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Literary Sun Mar 04 2012

WRITE CLUB with Ian Belknap


WRITE CLUB Overlord Ian Belknap. Photo credit: Nathan Keay

It's a damp night at the Hideout; the sold out audience sits on metal chairs, and latecomers stand wherever there's room. The walls are covered in wood paneling and the occasional trophy fish, and a faint smell of wet dog permeates the room. Onstage, Ian Belknap introduces the audience to WRITE CLUB: Chapter 22: Race War. "Ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to WRITE CLUB!"

Tonight's categories are: Black vs. White; Cat vs. Dog; and Gay vs. Straight. In addition to a miniature trophy (The Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory,) the winner of each bout gets a percentage of the admissions donated to the charity of their choice.

The first two competitors are called to the stage: Daniel Shapiro (Cat) vs. Natalie Edwards (Dog). Shapiro hunches over the mic and reads from a prepared text on behalf of cats, using persuasive language like: "A cat's anus has a sweeter and mellower flavor than a dog's, but we all knew that." "A cat would rather play with a bag or a box than with you." And "Cats in resting homes can tell when the next person is going to die, and that's kind of awesome." After his seven minutes are up, Edwards tries to outdo him with her piece on dogs, astounding the audience with little known facts that include: the first patents were held by Lhasa Apsos; and Chihuahuas invented Spanish. Her piece runs long, and she hears the dreaded chime of a bell being struck by a hammer, signaling the end of seven minutes, the maximum amount of time allotted to each competitor. The audience is called upon to choose a winner based on applause, and the winner -- determined by a panel of three judges, is Shapiro, whose winnings go to The Wounded Warrior Project.

The next pair of competitors approach the mic: Ian Belknap (Black) vs. Samantha Irby (White). Irby goes first, with a love letter to white people which is so sublime that I won't attempt to quote just one line from it. (Click on the link and read the whole thing, seriously.) The audience s so taken with her performance that before Belknap begins his own piece a heckler calls out a sarcastic "good luck." Although Belknap is the originator of WRITE CLUB, and a formidable competitor, he runs out of time and Irby wins the bout on behalf of PAWS Chicago.

The final bout pits Mairead Case (Gay) against Whit Nelson (Straight). Case goes first, with a lyrical piece about small town life, pie, and the importance of breaking away from the mainstream. She runs out of time before she's able to deliver the final blow, and Nelson follows with a piece that includes the phrase: "Gays are the communications majors of the sexual spectrum," and a comparison of gay people to seedless grapes. He is declared the winner, and his winnings to The Trevor Project.

WRITE CLUB is different from other reading series in Chicago -- like The Moth it's competitive, but it's carefully curated, participants are billed ahead of time, and are assigned topics to defend. Like Essay Fiesta it's a charity series, but the winnings are divided among the charities chosen by the three winning competitors of each show. It sometimes gets compared to Literary Death Match, but apart from the competitive aspect, there's not much else the two shows share in common.

The first installment of WRITE CLUB took place at the Rhino Theater Fest in January of 2010. Belknap realized he was onto something, and in July 2010 brought the show to the Hideout to try out for a month, and it's been there ever since. "The Hideout is the perfect venue for it," he says, "the room is right, the location is tough, but people are willing to go there. I'll be sad when the show outgrows the space, which it will do one day."

Belknap was invited by Push Push Theater to bring the show to Atlanta in September 2010, and arrived with a full length solo show and a test episode of WRITE CLUB using local writers. An Atlanta satellite was launched in April 2011. "Those guys are kicking ass," he says of them, "they've been doing a podcast from the beginning, and this kind of content lends itself brilliantly to podcasting, its a great calling card to new content and audience building." A chapter was launched in San Francisco in November 2011, and in 2012 there are plans to open chapters in New York, LA, and London. "I'm crossing my fingers like crazy for that one," Belknap says of the prospect of making WRITE CLUB international. There are also initial inquiries from Pittsburgh, Austin, and Portland, OR. "I want to take it to Austin," he says, "I think it would kill in Austin."

Belknap says that the aim of WRITE CLUB (which is always in all caps, by the way, because WRITE CLUB is always yelling at you) has always been "to have a geographically distributed art project happening in multiple cities simultaneously, and has, as a happy consequence, this philanthropic aim."

There are so many shows in Chicago that fall under the rubric of Storytelling, and it's exploded in the last couple of years. Having only participated within the confines of this city myself (except for one appearance at Boston's Massmouth where I bombed, and then told the same story two nights later at The Moth in Chicago and won... draw your own conclusions,) it's hard for me to tell whether this is something that's happening in other cities or is special to Chicago. I asked Belknap for his take on it: "I feel like we're the Beatles in Hamburg, or the Clash in '76," he said, "we're on the launching pad of some new renaissance of what is a nascent form because the requirements are: an extremely high literary merit in a particular way, because a piece can sing on the page and die a thousand deaths when you read it live, and you need performance chops. I feel like Chicago has this perfect nexus or confluence of those factors, both the talents and skills and generosity of performers, but also this venturesome and really super quick capacity on the part of audiences here. Part of the reason I jettisoned all the intro bullshit stuff for WRITE CLUB was that I was clear that the audience was picking up on it faster than I could tell it. I've fallen back on this thing where a good WRITE CLUB show starts in the middle and goes fast. Improv is so central here, the audience has a catlike readiness."

"Here's why I'm willing to be presumptuous enough to say we're like the Beatles in Hamburg -- in Atlanta there's a similar burgeoning scene, and all these shows that are under a year or two old, they're all live spoken word, storytelling, and personal essay, but there's there's a lag between the appetite for it and the robust vocabulary to describe it -- should we call it 'live literature,' or 'embodied literature?' Good spoken literature can exist on the page, but it's missing a dimension in order to have its fullest realization. A couple of my friends have expressed a transient interest to publish my stuff, but a critical dimension to it is me speaking. I could take it as an insult, but I don't; in order for writing to have the full life breathed into it requires the author's intervention."

"Another thing I cite as evidence for this as being a boom time is that I'm not the only one noticing it; other people who do this stuff arriving at the same conclusion -- there's something happening, this is a legit phenom."


Belknap on stage. Photo credit: Don Hall.

Why do you think it's taking off in Chicago?

In Chicago the borders are a lot more porous between forms; it's acceptable to do sketch, improv, and spoken word -- you're not going to be regarded as lacking seriousness in the way you will in New York or LA where the scenes are more codified. I think part of the liberty we have here is we're divorced from career options -- every artist I know here is compelled to have some kind of day job because there's not the option to make your living as an artist, which sucks on one hand, but on the other you're not bringing your agent to Mortified, you're not regarding every public outing as "this could be the one." Its part and parcel of doing your work, it's not going to lead anywhere other than where you are.

Why does WRITE CLUB have a charity angle?

Part of it is a kvetch against the performer ego I knew I would encounter elsewhere. There's something freeing in doing battle for an idea in the service of some cause you believe in; you're freed from this sort of popularity contest mentality, it isn't like "Dancing With the Stars," the ideas are in competition in the mind of the audience, hopefully, and since it's all for some charitable purpose, it's not the sort of frivolous, low stakes undertaking that a straight up head to head competition, pick-your-favorite would be. It's compelling to see somebody trying to advance an idea, and original writing is just exciting. Both original in the sense that this piece has never been seen before and in the sense of novelty of ideation. A good WRITE CLUB piece is rooted in personally held conviction, but is mindful of presentation to an audience, and entertaining. The ones that land hardest are totally in service of the idea, but are also comedic and smart. A lot of other shows are storytelling or rooted in poetry; WRITE CLUB is personal essay as blood sport.

One thing I've noticed about WRITE CLUB is that you don't mess around with the timing, people are in and out of there, and the night is still young.

It's done in an hour; you have a totally bulletproof awesome show, and you're home in time for "The Daily Show." There have been so many shows in my past where I've thought 'this is great,' and then it's lasting too long, and the greatness is diminishing as it goes on. I have done theater for 20 years, and I cannot escape the conclusion that since the Greeks, every play is at least 20 minutes too long, which is a reason everyone does 10 minute play festivals now. For about 10 years I was working as a fundraiser for arts nonprofits, and the way fundraising happens is need-based, meek, and essentially hopeless: "not only are we asking for money now, we're going to be back in six months or a year or and asking again," and I wanted to do some social good rooted in awesomeness. I didn't want to make a big deal about "look how good we're being, group hug," we're doing battle for charity and that's a happy outcome, an output of the system. The whole WRITE CLUB thing is to do good, but be mighty about it, don't be namby or soft about it.

Seven minutes is a pretty tight timeframe for a competitor.

I've been to too many reading shows that don't respect the time of the audience. I decided early on that I wanted a bell to sound at seven minutes, and I'm constantly astonished by the amount of concept that you can wring out of seven minutes; five is short -- a scramble, ten is long; whenever you get to double digits the self indulgence clicks in -- at seven you can put across some robust ideas and express them well. If you tank and you suck worse than anything that's ever happened, the audience knows it's only seven minutes, so there's a failsafe in the system.

Do you think the format will translate to other cities?

At the first show in San Francisco there was this guy whose background was in standup, so he was writing through that rhythm -- there has to be a laugh line every 30 seconds, which is fine in a standup setting because there's that kind of staccato requirement, but there's much more breathing space at WRITE CLUB, conceptually you can let your ideas spread out more, your laugh lines -- if you have them, can land harder and with more resonance. When he was done he said "oh my god I have to do this again, I've learned how to do this kind of writing better." It's exciting that someone who is volunteering their time is already stoked to do it again, more mindfully and better. This is a dirt bag empire I'm building.

How important is the live, theatrical aspect of the show?

The live show is paramount; you can have a great experience of a WRITE CLUB bout, but it isn't the full experience -- you have to be vocalizing on who you think prevailed. That's part of the whole deal, and as a host I try to create a space during my hosting duties where you as the audience are granted license to interact with me, insult me, whatever you want to do, with a cone of respectful silence around the written pieces. That's why there's the insistence that any response in WRITE CLUB must be vocal. Both because it makes a better show and it makes a better podcast -- it sounds less dead.

The final leg of the currently rickety stool is that I feel like this model is a great teaching tool; I had a fan of the show who teaches in a school in western suburbs come up to me and say "I've been using this in my class, I printed up a piece of yours, showed it to my class, and then had them write their own." I think that's amazing, that's one thing I wanted from the start, because part of my trouble in school (I barely graduated high school; I had to stay late the last day of school to write a paper that was three months overdue,) my main problem with school was that it was so fucking boring; anything I could have latched onto like this that would have tapped into my more belligerent tendencies would have helped.

How often do you win your WRITE CLUB bouts?

I bat about 500 on the show -- I pick the strongest of the bunch and go against them, both because I don't want to throw anybody under the bus and because it makes my stuff better over time.

Come see WRITE CLUB for yourself at The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia). Follow WRITE CLUB's Facebook page for details on the next installment.

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