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Book Club Wed Aug 06 2014

A Match Made In Heaven, A Town Doomed to Hell

PleasureTown Founders 1.jpg
Image courtesy of PleasureTown

One man's trash is another man's treasure; one town's failed utopian experiment is a Chicago storyteller's ideal setting for a storytelling experiment. Such is the case for PleasureTown, created by live lit stalwarts Keith Ecker and Erin Kahoa. Originally a live stage production, PleasureTown has evolved into a bi-weekly podcast (in the vein of the radio serials of old), as well as a "national platform" for local writers and performers.

PleasureTown was inspired in part by the Homestead Acts of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, wherein the U.S. government offered as many as 160 acres of land to families of settlers who were willing to "go west." It's set in PleasureTown, Oklahoma, a fictional town whose rise and fall is documented by the vignettes created, and voiced, by members of Chicago's live lit and storytelling communities, such as Ian Belknap, Don Hall, and Willy Nast. But the show isn't resting on the laurels of its established performers: there's an interactive element on the website, and even a call for submissions.

Ecker says the live show, which was well received by critics, wasn't created with a podcast in mind. It was more of a stand-alone piece, even though the premise and some of the characters have made the transition to the airwaves. But Ecker and Kahoa knew they couldn't relegate the world they'd created to an occasional performance. Which is why when WBEZ came a-callin' to discuss adding a PleasureTown-inspired podcast to their growing network, Ecker and Kahoa were only too happy to help.

Ecker emphasizes that the show is a team effort. And what a team it is: award-winning WBEZ producer (and head of their podcasts) Joe DeCeault oversees production with skills honed working on such programs as The Morning Shift and Eight Forty-Eight. Ecker has a strong performance and curation background, and co-founded Essay Fiesta before moving on to Guts & Glory. Kahoa is a three-time Moth Slam winner, and has also bandied words at live lit shows such as Write Club, LitMash, and Fillet of Solo. And, thanks to folk duo River Rising (Megan Deiger and Tim Hazen), PleasureTown's original music is just as much a character as the frontier setting.

The pairing of Ecker and Kahoa, who write and play PleasureTown's founders, Claude and Cyrus, is what really makes the town come to life. Kahoa's Cyrus is world-weary and almost mournful in his exchanges with Ecker's Claude, who is still full of bluster even in the afterlife. That's right: the founders help recount these tales of hedonism and depravity with the hindsight afforded by being long-dead. And in the "real world," Kahoa's fastidious attention to detail serves the historical dramatizations well, while Ecker's years of experience as a performer and marketing professional have ensured a smooth transition in format, and a move to a national audience.

And that national audience is all ears: since its debut, the PleasureTown podcast has remained in the Top 100 podcasts for iTunes overall, and the total listenership is "in the thousands." It's also consistently been in the top 10 of iTunes' "Personal Journals" chart, even hitting the number two spot (This American Life sits unseated at number one, but Ecker says the competition is friendly, since both podcasts air under the umbrella of National Public Radio).

To further highlight the "team spirit" of PleasureTown, the town and podcast's founders are asking for your help: you can submit your own ideas, stories, art, and even pioneer journal entries via the website to join the narrative. The team is also seeking input on the surnames of the town's founders; Cyrus and Claude's last names have been intentionally been left blank, as their stories have only begun to take shape for listeners.

So what looms on the horizon? Episode three, which premieres today, centers on the musings of an out-of-town reporter (played by Willy Nast, of Essay Fiesta). His story was inspired by the actions of real life reporters, who were often sent from the East Coast to report on the trials and tribulations (and dissipation) of these settlements. You can listen to it now on the PleasureTown site, or via iTunes, and let the denizens of the den of iniquity that is, and was, PleasureTown weave a spell of life on the prairie.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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