As the final Encyclopedia Show grew closer and closer to the end, a small feeling of dread blossomed in my stomach like the prairie plants of topic that evening. For years, I sat in the audience of The Chopin, the Vittum, and then finally Stage 773, feeling unbridled joy at the thought-provoking, topic-oriented performances that are signature of the “edutainment” phenomenon. But as the last installment of the final show reached the third act, I could not ignore the feeling that something monumentally important was leaving me behind in a world that was not ready for it to leave.
The Encyclopedia Show is well known because of academia-meets-vaudville aesthetics and original, conceptual format. But the reason it has been so important to us locals goes beyond its creative innovations. In <a href=https://chicagoliterati.com/2014/06/22/plants-of-the-prairie-by-robbie-q-telfer/>Telfer’s final piece for the show</a>, he emphasized the importance of contribution and participation in a community through the metaphor of plants. “I … believe communities are the only nonviolent power any group of like-minded people can have in an imperial world. We need communities of big-hearted people to save the prairie and we need the prairie to save our communities, to save ourselves.”
The statement was true and appropriate for the occasion. For regulars, there are few rooms we could walk into and feel such resounding warmth and welcome. It is truly unique to find an artistic space where so many writers and performers from so many different backgrounds come together seamlessly. Although many closed mic-format lit series have attempted to bridge gaps between different genres, few have been able to do so successfully.
One of the other signatures of Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney’s curation was their constant role as mentors to young people in the city. Ever nurturing of its youth audience, The Encyclopedia Show has always been a place where young and beginning writers could go to not only be taken seriously, but celebrated. For many of us, The Encyclopedia Show was our first “real” gig.
In its early days, The Encyclopedia Show became a monthly ritual for myself and my friends at Columbia, all of us poets, all of us very skeptical about both academia as well as this stuff called “live lit.” We were entertained and intellectually stimulated, but also intimidated, unsure of what we were witnessing.
Being very green to Chicago and poetry in general, it was also the first time I had been to a literary event without wishing I had stayed home filling out surveys on MySpace (because that’s what we were doing in 2008, I think). At one of the first shows I went to (on Dinosaurs), I watched a performance artist assemble a T-Rex skeleton on stage using Happy Meal boxes. Later, I’d watch Dr. Helen Morrison display John Wayne Gacy’s brain during an interview for the Serial Killers show. At their show on “Dogs,” I played with foster dogs brought in by One Tail At a Time (and later adopted one).
As I looked around the room, none of my former college classmates were in attendance, and yet the entire front row of the auditorium was still filled with poets around my age. Many of us had been misfits who felt at home at a creative concept show that encouraged being entertaining alongside being smart.
But we also felt at home because the show had supported us–and we, in turn, supported the show. With “edutainment” as the vessel, we’d come to create our own ecology, a unique artistic environment that belonged to us all, one that has undoubtedly changed the role of literature in our city. Because, at its core, The Encyclopedia Show was always about making art that was bigger than its creator.
Shanny Jean Maney’s final essay gave me solace. In a piece on perscribed burns, she drove home that what was happening to The Encyclopedia Show was an intentional, necessary burn in order to cultivate community. She also pointed out that ending a show was a way to maintain the strong friendships the cast members had developed with each other: “[W]e all still hug when we greet each other. … We’ve gotta torch this before the weeds grow, and then soon, a new prairie will emerge from the ashes.”
Later, Telfer’s essay repeated a similar sentiment. “We are stopping not because we feel like we’ve failed, but because we want to turn this community outward again, take what we’ve learned and attack the ills of the world with fresh eyes, celebrate the joys with new scars.”
And although I felt a huge sense of mourning for the end of the series, knowing that the show was ending on the same good intentions it thrived upon gave an immense sense of comfort. I realized that, in this controlled burn, a huge potential was becoming evident, between the curators, cast members, crew, and the community of artists and audience members that had sprawled underneath it all.
Everyone who attended the show was given a packet of seeds. On one side, there was an illustration of a vibrant flower, surrounded by rings of color and rays of eminating light. On the other, a quote from Prairie by Carl Sandburg:
O prairie mother,
I am one of your boys.
I have loved the prairie
as a man with a heart
shot full of pain over love.
As cast member Tim Stafford recited these lines with emphatic passion during the show, I felt my heart swell with the vision described. As both a metaphor for the show, as well as the literal land Chicago was built upon, the prairie has become our shared home, a literal foundation and ecosystem that we all take part in.
I decided to plant my seeds in a patch of grass behind my apartment building. They haven’t grown yet, but when they do, they will be a part of an ecosystem that includes concrete and asphalt alongside urban farms and gardens, deer and coyote alongside pigeons and rats, and people–so many people–from all over the place. Some members of the ecosystem make contributions that help others. Some only consume. But the seeds will grow into plants that won’t harm or invade the soil around it. They’ll participate with peace and nurturing.
Maybe we won’t have monthly topic shows about stuff like Condiments or Cheerleaders anymore, but we will still have persuasive writing. We’ll have a vibrant literary community filled with hundreds of talented and innovative artists and performers. We’ll still have the people who made The Encyclopedia Show the monumental accomplishment that it is–and when I think about the fact that they’ll each be doing something new, I don’t feel grief. I feel nothing but excitement for that potential.
STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here.