2nd Story is a performance series offering well-rehearsed dramatic readings with live musical accompaniment. Their Story Week event at Martyrs’ pub bridged the gap between literature and performance in an emotionally powerful and enormously entertaining way, and is one answer to what I think of as “the question of audience.”
Much has been done in the past several years to bring readings out of college lecture halls and bookshops, and into bars and night spots. Despite this, the majority in the crowds at these events are college students or college adjunct wage slaves, along with the legions of other bookish weirdos and beardos who, if asked, will probably tell you they are writers. The fact is, it is mainly writers who want to see (non literary-celebrity) fiction readings.
The phenomenon of fiction readings as nightlife events is simultaneously strengthened and undermined by its own internal contradictions of both aesthetic and purpose. The sociological/artistic purpose these events serve for people who self-identify as “writers” is clear: a chance to interact with a community that affirms this identity, to enjoy fiction-related discourse, to promote one’s work, to discover the work of others, and to socialize. These events come out of writing communities, not-so-charitably described as “cliques” or even as “literary gangs” by those who favor Chicago’s gritty brand of hyperbole.
(I like the last one, as I find it exciting to think of myself moving in gang circles. Perhaps they’re like the secret cabals of the Illuminati, where if you get to the point of discovering their workings, it means you already unwittingly became a member.)
But what is the appeal of the independent “literary event” for those not actively involved in the world of writers? This is the question of audience. Surely, there are easier ways to discover new authors. When hearing a story, it is often difficult to differentiate the quality of its content from the charisma of its reader. Additionally, many of these readings are held in bars. Alcohol is not known to elevate the appreciation of nuance. Writers (for the most part) have a level of patience for readers at events that normal people do not. So how is this “audience question” supposed to be approached?
Event organizers have addressed the question of how to make the reading of literature more appealing to a live audience with varying degrees of success. A mandate of shorter selections better holds audience attention (or makes everything feel rushed). An element of audience interactivity can make the audience more attentive (or more likely to heckle or talk, as respect for a fourth wall is no longer implied). The writers can be encouraged become as drunk as the audience, which can be entertaining (or tedious). An additional audio-visual component can give the reading broader sensory appeal (or make it gimmicky).
Readers at these events often try to answer the audience problem by becoming performers. They sing, peacock, take on personas, wear outlandish costumes, or try to become stand-up comics. As writers are usually obnoxiously preening or dreadfully awkward, these strategies are rarely endearing. (As a writer who once introduced myself at a reading by singing a verse of “It’s Not Unusual” before telling the crowd I had a degenerative nervous-system disorder, which is not true, I do not excuse myself from this.) The ideal reader at an event, for me, is a steady-voiced, well-inflected, un-affected, bag of meat existing to deliver words into a microphone so they may become stories in my brain. Usually, I like my actors awesome and my writers boring. (If you are both a writer and an actor, and good at this, I resent your surfeit of talent and therefore exclude you from this evaluation. You probably also play the violin, speak three languages, went to a private school, and adhere to a strict dietary and exercise regimen. Good for you. Enjoy your next summer in Paris.) However, 2nd Story bridges this gap, and can do it quite well.
I know very little about 2nd Story’s workings, but from where I stand it seems to me they do a fine job of helping writers become better performers and vice-versa. All four acts were excellent at the Story Week launch party. April Newman is a hilarious and gifted storyteller, and her piece on Sunday at Martyrs’ showcased a confident presence combined with genuine vulnerability—a tough combo to pull off. Eric May’s story had the crowd roaring with laughter without undermining the more uncomfortable issues of racial and social anxiety addressed by it. Lott Hill must be an actor/writer (curse you, Mr. Hill, and your unnatural cross-breeding of talents). The venue was rapt by his story, and I certainly never thought I would find myself singing a George Michael song in public and find it a joyfully resonant moment. Patricia Ann McNair’s piece was the most structurally ambitious of the lot, combining different time-limes and physical journeys into a single and profound expression of the inevitability of both love and death.
McNair’s performance was the only time I resented the theatricality of 2nd Story, the only moment when I wanted nothing but a voice. The story had its own music, and needed no back-up band. Love and death leave us with only words and silence, and sometimes they are the only things in the world I want.