by Dennis Kempton | Oeuvre Magazine
Stephen Sondheim once remarked, “When the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you’ve written.” There’s such a vivid and palpable difference between reading what one has written, alone, in the safe confines of one’s home, one’s writing space, even among your closest friends, family, and artistic admirers, and getting up in front of an audience of people who have come to be entertained.
And it does change the temperature of what you’re written. With the lights half obscuring the audience and the microphone at the ready, the words you prepared in the sanctity of your most private space that issued from your most interior security zone take on all new kinds of meanings and consequences. Reading personal works in public is laying bare to the elements: the weather of the audience, the atmosphere of the very space itself, the wind of sighs or laughs, groans, or gasps, the wave of knowing nods, and the clap of applause. Either a storm is swirling about the room, lifted from white pages stained with the black sadness of letters and words or a tropical breeze of humor takes profound life experiences and sets them aloft on a warm remembrance, floating somewhere just over the heads of the audience to shine down in soft rays of familiarity and ease.
Renegade Theater Company’s second foray into the tricky territory of storytelling for an audience proved to be as well-received as its first. Attracting a capacity audience Friday evening, there was as much emotional give and take from those sitting in the house seats as can be possible without people actually standing up and embracing each artist as they departed the stage. Renegade executive director Andy Bennett did a great job, intentionally or not, of arranging the artists by mood, letting the natural rise and fall of emotions and tensions create that potent mix of flat out laughter and contemplative satisfaction to which each writer contributed on the stage.
Bennett, himself, opened the night with the first in the “stories of education” theme that wove itself through each writer’s reading. There is a subtle heartrending quality to Bennett’s storytelling and personal writing that gives splinter glimpses into a childhood of awkward self-consciousness. He often describes himself as the “fat kid” and underdog in his boyhood social milieu. The comedy comes in the reflection, where it is a device to highlight the sadness and plight of the human condition without overtly gilding the lily. In essence, Bennett’s tale about standing up to his older brother’s petty torments when his mother tells him during a tattling phone call that he has to “deal with it” is a delightful underdog experience, allowing the audiences to connect with the common experience while cheering ultimate, unlikely triumph. Bennett’s rapid delivery takes no prisoners; neither does his self-deprecating wit.
The same rings true for writer Lucie Amundsen, a comedic tour-de-force in that unexpected way that sneaks up on you after you get past her smile and soft voice. Amundsen’s comically heartbreaking story of the nerdy girl invited by one of the hottest guys on campus to go camping with him and his picture-perfect sister is a story that anybody can connect with in some scenario or another. One’s heart sinks for Lucie when she breaks her ankle on the eve of the trip and we cling, with her, to the slippery walls of the shower stall where she bravely attempts to hold up not only her body, but her last vestiges of personal dignity, from crashing to the floor below.
Other notable readings included repeat storyteller and poet Ryan Vine in a continuing irreverent take on “rules” of life including a memorable poem about strippers, a mirrored disco ball, and a rising sun, evoking shimmery imagery despite the humor and underlying sadness in the lines he read on stage. Vine was followed on stage by renowned local poet Barton Sutter whose “education” piece about a young boy accompanying his father in an attempt to help a woman escape an abusive home during the depths of winter was an unexpectedly quiet shock to the consciousness followed up by a heartfelt and spirit warming poem about the rules of dog life. Poet Gary Boelhower read four short poems, one of which, titled “Student Appeal” about a troubled girl seeking another chance at her academic career implores that school is her way out, was especially touching. Boelhower’s dramatic reading style is naturally suited for audiences. The poets were joined by first-timer Julia Klatt Singer whose whisper soft poetry and vivid imagery lent a beautiful literary contrast to the masculine strength and subject matter of the evening’s other poets.
New additions Scott Stein touched the senses with a humorous essay about appreciating life more in the fear of losing his eyesight and Claire Kirch rendered a galloping meander about childhood, loss, and chocolate. Veteran storyteller Elizabeth Nordell’s revelation about her years as a Spanish teacher in an inner city school was a story of hope amid a concrete and bleak backdrop of a failing system.
While the thread of education ran through each story and poem, sometimes with strength and most often with subtle touches, there certainly was nothing overtly contrived or forced about keeping with that concept. What was generous about the evening’s selections and the artists was the allowance of each to explore, interpret, and convey one’s own imagery of the educational experience: from overcoming internal fears to holding on to the slenderest threads of hope to the disappointing realizations of just how things “are” in life.
There exist so few opportunities for artists in the local scene to present their works in front of such a diverse and enthusiastic audience. Zenith City Tales, no matter what the theme has been or will be in future programs, busts every stuffy stereotype of the literary reading experience. Pretension and ego are left to some other place and are replaced by depth of emotion, a vessel of truth tempered with the loving balm of humor, and, above all, a lasting respect for the vulnerability of revealing, aloud, what is in every writer’s most interior space.
If you haven’t gone to one of these readings, make it to the next one. That is, if you can find a seat. Definitely recommended.
© 2012 Oeuvre Magazine. All rights reserved.