A crowd queued by the velvet rope stepping towards the doorway to the theater where two women handed out programs and packets of seeds. The program read: The Encyclopedia Show Series 6, Volume 8: The Prairie. Beneath the heading is a radial collage, all the artwork designed by Mark Butchko, composed of faded picture scraps fanning out like spokes on a wheel, displaying bumper-to-bumper traffic; riot police carrying shields, wearing helmets, wielding billy clubs; soldiers motioning a crowd of black men; a prostitute in fishnet stockings, and a .38 all surrounding a lonely, pink flower. The same flower is printed on the packet of seeds.
The final show played at Stage 773, a purple building off Belmont Avenue. The theater buzzed in conversation and laughter as the audience filled up the seats around the stage. Every Encyclopedia show since December 2008 picked a theme by flipping open (you guessed it) an encyclopedia and choosing a subject off the page a month before the next show. The format has been such a success it has spawned regional iterations in Austin, TX, Phoenix, AZ, Boston, MA, and Washington D.C. to name a few.
The topics have ranged from cheer leading, Village of Schaumburg, nightshades, a history of February 7th, Alan Turing, explosives, origins of life, and the universe (A good chunk of their shows has been recorded and archived by Chicago Amplified) They would commission a troupe of artists ranging from slam poets, essayists, musicians, comedians, and storytellers to “present a verbal and musical encyclopedia entry each month. Though the show is accredited by the Institute of Human Knowledge and Hygiene, it is our ongoing mission to chafe against logic and proof, find meaning in obfuscation, and wrest truth from fact once and for all.”—live chafing, mind you.
Most Encyclopedia Shows also offered an expert or celebrity to provide background for the topic, and the list is impressive: Bill Ayers on explosives, Jamie DeWolf, great grandson to L. Ron Hubbard, on cults, to Marc Smith, the founder of slam poetry, and many others.
Before each show began, the two founders, Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney sit in leather chairs by lamplight reading picture books on a stage meant to resemble their living room. Robbie dressed in a suit jacket and chinos wearing a ruffled, indigo shirt while Shanny wore a small tweed jacket over a brown dress. They resembled two stodgy academics, or as Joel Chmara, the night’s presiding fact-checker, described them as “two nerds in heat.” (What’s a fact-checker you ask? We’ll get to that) Though they’re crafted artifice may evoke truth-seeking and Ivy League pretension, the instant the show began, the facade of fact-finding and abstruse encyclopedia reading was subverted into a mask for a variety of performers to wear. The Encyclopedia Show chafed and rejected the form of knowledge packaged in dull monographs, in lifeless encyclopedia entries that curtailed curiosity, and sacrificed beauty for facticity. On stage, knowledge was formed in an arabesque, not a syllogism.
Robbie and Shanny always opened with their signature banter, peppering the audience with (mis)information and trivia:
“Did you know that the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Guy Fawkes Day, the ides of March, and September 11th, all happened on February 7th?” Robbie exclaimed.
The crowd awkwardly laughed as Shanny solemnly replied, “Never forget.”
“[If] it is only your first time [at the show] it’s like, oh cool I get this, but if you come a lot, you start to recognize recurring characters and rituals that we do.” Tim Stafford said in the lobby after the final show.
Tim Stafford is a slam poet who had worked with Robbie on different projects like the Speak’Easy ensemble. Tim has played many roles in the show whether as a performer or as part of the recurring cast.
On the last show, Tim played a disgruntled fact-checker. He strutted on stage to inform Robbie and Shanny that the Institute had enough of their chafing and flouting of the facts. Tim had been instructed to remove them from the stage before the show began. Unfortunately, he added, his surliness fading, he could only carry a few things at a time—his back hurt, he parked eight blocks away refusing to pay the city’s outrageous rates.Throughout the night, Tim reappeared to carry off parts of the set, weary and haggard, shirt untucked, and limping from the death march of a walk. Ingeniously, he served as the show’s hourglass dwindling down to its final act.
The fact-checker is the person sitting at the desk on stage in the corner accompanied by two framed certificates, I assumed from the Institute, and a chalkboard divided into two columns where they tallied the truths and untruths throughout the night. Many performers have played this role since the first season. Joel Chmara sat behind a desk on stage as the night’s presiding fact-checker. Robbie stopped between acts to ask how the truth was fairing so far.
On most shows, the truth took a beating.
Joel wore a navy blue suit with his hair slicked back like a corporate schmuck presiding in smug judgment over the stage. He delivered commentary like: “One untruth, the Adam guy sang: Abandoned strip malls where bison used to roam. Not true, they shopped online.”
Robbie, Shanny, the fact-checker, Patrick the Intern—the poor lad who took a verbal beating from the cast—and the Encaratagans, the house band from the lawless cesspool of Techomasack, Wisconsin composed the recurring chorus that enveloped disparate performances into a (mostly) seamless show.
In act one, Naomi Ashley a singer-songwriter sang about the Lake Michigan Lobe, the glacier that carved out the Midwestern plain where the Illinois tall grass prairie thrived. Adam Gottlieb, another musician, played a song lamenting the removal of bison from the prairie, and the purging of Native Americans eventually replaced by industrial society. Nate Marshall wrote a candid, eloquent poem on prairie pollinators, reflecting on the barbarism of pesticide that disrupted the ecosystem, destroying the prairie’s ability to flourish, resembling the all-too-familiar machinations of racism.
Laura Balinski pretended to be a prairie dog filling out a magazine survey.
The audience laughed anticipating recurring bits, watching the fact-checker wryly tally an untruth as Shanny made a point. The tone of the show fluctuated from quirky to solemn to passionate, deftly exploring subjects of colonialism, genocide, gentrification, and racism without slipping into righteous indignation or pretension.
Joel Greenberg, author of Of Prairie, Woods, and Water was interviewed as the night’s expert, fleshing out the basics on prairies: their formation, the flora and fauna, where in Illinois to see one, and the steps communities need to take in order to preserve them.
And soon after the second act, the innocuous encyclopedia entry began to garner new meanings and significance as the fact-checker tallied, the hosts joked and commentated, the band played on the keyboard and guitars while the audience snapped their fingers to the next great turn of phrase. The prairie had become something precious and fragile over the wandering course of the show.
Before the beginning of act three, Robbie addressed the coming end of the series:
“One of the biggest reasons that we are not doing the show anymore is that a lot of really kind and nice people have donated their time and their brilliance to put this together these last six years…I don’t want to ruin the friendships, so we have decided to not ask each other to do an insane amount of work every month.”
It wasn’t a surprise to hear that most of the connections between the cast and performers are through mutual friends ranging from college, education programs like Young Chicago Authors or Louder than a Bomb, and even reaching back to high school and summer camps. During the show, the banter and interactions felt natural and unscripted. An audience member remarked in the lobby, “I couldn’t tell what was real, and what was a stunt, it was the best [improvisational] show I’ve seen.”
Shanny performed first on prescribed burns weaving in her own insecurities over the history of the series into the symbolic and necessary act of burning prairies to keep the grasslands intact.
“Since December 2008 we have personally produced more than sixty shows, we’ve had around five hundred contributors doing five hundred different assignments. We have had approximately one hundred fifty Sunday afternoon meetings.” Shanny said.
“And the thing is, we’re all still friends, we all still hug when we greet each other. A controlled prescribed fire is essential to keep a prairie, a prairie. We’ve gotta torch this [show] before the weeds grow, and then soon, a new prairie will emerge from the ashes.”
Shanny returned to her seat and introduced Robbie, describing the moment they met:
“…he said never forget my name was Phil…He became my mentor and every day since then has changed for the good.”
Robbie’s piece on plant life coincided with Shanny’s performance. He began recounting the lazy taxonomy of prairie plant life by Europeans, classifying every next flower and plant as weeds.
“A weed often is defined as a plant that is unwanted.” Robbie said.
“My favorite definition of a weed…is any plant that doesn’t participate in the community of an ecosystem.”
Robbie Q. Telfer’s brilliance as a host is exemplified by his command of almost every skill as a performer. On stage he plays host, commentator, interviewer, storyteller, comedian, and poet, equipped to deliver a one liner, or to describe the iridescence of a prairie, and “the deer paths cutting through tangles of grass.”
Even in the show’s mistakes, when Robbie knocked over the projector on stage, when they forgot to setup the audio for the video screen, when Robbie stopped the show to give a pizza delivery guy his credit card information (yes, that happened, and it was so god damn amazing) A synergy formed between the cast and crowd that rendered any blunder into performance.
Robbie delivered the coda to the night’s encyclopedia entry, and the show’s ultimate aim:
“We wanted to use the artifice of ‘edutainment’ as a tool for persuasion…We are stopping, not because we feel like we failed, but because we want to turn this community outward again, take what we learned, and attack the ills of the world with fresh eyes…Through six years of evolution, we’ve made this delicate little ecosystem, now we want to turn it into action, that’s why we gave you the [packet of seeds] at the door…Listen all of you, non-natives of Chicago, most of us didn’t ask to be sewn here. But here we’ve grown. Together, for the last six years we’ve grown together, now what can we do to make our shared community survive. Plant the right seeds. Plant them.”