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Feature Tue Jun 08 2010
Storytelling in Chicago has a long and rich history, with notable champions including Studs Terkel, who recorded the experiences of every day people's lives in books like "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II, and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, which won him a Pulitzer Prize; and Ira Glass, who made storytelling hip with This American Life. One of the most visible storytelling organizations around is The Moth, which began in New York 13 years ago, and has since found anchor in L.A., Detroit and Chicago. Martyr's has become the Chicago home to The Moth's StorySlam, and since last November fills to capacity on the last Tuesday of every month for live storytelling. Each StorySlam has a theme, prospective storytellers drop their names into a hat, and if their name is called they have five minutes to wow the judges and the audience. Stories must be told from memory (no notes allowed), and are recorded for possible airtime on The Moth Radio Hour. As storytelling goes, it's fairly high pressure for readers -- those lucky enough to have their names pulled from a hat stand above the audience on a raised, spotlit stage, the proceedings are recorded, and storytelling hopefuls must wait in anticipation as names are called one by one. Teams of judges dole out scores that range from 1 to 10, and at the end of the night a winner is declared.
2nd Story has a different approach to storytelling. With a twice yearly submission deadline (June1 and December 1), a committee selects the entries that will be workshopped and set to backup music (sometimes live, sometimes recorded) before being read at one of a number of venues, including Webster's Wine Bar, Red Kiva, and Strawdog Theatre. Depending on the venue, the experience can be quite different. At Webster's Wine Bar you can order a wine flight to enjoy with your 8pm stories; at Strawdog the stories don't get going until close to midnight, $5 at the dry bar will get you a glass of wine in a plastic cup, and if you get there early enough you can score a seat on a folding aluminum chair.
The 2nd Story readings have a theme, and readers are preselected and announced ahead of time. Last month's theme at Strawdog focused on stories about the body: writer Johanna Stein told a jaw-dropping story of trying to get even with a scatelogically inclined friend; artist and writer Nick Kawahara told a gripping story about riding Greyhound from Iowa to Chicago; actress Jen Shin related the experience of posing nude for classroom of aspiring artists; and freelance writer Byron Flitsch painted a memorable picture of a blind date gone horribly wrong. Attending a 2nd Story reading has a more polished feel than some other formats, and has a different payoff -- you never know what kind of greatness you might find at an open mic, but you're pretty much guaranteed to love at least one story at a 2nd Story event.
Story Club, the brainchild of Dana Norris, has been meeting monthly for a year at Uncommon Ground on Clark Street. Story Club is a kind of hybrid between an open mic and curated readings; the first half of the show is open mic, followed by featured readers invited by Norris. Set in the east dining room of Uncommon Ground with seating for roughly 30 people, it has a more intimate, slightly small town feel, and patrons can order dinner and drinks while they listen to readers. There's no theme to Story Club events, it's a pot-luck of whoever happens to show up that night with a few pages in their hand and the urge to speak into a microphone. The June 3 event saw five open mic readers, and featured readings by screenwriting teacher Jennifer Peepas, who introduced the audience to the concept of the Darth Vader Boyfriend; short story writer Mary Dean Cason, who read a chapter from an upcoming novel; and Dana Norris herself, who related a story of her grandmother's terrible cooking (and was the only reader to take the mic without notes in hand). In addition to being the closing act, Norris MC'ed the event in an astonishing pair of mud green 6-inch pumps with black Mary Jane straps, and managed to run the entire event without having to cut anyone off before they were finished (one of the only rules at Story Club is that stories must run no longer than eight minutes). Story Club readings have a sign-up time of 8pm, go time is at 8:30, and the event wraps up by 10pm. The next Story Club event will be on Thursday, July 1 with a featured readings by improv actor Harz Sondericker.
Windy City Story Slam was started in 2007 by Columbia College grad student Bill Hillman, and follows a similar format as Story Club but moves from venue to venue, bringing storytelling to locations as varied as Chicago Fight Club, The Viaduct Theater and The Empty Bottle. Their latest open mic was held at The Empty Bottle and drew an audience of about 30 or so listeners. Four storytellers took the stage for a storyslam, and the winner was decided by audience applause. James Finn Garner followed with a reading from published material, and once the stories were finished, musician Jonas Friddle took the stage with a banjo in hand. Patrons were summarily dismissed from the bar at 8:30 to make room for a 10pm music show, which made it feel like last call several hours too early, but the decidedly laid back format made it a low pressure situation for prospective storytellers.
At this weekend's Printer's Row Book Fair, Windy City Story Slam will be collaborating with 2nd Story and Reading Under the Influence at Lit After Dark. Whether you get a charge from the roll of the dice that comes with an open mic, the sold-out energy of The Moth's StorySlam, or the more rehearsed experience of a 2nd Story reading, there's a venue out there for everyone who enjoys a good story.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.