Performance Art.  Spoken Word.  Don’t stop reading yet.

David Sedaris comes to my town fairly often, once or twice a year.  He can fill up a 4,000-seat theater, or quickly sell out an eight-night run at a smaller one.

Last year, the Associating Writing Programs conference, a gathering of folks affiliated with BFA and MFA writing programs, took place over a long weekend in Chicago.   A few writers held a reading in an El car, then walked to a bookstore for the proper event. 

Every month at the Makeout Room in San Francisco, the on-line magazine The Rumpus hosts a night of entertainment: food, music, writers, comedy.  And it’s some of the city’s best musicians, published novelists–the folks who are at the center of making new work in their city in 2010–hanging out, casually, in one place.

One of the most successful emerging theater companies in Chicago doesn’t stage plays and doesn’t rent theater space.  2nd Story presents true-life narratives in bars, museums, sex-toy stores, and, occasionally, conventional theater venues like the Goodman.  The performances are one-off, well rehearsed, and portable; they have freed themselves from the conventions of the six-week, four-show-a-week run.

These venues are the social and artistic hubs of live performance in 2010, as essential to the culture of a city as any theater.

In Toronto, the Trampoline Lecture Hall series features three performers at each event.  Each person gives a lecture  on a subject on which they are not a professional expert: The Perfect Baguette; How to Dance in Public; Wigs.

Pecha-Kucha nights are selling out worldwide.  Each participant gives a lecture with 20 slides, and is given 20 seconds to talk about each slide.

Our own 2am host, David Loehr, has created 360, an “open source” format for live storytelling events.

Variety shows have sprung up all over my town, from the Reconstruction Room to Cabaret Vagabond to Quickies  to The Paper Machete (where, this coming Saturday, I will be giving a short lecture on why “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas has become the centerpiece of wedding DJ setlists).  New York has the Moth and the Happy Ending series.  Some are purely literary.  Some, like the Literary Death Match, combine published writers with parlor games.

Some of these are full-fledged not-for-profits.  Others have no overhead and use a microphone and the bar’s sound system.  Most feature published and recognized writers, musicians, and artists.

None of this is called Spoken Word.

None of this is called Performance Art.

None of this has the burden of easy-to-ridicule stereotypes. 

And yet these nights carry the same qualities that those terms once carried, before they became dated and ridiculous. 

Some of what these nights offer is:

  1. Value, for both hosts and audience.  Low overhead, reasonable prices.
  2. Talent.  Established writers and performers.
  3. A home away from home.  A gathering of regulars.
  4. Parlor games. 
  5. Amateurs and Professionals.  Talented folks in an intimate environment
  6. A group curated by its own social circle.
  7. A social environment.  Someone could get to make out; someone could get a job.

Sometimes the only way to reinvent theater is when nobody calls it theater: not the audiences, not the hosts.

There isn’t even a proper place to list these events in most newspapers and magazines, because there isn’t yet a simple buzzword.

It’s theatrical and social; it’s literary and casual.  And it’s happening now.  It could be happening at your theater.

  • July 28, 2010
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