Parker Stockman reviews Outspoken! A new LGBTQ Storytelling Series
I probably spend way too many nights at Sidetrack, a gay video bar in the Boystown area of Chicago. It’s a place my friends meet for drinks and to mingle, and the bar even graciously hosts my rugby team’s large fundraisers each year. My favorite bartender David told me one night that I needed to check out Outspoken! LGBTQ Storytelling, which is a new storytelling series here in Chicago that Sidetrack hosts. I couldn’t make the first, but I made it out to the second show, which was on Tuesday, September 2nd, not knowing what to expect.
I’ve told stories with 2nd Story, You’re Being Ridiculous and for a few events, and I have a few shows lined up in the future, but I would say I’m still relatively new to the Live Literature renaissance. I’m always excited to try out new series and see what they have to offer as a series, a show, and each of the individual stories. Since I’m a gay man, I think it’s awesome that there is a new series out there where all the storytellers identify somewhere in the LGBTQ acronym. It’s not that I think we are underrepresented in live lit—in fact, I think it’s one place where our voices and stories and art flourish particularly well, especially in Chicago—but I think it’s great that we have a specific home, now, in this series.
Sidetrack closed off their main bar for the show. They put out seats and had a small stage set up for the storytellers. On the large screens on the walls (have you seen the renovation of the main bar? It’s pretty gorgeous), where show tunes usually grace the screens on Mondays and pop music on Fridays, images of LGBTQ history flashed. Images of the Stonewall riots and Pride parades mixed with images and bios of the performers. Sidetrack turned from a party atmosphere to an artistic space, and wine specials were available to help accent the ambience.
The emcees shared the story of Outspoken!’s inception. One of the two emcees was the owner of Sidetrack. He recently went to his first live literature show, not knowing they existed before attending, and he was so inspired by live lit that he worked with David Fink, Curator of Outspoken!, to create a monthly storytelling series featuring stories from LGBTQ writers. “We have the best stories,” he told the audience after welcoming us. The enthusiasm was palpable in his face and his voice.
And, with that, we were off! The setup of Outspoken! is simple: three storytellers perform, there’s a break, and then three more go. Storytellers are not paid, but they are given a t-shirt with the Outspoken! logo on it and—as evident by the audience Tuesday night—a lot of love.
Archy Jamjun started out the night with a story that begins by detailing his relationship with a high school girlfriend. Jamjun’s mother kicked out his girlfriend and—through her reasoning to her son—revealed that she was not okay with him dating a black woman. Jamjun realized he was gay, and the story goes into the hilarious coming out process to his mother and her insistence that maybe he just liked black women and that was okay, that he probably just suppressed it because of her earlier reaction. It ended with a meditation on his early life as a gay man and a conversation he had with his mother that made him reevaluate the way he navigated his new out-ness. It was a hilarious story that had a clear through-line, starting off the show with a strong punch. Jamjun knew the story well and performed it with panache. The audience laughed along with him, and it was the perfect story with which to open the show—introspective at times, but mostly funny and a clear crowd-pleaser.
The second story was by Laura Stempel, the only storyteller to bring her written story to the stage. Stempel told about her relationship with her mother and how, in her forties, she came out as a lesbian to everyone but her mother. It was a story to which much of the audience seemed to relate, as they snapped their fingers in the “I know what you’re saying” way that has become popular at live lit events. She told the self-proclaimed anticlimactic story of how her mom had already figured out that Stempel was a lesbian, but she left us thinking about the blessings that we’ve had with particular people who surprised us with their seemingly uncharacteristic acceptance. Her demeanor was quieter than Jamjun’s, leaving the audience introspective and meditative.
Quickly, we were thrown into the third story, Dr. Patrick Tranmer’s account of living on a commune that spawned a magazine for rural gay men that is still published today as well as birthing The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the nun-themed drag performance troupe. Tranmer mentioned that he had never told a story before but was asked to tell at Outspoken!, and his delivery was, as expected, the least seasoned. It held less elements of story, as it was more of a recounting of the early ‘70s and his place as an out gay man within the era. While he took time to go down tangents, he was charming and didn’t lose the audience. Intermission began after his story, and I wondered about the potential of it—what would it have been like had he taken a bit of time considering elements of narrative or if he’d included a through-line?
The fifteen-minute break allowed the audience to get up, grab another drink, and chat with storytellers and other audience members. Sometimes, audiences at these events can be stuffy or they can be an eclectic collection of people that don’t interact with each other. Instead, the audience already had a few things in common: they loved stories, and if they were not part of the LGBTQ acronym, they were allies. It was comfortable, and conversation came easy with strangers.
It also made me consider the show itself. So far, there were two stories that mostly dealt with coming out, and one that detailed cultural contributions to the community. My friend that I came with, another 2nd Story storyteller, and I talked about this. While we liked the show up to that point, we worried that it would fall victim of what so many LGBTQ storytellers fall victim to, which is creating a narrative solely around their identity as being gay or lesbian or bi, which in turn usually becomes just a coming out story. The stories before had added just a bit more than the typical coming out story, but we feared the series was in danger in its early infancy of becoming the storytelling series that specialized solely in the coming out tale.
The emcees ushered everyone back to their seats and introduced the fourth storyteller, a performer who rounded out the “T” in the community acronym. Angelica Ross took stage and told the story of her journey to her current position at TransTech Social Enterprises. Ross talked about being a transsexual woman of color and gave the survival statistics of trans women, stating that she was on “borrowed time” as transsexuals, particular trans women of color, have lower life expectancies—at 33, she is three years older than the average. Ross’ story was empowering, though. She talked about her own survival and about transsexuals that “pass” versus those that don’t and what that means. She talked about starting up TransTech, which gives transsexuals skillsets to work technical jobs, especially those that can be done with no in-person interactions, so that trans people can have marketable skills that are safe. Ross received a standing ovation. Her story inspired and educated and empowered. While it acted more as a rallying speech than a story, it reminded the audience that LGBTQ storytellers have a special power in their art: we can empower, we can educate, we can accept and we can plea. We can demand a seat at the table, and we can ask to be invited into others’ circles.
I would have been nervous to follow her, to be given to an audience that was still so immersed in another’s tale, but Lauren Sivak commanded our attention. She had a completely different story that was delivered in a completely different manner than any before. The story starts as slam poetry, riffing on what the word “beginning” means. Elements of slam poetry were infused in the story of how Sivak forged the beginning of a relationship with her best friend in high school. She energetically moved about the stage, telling the story with her whole body. I was captivated by the story and delivery. Sivak’s theatre involvement (she works for both Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Walkabout Theater Company) shown through, as this piece was a total performance. She ended with the reprise of her riff on beginnings, and I could hear the crowd whispering, “Wow,” and “That was amazing.”
Shaun Sperling closed down the night. He told a story that was so similar to one I lived that I kept whispering to my friend “that happened to me!” For me, he was the everyman of the show, the story with which you connect more personally than any of the others. It was something I noticed throughout the show—when a story was told that really resonated with an audience member, he or she scooted forward and kept a rapt attention on the performer. In his story, Sperling tells how he was involved in a male beauty pageant in his high school, a senior year show that always sold out. Having been out and proud in his town, Sperling’s story centered on his insistence to push the envelope with his choices for the show, much to his mother’s chagrin. Sperling, like Sivak and Jamjun, had the story so well entrenched in himself that he also told the story with his body, energizing the audience with his delivery and comedic timing. It was the perfect story to bookend the show, bringing us back to a place of humor while also underlying the story with poignancy. When he was done, my friend and I said to each other, “I want to do this show!”
The room was abuzz after. People introduced themselves to the storytellers, hugged them, and thanked the emcees and Fink for creating the series. It was truly great to be a part of it, even just as an audience member.
Like anything in its infancy, a live lit series has many bugs it has to work out. But, I think Outspoken! actually uses what some series might consider bugs to its advantage. Just like the LGBTQ acronym is so diverse, so were the methods of storytelling presented on stage. Storytellers were given the space to deliver in whatever manner best fit them as individuals and their pieces as art. It seems that topics could be up to the storyteller, which isn’t as common with other series right now. Typically, there is a theme, but I think Outspoken! works well this way—stories are all different, and sometimes they don’t need a unifying theme. Sometimes, it’s nice to just hear six stories and not know exactly what you’ll be getting. Outspoken! acts as a safe space for LGBTQ storytellers, inviting storytellers new and experienced, stories raw and nuanced, to have the courage to stand up and tell their stories.
I enjoyed everything about this show. Sidetrack excelled in transforming their space into a respectful venue for the storytellers. The emcees brought genuine enthusiasm for the show and stories to the stage, and the performers captivated the audience. I know where I’ll be the first Tuesday of next month.
Outspoken! LGBTQ Storytelling is the first Tuesday of the month at Sidetrack. Doors open at 6 and stories start at 7 p.m.
Parker Stockman is a writer, storyteller, editor, and teacher. He is working on a novel to finish his MFA coursework at Columbia College Chicago in Fiction Writing, but he loves to write non-fiction and memoir. He’s told stories with 2nd Story and You’re Being Ridiculous, and he is an editor at Flyleaf Journal and 3Elements Review. In addition to being a writer, Parker is an adjunct professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a writing tutor at Columbia College Chicago.