A good live show leaves you feeling like you’ve just seen something so singular that you could not get it again, anywhere else. Since 2012, Guts and Glory has been a place for Chicago artists to share lit for the lionhearted, stories perhaps too tough or too tender for other venues. The stakes are high, the crowd is kind and that right place, right time spontaneity kept listeners coming back month after month. On Wednesday, May 20th, five brave and talented souls joined our two hosts to bid a final farewell to the series.
Over the years we have heard about sexual spreadsheets, religious conversions and addiction, mental illness, abuse and abandonment. Mothers and fathers have told stories about their children, and parental memories might be the most common theme of all—after bodily fluids. We have wept on the edge of the bed with one-night-stands and wrung our hands in the emergency room next to husbands and wives. In hotels with strange men we have questioned our choices, said our backseat goodbyes to more than one college boyfriend, and left home for what we thought was the very last time.
Radical acceptance has always balanced out the pressure to perform in a consistently heavy-hitting lineup, starting with the producers. Among many other things, Samantha Irby is the author of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat and the book Meaty. Keith Ecker is executive producer of the podcast Pleasuretown, founder of Essay Fiesta and teaches classes at Story Studio. Together they created a space where confession and connection go hand in hand, and in the spirit of that honesty the time had come for other ventures.
Per a Facebook message that the doors would open at 5:30 to accommodate the overwhelming number of RSVPs, the early birds and one fangirl writer showed up around then to get a seat. The tables and chairs had been pulled in anticipation of the crowd, and the room took on a summer camp vibe as people took their seats. Gold letters on the wall read “BEST NIGHT EVER.” No pressure. Time for a beer.
I caught up with Annie Sims, bartender extraordinaire, who has taken care of this weeping, giggling crowd since the show arrived at Schubas. “We’re really sad to see it go,” she said, estimating that she has been there for 90% of the shows. With some friends in the standup and live-lit universe, she got assigned to work these Wednesday nights and has since seen it all. “People bear really personal stories, she said, “you can watch them turn something bad into something people can laugh at. And there’s always a story about someone shitting their pants.”
Keith Ecker arrived, and soon after the performers trickled in and took their places. Sam Irby sat in a comfy chair with Sam Bailey on the floor beside her. JW Basilo and Dana Norris listened from the couch, while Jen Bosworth and Ian Belknap waited on the other side of the mic. I think for the most part the adrenaline of performance overwhelmed the urge to get sentimental, although I do believe I saw a few tears somewhere over by the couch. After the show Keith mentioned that it had yet to hit, but he would probably feel it when he got home that night.
The tension broke when Sam Bailey of the web series You’re So Talented lit the fuse with an energetic inventory of moments in the recent life. Her parting gift to the show was a passionate piece in her own style, deconstructing the linear story and reassembling it like a Transformer. Although she was a little relieved to be going first I would have cast her in the final slot, as I think her work has us headed in a new direction that I can’t wait to see.
Next up, actress and founder of Chicago Story Collective Jen Bosworth recounted life in LA with exactly the kind of candid honesty that hooked us all on this series. Like many tellers, her experience of being on the edge of the supposed “cool kids” brought complicated relationships with fellow fringe dwellers. I have always wished more young people could hear stories like these. It is so fortifying to watch a person knit their most isolating moments into something strong and wrap it around the audience, and Bosworth’s energy is irresistible.
Dana Norris of Story Club fame also spoke about isolation, in a gripping portrayal of motherhood in the first few months. Worn down by sleep deprivation and too exhausted to rest, she succumbed to a lonely blame game on maternity leave. When she told us of finally sharing the burden with her husband, I had tears in my eyes. His reassurance and her sweeping relief were sweet as the crack of crème brulee.
Irby introduced poet and performer JW Basilo next, with gratitude for one of his past stories that had moved her in the past. As he took the mic he blurted out the sentiment of all who spill their guts or glory. “This is fucking terrifying,” he said, and began. With the obligatory references to Serial, his was a cautionary tale about how it felt to encounter someone else’s story and use it for your own purposes. His emotions run just barely under the surface and he read with a sense of urgency and palpable heartache.
I thought of many stories at Guts and Glory that have featured lovers, friends, parents and children known to the audience only by a few details, never to be met in person. Over time some of these people have become recurring characters, pieced together by shreds of fact and embellishment. We feel intimately connected, even angry or betrayed, although we will surely never know them.
I remember a year ago after a particularly harrowing story, the teller mentioned shyly that her husband was in the room that night. She had painted their ordeal so vividly that the crowd sighed with happy relief. They craned their necks to see this character come to life among us, jumped off the page and made his way upstairs to our little room.
If you have ever wondered what rapt attention sounds like, you would have known it during Write Club Overlord Ian Belknap’s beautiful reading. I can honestly say that this thoughtful examination of suffering and forgiveness is one of the best stories I have heard. It called to mind another reason why Guts and Glory stood out from so many others.
Like that self-reporting survey proclaiming that we are each the safest driver on the road, we are so rarely the antagonist of our own stories. Our role softens in the re-telling, as we nudge the green spotlight onto the other guy. For all the self-discovery that takes place on the receiving end of cruelty, we may have as much to learn when we are cast as the one who doles it out- to others and to ourselves. Over the years at I have seen many brave folks do their moral accounting at the mic with the respect of all in the room, and it never ceased to amaze me.
Keith’s writing and performance style often has a rock-em sock-em robots quality that I love the most about Guts and Glory, whether I’m hit with a suckerpunch of laughter or caught up by sudden tears. His stories are honest and specific, and connected to the larger world in a way that affords them staying power. In a timely and bittersweet story about quitting, the conclusions he drew about the view from our parents’ generation resonated loud and clear.
As Ecker’s work exemplifies, the mere confessional could not cut it at Guts and Glory. It cannot be just about the fuck words, the screaming matches or the shit hitting the fan. You may not simply throw your diary on the overhead projector for the whole class to see.
Sam and Keith connected us to well-told work with real construction and craft. Smart stories demanded more from the listener than just a shudder or a laugh, and raised the bar for tellers often performing alongside people they themselves had read and admired. It has been a venue to watch performers cutting the edge of form and content, embracing experimentation and showcasing skill.
I know I said there was too much going on to get sentimental, but at this point I may have felt a little pang of something or other in my ribcage. When Sam Irby approaches the mic at Guts and Glory it means you are about to piss yourself laughing, and then cry when you realize what you are laughing about. Irby brought the house down with a response to a choice piece of mail from one of her racist, confused hater-fans. Before she found Irby’s blog Bitches Gotta Eat, “I had never read anything like her,” Sam Bailey remarked. Although we will miss her at Schubas, the lady is a force of nature with good things on the horizon.
So, what is everybody doing after graduation? I’ve been waiting for this day,” Samantha Irby exclaimed, “I’m gonna take a break!” She might be taking time off from hosting, but not quite a vacation. By “break,” she means taking a few days away to get a head start on her new book, out in spring 2016 from Vintage.
In addition to getting a pizza after the show, Keith Ecker will continue work on the brilliantly inventive serial podcast Pleasuretown, which you should do yourself a favor and subscribe to here. As for what we should check out in the meantime? Irby recommends Write Club, You’re Being Ridiculous and always The Paper Machete, Saturday afternoons at the Green Mill. See you around, nerds!