A staple of any good literary community is the reading series. If, as Tim Yelvington-Jones has suggested, “writers should be rock stars,” then the reading series is an opportunity for them to rock out, connect with readers, and celebrate the written–and spoken–word.
Luckily, there is no shortage of excellent reading series in Chicago. From simple and straightforward, author-with-book-in-hand readings to feisty debates and whimsical performances, there’s something for everyone who’s interested in expanding the literary experience beyond the book or screen.
Essay Fiesta is as good a place to start as any other. Bringing together some of Chicago’s top artistic talent, including comedians, playwrights, authors, and journalists, Essay Fiesta began at a dinner party when comedians Alyson Lyon and Keith Ecker decided that “Chicago needed a storytelling series that provided a platform for a cross-discipline of artists to share funny, poignant and thought-provoking stories from their lives.” It’s one of the Book Cellar’s most popular events, and although it’s free, it uses a raffle to raise money for the Howard Brown Health Center, a citywide community health organization that focuses on the GLBT community. In honor of the one-year anniversary that Essay Fiesta will be celebrating on November 15th, one of its co-founders, Keith Ecker, took time out of his busy life as comedian, theater critic, and freelance writer to answer some of Literary Chicago’s questions.
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In the age of social networking, a lot of interpersonal communication has become really detached. Instead of talking to our friends, we post something on their walls. Instead of sharing a story, we Tweet. Essay Fiesta gets back to the roots of what the social experience is all about. It allows people to connect in person through the sharing of personal stories. And no matter the content of the story, everyone can find something within the piece that speaks to them, which further fosters that social connection.
How do you select your readers?
We accept submissions from anyone, regardless of experience or background. Prospective readers can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We select readers based on who best fits the overall voice of our show. Usually that means someone who is able to temper the more somber, poignant moments of a story with humor. We also want readers to really read from the heart. By that I mean, we like personal stories that display some degree of vulnerability.
What are some of the highlights of your first year?
There are so many that it’s hard to pick a few. All the readers have been outstanding, and I’m so thrilled that so many wonderful, talented people have shared their stories in our forum. To pick out a few specifics, I’ve really enjoyed hearing the stories of former Neo-Futurist Andy Bayiates and stand-up comic Cameron Esposito. Both of them really know how to concoct that perfect mix of raw truth and humor. Oh, also I love that Alyson and I wrote a theme song that we play at the beginning of each show. It gives me a chance to show off my guitar skills.
In what ways would you like to see Essay Fiesta change or grow over time?
I’d like to start doing special events around the city and beyond. There’s a really wonderful scripted storytelling scene popping up on the North Side. It’d be nice to pool our talents and resources together to really create something. I’d also like to eventually add an outreach component. Essay Fiesta helped me realize that crafting a personal essay is really a form of self therapy. In fact, this form of writing has been proven to have positive psychological and physiological effects on those who suffer from stress and anxiety. I would love to teach others how to tell their own stories so that they can reap these benefits.
Are there any other reading series in Chicago that you would recommend to your fans?
What has EF done for you, Keith Ecker, personally and professionally?
Professionally, Essay Fiesta has given me a home in this city as an artist. I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I’ve been an improviser, a sketch comic and a stand-up comic. But writing has always been my passion. And in a city where it’s easy to get lost among the other many talented people, it’s nice to have carved out a niche for myself, one that can give back to the community in so many ways. We benefit Howard Brown Health Center (having raised nearly $1,500 since our inception), we are a platform for a variety of local artists and we get to entertain 50-60 people every month. All these positive things help me know I’m on the right path.
Personally, Essay Fiesta has made me a stronger, more confident writer. An artist’s worst enemy is always himself. Regardless of the discipline, we always seem to doubt whether we’re any good at what we’re doing, likely because there’s no real benchmark. If you’re in the corporate world, a salary or a job title helps tell you whether you’re “succeeding” or not. But if you’re a writer or a musician or a painter, there’s no real way of knowing. The feedback I have received from the audience and from my fellow artists has helped embolden me for sure. Also, my work ethic I’ve developed is amazing. I write several hours every day, whether it’s the freelance work I do to make money, a new essay or a random piece of comedy.
What do you and Alyson have planned for the big one-year anniversary celebration?
We have an all-star line-up. Stand-up comics Cameron Esposito and Beth Stelling, playwright Andy Bayiates, This Much Is True founder Deanna Moffitt and Stories at the Store producer Jen Bosworth will all be sharing some amazing pieces. Also, as always, we’re going to have a raffle. Prizes will include a $25 gift certificate to Threadless, a gift certificate to the Book Cellar and tickets to the Chicago Underground Showcase. As always, all money goes to benefit Howard Brown Health Center. Finally, we just found out that the Book Cellar will be offering a special promotion. For those that donate $10 to the raffle, you’ll get 10% off in-store purchases that night. $20 will get you 20% off and $30 will get you 30% off (that’s as high as they’re going). So it’s just an added incentive to come on out, hear some great stories and give to a very worthy cause.
EVENT: ESSAY FIESTA’S ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY | MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15 AT 7PM | BOOK CELLAR