Chicago Tribune Steve Johnson column
Apr 02, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Horseshoe, a bar less gentrified than its Lincoln Square neighborhood, visitors could see professor Bill Ayers telling the story of the Fox News conservatives who purchased a charity dinner at his home; ex-"Saturday Night Live" cast member Nora Dunn delivering an excerpt from her one-woman show; and two local comics riffing on what it means, exactly, that Snooki, of "Jersey Shore" infamy, is with child.
The Bama Lamas played several driving, horn-fueled R&B numbers while Christopher Piatt, the tall, bald host of the day's proceedings, danced to them like a whippet marionette.
With maybe half a dozen others taking a turn onstage as well, it was a full-on happening, a thorough entertainment dosage for the 100 or so who jammed the bar. And it, or something like it, happens regularly. For two years running, the free event, known as "The Paper Machete," has delivered a weekly collection of journalism, comedy, music and theater that Piatt bills as a "live magazine."
"As a host I want to throw a great party," says the 34-year-old former Time Out Chicago theater critic. "I want to keep a great flow of energy through the room, create a space where it makes sense to hear an essay by a Chicago magazine writer about local politics, followed by one of the Neo-Futurists (theater troupe), then a greaser rock band gets up and plays."
"Machete"is but one example of a burgeoning Chicago genre: the live, intensely local variety show (minus the connotations of plates spinning on poles) or, as some prefer to call the genre, the cabaret (without the whiff of Weimar Germany). Neither term is exactly right, but both get at the idea.
It's a new kind of "let's-put-on-a-show" aesthetic, one devoted to showcasing rising performers and nonperformers alongside established stars, to creating not so much a top-down event as a communal environment in which some of the community members happen to go up on stage now and again. While the general concept of the various efforts is similar, they differ in their specifics.
Elysabeth Alfano's new monthly series at the Mayne Stage uses as its metaphor the social event in her title, "The Dinner Party," and her focus is the worlds of art and cuisine. Mark Bazer, for four years, has served up "The Interview Show" monthly at The Hideout, with guests similar in range to "The Paper Machete's" -- and himself as a new-millennium, nonbroadcast Johnny Carson. On his next show Friday, he will interview Brian Dennehy.
Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney have put on "The Encyclopedia Show" since 2008, commissioning artists in various disciplines to treat a single topic: The next monthly edition (Wednesday) tackles, with the show's customary exclamation point, "Puberty!" Another fan of the exclamatory is "Potluck!": in three events since last year, it has offered selected Chicagoans the opportunity to speak before a paying crowd, for six minutes each, about a topic of their choice.
Big media players are in the game too. Since October 2010, the Chicago Tribune, in creative partnership with The Second City, has produced the omnibus "Chicago Live!" a couple of dozen times a year, showcasing newsmakers, performers, Second City players and, mostly as onstage interviewers of guests, Tribune staffers (including, full disclosure, this writer, a couple of times).
And this tally of variety events doesn't even count the city's more specifically focused scads of reading, comedy, poetry and storytelling series. Toss a microphone on the North Side, in particular, and it'll probably land in one: the Chicago edition of New York's The Moth. The Funny Ha-Ha comedy readings. The Windy City Story Slam. Write Club. Reading Under the Influence. This Much Is True. Etc., etc., etc. (There may even be a series called "Etc., etc., etc.")
What's new is "the density of it," says the Chicago writer James Finn Garner, who has performed or read at several of the shows. "I think they've been more prominent in New York for a long time, but now, suddenly, there's one in Chicago every night, and they're well populated with strong performers."
It's also a way for venues and writers alike to get noticed, no small feat in a tough competitive market for both, said Garner, whose idea that became a best-selling book ("Politically Correct Bedtime Stories") came out of a piece he wrote for Theater of the Bizarre, the variety show he hosted at the Elbo Room from 1989 to 1991.
"Writing is really solitary, and I strongly believe that reading in front of people will make everyone better," Garner said. "It blows away the barnacles on your writing."
Performance artist Brigid Murphy, another founding spirit of the scene, sees the movement as almost a direct reaction to the worlds of entertainment and information available now on multiple screens.
"I think it's like the other side of the high-tech, this need to communicate in a visceral, face-to-face way, to feel the sweat of the crowd," said Murphy, who teaches writing to college students and finds many of them eager to read their work out loud. "A lot of times when they get this wrapped up in social media, this desire to (be) lo-fi, to bring it to the people, is something they desire even more.
"It's also the do-it-yourself culture."
Murphy, 47, did it herself. A quarter-century ago, as Milly May Smithy, a sort of country-exuberant impresario, she led the first "Milly's Orchid Show," a live cabaret that went even further into performance than most of today's shows do.
She brought Blue Man Group, Eric Bogosian and David Sedaris before Chicago audiences, giving underground culture a public space.
"I don't know if I feel like the mother of it," she said with a laugh. "Mostly I feel out of it." Recent "Orchid Shows" have targeted younger audiences, partly because Murphy became a mother in her 40s and partly because "it's the kids that need it because the kids are so inundated with screens, screens, screens."
Piatt of "The Paper Machete" agreed: "People are always hungry for live entertainment, as opposed to digital entertainment. People are finding a sort of respite from that in the storytelling scene."
He asks his performers to avoid the first-person, in part to distinguish "Paper Machete" from the storytelling series. "There's a lot of autobiographical nudity going on," he said. "There's lots and lots of bars where you can find people talking about their lives. It's probably not that different from the surge in reality television and probably influenced by that."
What the shows have in common, said Lara Weber -- co-executive producer of Chicago Live! -- is "a similar spirit of recognizing there's a lot of Chicagoans interested in a lot of different pieces of culture. They want to go out and explore the city. They don't always have time to curate all the things going on in Chicago themselves."
The events are filling a cultural void, too, said David Stuart MacLean, a Chicago writer who, when he still lived in Houston, founded the Poison Pen Reading Series there.
"As sad as it is, the bookstore has lost its centrality as the locus of a reading community. But people are still reading," said MacLean, author of the memoir "The Answer to the Riddle Is Me," due out next year.
Instead of the performer being the brand that draws people, it's the series itself, the vibe and trust it has established. MacLean elaborated in an email: "People were coming for the event even if they didn't know the authors who were reading. ... There's community, spontaneity, reliability, and discovery. We also pay our readers in booze. That helps."
For the bar owners, it's a great bonus to have a full house at midday Saturday -- or at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday, in the case of "The Interview Show" at The Hideout.
"It's a great way to start a Friday," said Katie Tuten, one of the bar's owners, after the show's March edition. "I love it because it really is a variety show, and it's produced some of my Hideout highlights. I got to meet the architect Jeanne Gang! (The actor) John Mahoney!"
The bar also hosts the Funny Ha Ha and Write Club series and, recently, a variety show called Megachurch presented by the alt-folk-country band Dastardly, all of it helping hew to the owners' original vision of making their place not just a music venue but a full-range "clubhouse," Tuten said.
Although many of the performers at the shows cite the community aspect as the biggest draw, they do also see a publicity value.
"There are a lot of people in Chicago who are creating things that aren't going to appear on television, that aren't necessarily being published," said Bazer, 38, an advertising writer, former RedEye columnist and WBEZ-FM 91.5 blogger whose inspiration to start "The Interview Show" included both the Funny Ha Ha series and old video of television interviewer Dick Cavett.
After the March show, Jennifer Hall, a local singer and songwriter, said she did it "to play in front of people, and hopefully there's an exchange of energy."
"This makes sense. It makes sense," comedian Brian Babylon said after appearing as a guest, a last-minute replacement for Dennehy, who had to postpone until the April show (this coming Friday). "Chicago is a place where people take chances and do things" and where "genuineness" is rewarded. "People smell phony," he said.
The Goodman Theatre, where Dennehy will be performing in "The Iceman Cometh," steered the actor to "The Interview Show" amid more usual publicity stops. Previous Goodman actors who've done "The Interview Show" -- Joey Slotnick, Marc Grapey -- have come away impressed, said Denise Schneider, the Goodman's publicity director. "(Bazer) asks very smart, informed questions of the artists he has on," Schneider said. "He has really earned the respect of us."
There can be, to be sure, a certain insularity in the shows, with the same names cropping up, sooner or later, at all of them, plus the hosts themselves also making the rounds. But they all try, too, to break new guests, whether a big name or fresh talent.
As for where they go from here, it's hard do say. Bazer has done some fill-in shifts on WGN-AM 720 and said that of course he would love a chance to do "The Interview Show" in a more traditional media setting. But he's pretty happy with the nontraditional thing he's built, too, where, even with the Dennehy last-minute postponement, he had a full house for the March show.
"Machete," for its part, has an affiliation with WBEZ now, meaning some of the pieces end up on the public radio station's programs and the station helps facilitate the podcast of the show. But it is a not-for-profit that is not making a profit, the host said: After some early grant money, revenue now comes from passing the hat during the show.
Despite the firm Chicago roots, "the material we're creating has a national appeal," Piatt said. "My ambition is for 'The Paper Machete' to eventually be a nationally heard Chicago product."
In the meantime, though, he tries to operate like a "regular theatrical production company," putting up a fresh show each week and trying to remember that "we're only as good as the next show we produce. The bubble could burst on the spoken-word scene tomorrow. Or we could have some scandal."
He's joking there, but imagining what scandal might possibly befall the spoken-word scene could be a great topic for a piece at the next "Paper Machete."
A little variety
Wednesday: "The Encyclopedia Show"; 7:30 p.m., Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St.; $8
Friday: "The Interview Show"; 6:30 p.m., The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.; $8
Saturday: "The Paper Machete"; 3 p.m., Horseshoe, 4115 N. Lincoln Ave.; free
April 30: "Fear No Art Presents: The Dinner Party"; 7 p.m., Mayne Stage, 1328 Morse Ave.; $25
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