These communities happen to have a lot of brilliant people in them.

Some of my favorites thus far have been Marc Smith, Nat Iosbaker, Idris Goodwin, Sarah Morgan, Bill Ayers, Susie Swanton, Anis Mojgani, Evan Chung, Aly Bosetti, Cameron McGill, Emanuel Vinson... Really, I want to name everyone; they're so great. Laura Berger! She was great too. The Luna Blues Machine. Jon Messinger and Joel and Tim. George Decelles. Annie Kincade. Now people who I don't name are gonna be angry with me, so I'll stop. Benny the Bearcat...

Robb Q Telfer, Michael Martello, Shanny Maney-Magnuson, Stuart Seale, Evan Chung and Molly Kuhlman at the Encyclopedia Show
Photo by Gerardo Herrara

Many theaters struggle to sell tickets these days. But last time I saw the show, the house was packed with an audience full of good cheer. How'd you find these seat-filling souls? Advertising? Word of mouth?

We send out a press release every month and advertise on the Young Chicago Authors listserv, as well as our personal ones. And Facebook has been very useful to us.

Also, we only charge $5, and much of the audience is made up with family and friends of myself, Shanny, the cast and contributors; when you have 15 people in each show, it raises the chances seats will be filled!

Tell us the story of a favorite moment (planned or unplanned) in the show.

We had a moon pinata (made by my friend Meghan Keys) for the show we did for THE MOON. It was full of string cheese. My buddy Eric was holding the pole for it, which was kind of short, and we gave a cane to our friend Al to try and whack the pinata open. Al is a delightful puppet-making lady, whose control over blindfolded cane-swinging was immediately questionable when she started flailing. Luckily, she didn't kill Eric, the pinata burst open with cheese for the children, and the audience started chanting "GOOD IDEA, GOOD IDEA." That was a highlight.

Bill Ayers, Allison Daniel and Tim Stafford at the Encyclopedia Show
Photo by Gerardo Herrara

Why is it important to have such a variety (of genre and of tone) in the show? How do you think it affects the audience's experience of the show when a blues guitarist is followed by a slam poet is followed by a novelist?

We feel like by making sure each night is themed, the variation off of that theme can be endless. We try our hardest to have the most diverse content, genres, demographics, and age ranges among our contributors, hopefully showing that through a seemingly limiting lens, the myriad dimensions of human existence can be replicated again and again, from its joys, devastations, goofynesses, and triumphs. It's hard to lasso beauty, but I am always surprised and relieved when our contributors are able to do just that every show. I have laughed and cried every time.

How is this show different (better, happier, smarter) from anything else that people could do with their evening?

Well, we are creating an artistic community of our own now, and as I mentioned earlier, communities are where we'll save the world -- in the conversations and actions that take place before and after the show. I also think entertainment is how we survive this insane, sometimes soul-crushing, sometimes remarkable universe we live in. So, basically, by coming to this show you will acquire all the tools you'll need to make the world better and easier to endure -- it's that simple!

The Encyclopedia Show was founded by Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney through Telfer's work as Director of Performing Arts at Young Chicago Authors. It's also made possible by Emily Rose, Kurt Heintz, Dan Telfer, Bill Telfer, Gerardo Herrara, Nikki Patin, Justin "Itch 13" Dawson, Tim Stafford, and Ziggy and Lela at the Chopin Theatre. More details are available on the show's Facebook page.

About the Author

Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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