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Live Lit Blows Through the Windy City

Live Literature—or Live Lit, as it’s known to those in the community—is a hybrid form that lies somewhere between slam poetry and stand-up comedy, a literary reading and improv theater. It’s performance art, but it’s unpredictable and, at times, interactive. At its core, the form is simply good, old-fashioned storytelling—and within the past four years it has taken off in Chicago, propelling various Live Lit events to be among the hottest tickets in the Windy City.

Live Lit was popularized in part due to the success of storytelling nights hosted by the Moth in New York City in the late nineties, though many contemporary shows have deviated from the Moth’s story-slam format. In Chicago, the scene has not just expanded but exploded, quickly becoming the largest storytelling community in the country. Dana Norris, founder of 
the popular series Story Club (www.storyclubchicago.com), says that when she started her show in 2009 there were only two other Live Lit events in Chicago. Today, she estimates there are “at least fifty per month, probably more.”

You can find a show on most any night of the week, sometimes as many as three or four happening at once, and many sell out quickly. Each show has its own ethos, its own rules, and its own niche within the larger community. Story Club features a combination of open-mike and scheduled performers, each of whom are given eight minutes to tell whatever kind of story they want—fiction or nonfiction—and featured performers are given a theme (recent examples include “Fire,” “Bad Plan,” and “Sticky”). But, much like improv, a theme is more a suggestion than a rule. Most of the time, anything goes.

The resulting shows span a host of topics: A piece about the pain of losing a parent to cancer might be followed by one that extols the virtues of breakfast cereals. This range is exactly what event hosts are after. Keith Ecker, founder of the long-running nonfiction series Essay Fiesta and the year-old Guts & Glory (cofounded with Bitches Gotta Eat blogger Samantha Irby), says that when he launched his first show in 2008, he wanted to put together a program that “would cover the full spectrum of human emotion.”

“We always say you’re going to leave with tears in your eyes,” Ecker says, “both tears of joy and tears of sorrow.”

Ecker, who comes from a comedy background, says that part of the impetus for getting involved in Live Lit was a reaction to the stand-up environment, whose cynicism and staged personas can, for some, get a little old. “People wanted something genuine and intimate,” Ecker says. “It’s about revealing yourself in a very vulnerable way, which goes against the kind of hipster-irony mentality.”

That sense of vulnerability is often key to the reception of a Live Lit piece. Performances are frequently unscripted, rather than read from the page, and show organizers agree that stories are more successful if they’re true. The more personal, the better.

“There’s a very thin membrane between performer and audience,” says Norris, adding that this personal element has helped foster the close-knit Live Lit community. “People really get to know each other.” Performers themselves make up only 10 percent or so of the audience for each show; the packed-house crowds generally comprise fans both die-hard and new, the majority of whom are women.

Several Chicago show-runners have recently expanded their series to other cities across the country. Ian Belknap, who runs Write Club (writeclubrules
.com), in which two writers deliver pieces on opposing sides of an idea, has successfully launched editions of his show in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto, and will soon expand to Seattle, Boston, and Nashville. But the consensus among show-runners is that the Chicago scene has a distinguishable energy. This past July, an estimated fifty-one Live Lit events took place in Chicago, compared to approximately thirty-two in New York and eighteen in the Bay Area.

The organizers say that the city’s history has a lot to do with Live Lit’s popularity. Chicago boasts a long tradition as an incubator for new kinds of performance art: The famed Second City improv-theater troupe was born there in the fifties, and in the eighties Marc Smith hosted the first-ever poetry slam at Chicago’s Get Me High Lounge. (The slam would move to its more permanent and famous home, the Green Mill, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, soon after.) Chicago is also known as a city that values storytelling and oral history, thanks to local legends like Studs Terkel and, more recently, radio personalities Ira Glass and David Rakoff.

“Chicago has the infrastructure for it, the backbone,” Norris says. “We have a history of different performance movements coming out of the city, so people are already used to the idea of going to a show and having a nontypical theatrical experience.”

Ecker adds that Chicago’s lack of an entertainment industry the size of New York’s or Los Angeles’s may have actually helped cultivate the city’s Live Lit scene. “We don’t have an industry here that allows you to be financially successful and independent as an artist, so we can really do whatever we want,” he says. “There are pros and cons to that; we can’t make a living off it as easily, but there’s really complete and utter freedom to experiment and fail.”

The hosts posit that the main reason the scene has taken off in the past few years, though, is closely connected to the communion between performer and audience.

“We’re all tethered to devices and screens and this mediated, removed experience,” says Belknap. “Being in shared space and experiencing an artistic literary event in real time with other human beings is something we have a thirst for.”

As for what’s next in the scene, Ecker, Norris, and Belknap are teaching Live Lit classes at Chicago’s StoryStudio writers center throughout the fall and winter, and working on various ancillary projects to expand the sphere of Live Lit even further. Belknap is putting together an anthology of Write Club’s greatest hits, and in October Ecker staged a play based on a fictional Live Lit show called Welcome to PleasureTown, which he likens to “A Prairie Home Companion on crack.” Other Live Lit shows, including Here’s the Story, This Much Is True, Story Lab Chicago, and Windy City Story Slam, among many others, continue to host an increasing number of events throughout the city. Norris, meanwhile, would love to see a more permanent, central home for the nascent community.

“I think the ultimate goal is to have a building that we can have classes in, an established theater that only does storytelling,” she says. “But right now it’s still brand new, it’s still a little baby.”  

Carrie Neill is the editor of Perspective Magazine and works at Blue Rider Press. She lives in Brooklyn, 
New York. Follow her on Twitter, @carrieeneill.

Credit: Monte Lamonte

Samantha Irby and Keith Ecker host Guts & Glory at a Powell's Bookstore in Chicago.

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Live Lit Blows Through the Windy City (November/December 2013)
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