Without a doubt, Chicago is the biological parent of the spoken word. The city might laud and favor improv and sketch comedy out of all its performance art children, but there's an even younger sibling that's growing up--fast.
Live lit has taken the ageless practice of storytelling to a whole new level of artistry and it's booming in the Windy City. Yes, old-fashioned first-person narrative and essay--the kind you were forced to write through every stage of your academic life to learn how to communicate thought in a formalized and coherent manner--has become a fun way to spend a weeknight.
In truth, this organized but casual twist on storytelling and essay borrows from each of Chicago's other flourishing creative scenes.
"Take stand-up, take improv, take theater, take slam poetry, put them all in a blender and this is what comes out," said Dana Norris, founder, producer and host of Story Club, which began in 2009.
Dozens of these monthly live-lit shows have popped up on the North Side in the last few years in a manner that its curators can only describe as serendipitous.
"We all sort of identified this personal, artistic, expressive need individually and almost simultaneously," said Ian Belknap, creator of Write Club. "It's not that we're copycatting each other, it's that we all struck upon the thing that we as curators needed to have in the world that wasn't fully there in a way that was satisfying to us."
Belknap spent a number of years as an actor and a stand-up comic before starting Write Club in July 2010 and discovering live lit to be the thing that motivated him most. It's a similar story to that of many writers and performers who have gravitated toward the art form.
Keith Ecker, co-founder of Essay Fiesta and a brand-new show called Guts & Glory: Live Lit for the Lionhearted, said he burned out from the comedy world in part because of the competitiveness.
"I remembered how when I was part of the improv community it felt very cutthroat, it didn't feel it was as much 'everyone in this together,' " he said. "In no way am I knocking the improv/stand-up scene, I absolutely love it, but for me it was an issue of getting a little exhausted feeling that I was spinning my wheels in place and not really going anywhere, and my passion was more rooted in the writing element of things."
Ecker and others said they feel the honesty, intimacy and authenticity of live lit is what makes it stand apart from other forms of performance.
"We're really kind of stripping everything away," Ecker said. "When you go see a play, there's a distance between performers and the audience in a non-literal sense--we're engaging the audience and being vulnerable, and I think that that really resonates with an audience--to be spoken to directly and so intimately."
While performance storytelling at large can be traced to The Moth, the New York City-based non-profit started in 1997 that hosts nationwide storytelling events and slam competitions, the local live lit scene seems to naturally fit Chicago.
The evidence is even found in Chicago's radio history with legendary oral historian Studs Terkel and Ira Glass' "This American Life" on WBEZ.
"(In Chicago) we have this idea that a regular person can just tell a story and we can be compelled by it," Norris said. "We laud the working man in Chicago. This idea that anyone off the street has this authentic real experience is really important."
Consequently, Norris and others agree that live lit at the moment is extremely inclusive, that anyone who wants to can do it. A number of shows are geared toward helping or allowing time for new performers, and competition between people and shows doesn't exist.
"These other producers that I've met, I'm just in love with them," Norris said. "I don't know if this is just the way it begins in every movement that there isn't this competition or whatever, but what are we winning?"
In this spirit, most shows are free with a suggested donation to keep the show running or going to a philanthropic cause. In Write Club, which has a competitive structure, winners choose a non-profit organization to receive a portion of the night's cover charges.
"It's rooted in the impulse to build community and do good," Belknap said. "I know that sounds really namby-pamby and hippy-dippy, but given my limited, non-marketable set of skills, I want to have what impact I'm able to given what I'm best able to do."
Although there's talk in the scene of ways to make it financially viable, show producers are currently focused on expanding to new neighborhoods and looking for creative partners interested in helping.
Whether or not it becomes a Chicago institution like stand-up or improv, with dozens of shows and counting, expect to find live lit somewhere around the corner every month for a long time to come.
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