Performing Stories, Rather Than Just Reading Them
by Alba Machado

Page and StageA lot of people who know how to write a good story don’t know how to tell a good story. If you are Toni Morrison or José Saramago, then sure, there’s a good chance your audience will hang on your every word no matter how lifeless your delivery may be, its adoration assured by your tremendous body of Nobel prize-winning work. But if you are a relatively unknown writer taking to the stage in search of a wider readership, your words alone will not be enough. Minds will wander. Smiles will be empty. Applause will be merely polite. After all, when you are reading to an audience that is physically present, you are reading with your entire body—your posture, movement, gesture, facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, inflection—and if you are just standing there and dictating lines from a page, then on some level you are conveying boredom and lack of conviction. You are saying, “I don’t care about this. Maybe you shouldn’t care, either.”

This Sunday, June 8th, at the 30th annual Printers Row Lit Fest, you can walk from one tent where an author is reading to another tent where an author is performing and you can easily gauge each audience’s level of engagement. There’s no contest. At the former, there is silence and stillness, maybe an occasional nod. At the latter, there is gasping and laughter, cheering and chills. And at the RedEye tent, you can start to discover why. That’s where The Encyclopedia Show’s Robbie Telfer, Story Club’s Dana Norris, and Guts & Glory’s Keith Ecker are talking to RedEye, Metromix, and WGN Radio’s Amy Guth in a panel discussion entitled “Page Meets Stage: How to Use Performance to Enhance Your Writing Career.”

“People who are at live lit are not there to see a specific writer,” says Telfer. “They’re not Joyce Carol Oates-ing it.”

Without the benefit of big-name authors, live lit shows rely on the work itself to draw their crowds. And they have succeeded. Big time. Just ask the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, RedEye, and Poets & Writers. Their goals seem modest. When explaining how she got started, Norris says, “Leaving your Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and going out to see a show, that’s a risk. I’m trying to make a show that’s better than a couch.” More than that, though, live lit has brought about a movement of storytelling for everyone, both inside and outside of academia, publishing, and the literary establishment—a movement that is being noticed throughout the country. With help from Victor David Giron, the president, publisher, and “Jefe” of Curbside Splendor Press, this movement has received a degree of validation through the publication of works by live lit performers Samantha Irby and Megan Stielstra. “Giron’s the kingpin of Chicago lit,” says Ecker. “Puts us more on the map as a literary hot spot.”

This is great news for Chicago writers. There are plenty of opportunities in this city to learn how to perform, rather than just read, your work. Attend one of the many reading series. Take notes. Sign up for classes with the masters who teach them at StoryStudio, Write Club Academy, 2nd Story, or elsewhere. If you’re a teenager, look into 826CHI or Young Chicago Authors, which Ecker and Telfer are involved in, respectively. Every year, YCA produces Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world—and those kids can perform. If you’re in college, earn credit by becoming an intern. Both Norris and Ecker—and probably every other showrunner out there—are always in search of interns, and Telfer would be, too, if his series hadn’t ended its five-year run last month. Participate in open mics and practice, practice, practice. Ease your way into the reading series, starting, perhaps, with Do Not Submit, and working your way up to the most challenging ones: the carefully orchestrated 2nd Story and the hyper-competitive Write Club. When asked if there is another series they admire, Norris mentions Write Club, saying, “What I love about Write Club is that it’s terrifying for the performers.” Win one of its “Loving Cups of Deathless Fucking Glory” and you’ll know you’ve got the performance thing down. With all the opportunities here, the day should come when, if a storyteller kills in, say, Nebraska, someone in the audience will say, “Oh, that one must be from Chicago.”

Of course, at some point, you might be interested in starting a live lit show of your very own. That’s more than a matter of just assembling a line-up of talented writers. Throughout the discussion, we learn that there are three primary areas of concern: concept, promotion, and hosting.


Norris: “What is their hook? What differentiates them? Why see these people in a room rather than these other people in a room?”

Ecker: “Timing is big. What is the audience’s level of endurance? I find that anything over ten minutes [per story] is going to put people off, put them to sleep, or agitate them.”


Ecker: “Don’t put the onus on performers to bring the audience. Have a plan for people to know that your show exists. Web presence, press releases, going out, getting to know other people in the community.”


Norris: “The host is the lubricant of the evening. I’ve been to shows where the hosts are uncomfortable to be there, apologizing for it. Your job is to tell the audience what to do next. That’s what they want you to do.”

Ecker: “When I introduce a performer, I’m the buffer. I have to walk the audience from laugh town to tear city.”

Telfer: “There’s this great episode of Futurama where Bender, the robot, becomes God, and then he meets the actual God. God says to him, ‘If you do it right, people aren’t sure you did anything at all.’ You have to take your ego out of it.”

That last piece of advice, as Telfer himself points out, can be applied to writing in general, and perhaps every art form. As writers, we want our audiences to get so lost in our stories that they forget themselves, never mind us. We learned proper spelling and grammar to achieve this on the page. If we haven’t done so already, the time has come for us to learn effective delivery techniques to achieve this on the stage. Chicago is the perfect place for this.



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