Musings of a rock mom rebel


When Story Jam Began...

There are a handful of would-be mavericks in Dwight Conquergood's "Performance of Nonfiction" class.

All of the other theatre majors have stuck to the classics, the comedy, the Sondheim, but we unwitting few arrive from either of two stances. Either: 1. We didn't get into the class we really wanted; or 2. some savvy advisor has plopped us in here to teach us a damn life lesson.

As the title suggests, we in class are charged with bringing nonfiction pieces of literature to life through the art of theatrical performance.

There is a rumor that some obnoxious Yale undergrads have produced a play in which the audience watches them live their lives. They eat, nap, expose themselves, talk on the phone...and we Northwesterners find this astounding. Charging people money to watch amateur actors change and eat cereal! It's the most ridiculous fucking brilliant stupidest thing we've ever heard.

But Dwight has seen all of that "theatrically brave" nonsense before, and he implores us to dig deeper. Our final exam is a 40-minute autobiographical performance of someone, anyone, who has been in the public eye, using only printed material spoken by our subjects and fashioned as a narrative. Sarah H. does Joni Mitchell, Mark B. does Malcolm X. Obsessed with Woody Allen films (this is before the whole sleeping-with-his-daughter thing), I choose Annie Hall's luminescent Diane Keaton. The show is in the black box and every seat is full.

It's dear Dwight's free-spirited creativity coupled with a quaint love of reading personal betterment tomes that first sparks my interest in nonfiction performance. After scouring the country to find my place in the world of theatre, film, and music, perpetually pretending to be someone I'm not—Marlene Dietrich, Hippy #5, Suicidal Mom, Movie Star...—I now realize where Story Jam comes from.

When the green room costumes are re-set, hanging and sharpied (in David Perkovich's hit production of "Piaf," my "Marlene" suit at one end of the rod, Hollis Resnik's "Edith" dress at the far, far, far other end), when the theatres of America go dark, I hightail it to stages much more homey: the deep-seedied rooms of Chicago's dive bars.

Nothing is more natural than standing on a smoke-filled stage with a batch of convention-wouldn't-have-us troubledoers, screeching out the words that I, not Pam Gems nor even HRH Sir Anton Chekhov, wrote, in neighborhoods nice girls never dare go.

How long does it take to become more Hynde than Hamlet? More Lauper than Liza? To realize that I pine for performance fully implanted in reality, or at least someone's real AF version of it?

Honestly, decades

It's 2014, I'm earning myself a respectable artists' living, working weekends with my event band, which is booked up all summer for weddings and fundraisers. I'm on a gig in a far suburb with a new sound team who wants to prove their prowess and fill the room with big huge massive speakers.

"Hey! This isn't Madison Square Garden, guys!" I keep scream-announcing.

I ask them to turn down, then they turn back up in a push-pull, my-speakers-are-bigger-than-yours battle that continues all night. I've long given up wearing in-ears (those are the things you see inside Beyonce's ears whenever you accidentally catch her performances on awards shows), so the sound is an utter aural clusterfuck. Also, where are my custom ear plugs?

My poor ears have not stopped ringing. They're ringing right now. 

Yet, a life without playing music is a life unlivable.

There's really nothing like the realness, the rawness, the immediacy, the energy, of rocking out. Maybe there's a way to front the band and be onstage, with intermittent offerings that can also provide a break for some sensitive ears?

Live lit is already booming in Chicago. Weekly shows of pub crawl truth-telling. The only thing missing is some kind of musical dovetailing. I sit sit and watch. Listen. Long for a music break, a melodic interweave.

Thus, Story Jam is conceived.

I thank the goddess who sent us chocolate (sorry Dwight, chocolate first!), Dwight Conquergood, pop rock music, and live lit storytelling (which, seven years ago, came to me as an overwhelming surprise, yet its existence should be no surprise at all, since Spaulding Gray, Donald Davis, Lily Tomlin, and many others were doing solo shows, monologues, and storytelling long before we kids could claim credit).

If it weren't for all that stuff, and for those fearless, early souls in bars and black boxes who placed their cocktails on the floor, stood up, and bravely walked to the mic to bare their heart-wrenching, hilarious souls, then I fear my creative output would be limited to mind-numbing, Yale-style You Tube shows (" I am now, arguing my bill with AT&T; now eating kale; now journaling by the fire..."), or perhaps venomous lettres to the (pick your conservative news outlet) editor and lonely guitar strums (no jazz chords please!).

With a profound love for nonfiction performance, and some (not desperately defunct, but definitely diminished) ears, Story Jam is where I've taken up permanent artistic residence.

Sometimes that residence is a cot in a dingy back room, stained in smoke and puke; sometimes it's a bedazzled chorus line of high flying kicks. It's full of belly laughs and tears and community and friendship and sweat and oohs and ahhhs and blood and chaos and incredible joy and endless soldiering on.

The soldiers are storytellers, brave as any come before; and the blood is their lives. Your life. Mine.

It's better than that bottle of fake stuff you get at Ben Nye.


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