There might not be a better place to spend a rainy Monday night than the cafe at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. I arrived a little early to a full house and found a seat near the front. The reading takes place against a backdrop of lit zines with bottles of wine tucked into discreet cubbies between the stacks. Oversized prints of book covers line the top of the shelves, piled high with everything from National Geographic, to Cricket and McSweeney’s. It’s a pretty beautiful setup, if you don’t mind reading The Paris Review peering over your shoulder as you read. Welcome to Essay Fiesta.
Karen Shimmin and Willy Nast, a pair of Northwestern grads who also host the podcast All Write Already, inherited Essay Fiesta two years ago from the founders Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon. “The show really puts itself together,” Will explained, although each month they do try to include at least one performer whose work they aren’t familiar with. And while there is no theme to the monthly series, there is a theme song. In fact, Essay Fiesta is the only live-lit show in the city with an original jingle, and it’s pretty fantastic. Listening to the regulars launch into the chorus I vowed to learn the words for next time.
At the start of the show our hosts polled the audience and found about half first-timers (myself included) and half veteran viewers. Lining the back of the audience were kids from 826CHI, a non-profit that provides literacy tutoring and programming for young authors. I should note that Essay Fiesta is free, but they do pass a bucket around after the last speaker and collect donations for 826CHI. You will definitely want to bring a few extra bucks for this worthy cause.
The night started with a sweet slice of a story by Karen, a Northwestern creative writing alum and one half of our host team. She recounted the quirky stories and lessons her grandfather shared with her growing up, against a backdrop of a few important things he kept to himself. For those going home soon for the annual holiday visit, a glimpse into her grandfather’s inner life was a reminder of how much goes on the rest of the year when we’re not around.
The lineup that followed was one of the most varied I’ve seen in a single show. I kept thinking of the friends I’ve been meaning to bring into the live-lit scene. It would have been a perfect introduction, and a really welcoming atmosphere for newbies.
Mike Manship, a local playwright, recounted lessons learned from unlikely teachers on a 24-day trek across the country. He began with the metaphor of the womb, a place you may have thought was quiet and peaceful, but apparently sounds like the constant hum of a vacuum cleaner. His story of trying to resist the comforting white noise of technology resonated with all of us. I returned to this theme at the end of the show, checking my phone robotically after a mere two hours off the grid.
In his story, host Willy Nast brought us backstage at the Maury Povich show, after learning that the manager at his favorite coffee shop was an actual participant. Most reading series have pretty strict rules on reading from phones, but Will’s story made great use of an iPad. Anyone who will admit to watching Maury (and even those of you who won’t) assumes that at least part of the show is fake, but can you really manufacture fear? Willy narrated through audio clips of a calm, collected girl with a strange fear of cotton balls, and videos of that same girl sobbing hysterically on the couch of our host “Mr. Connie Chung”. By the time he was finished, I think we could all claim a new phobia: the interns of Maury, cotton-ball wielding messengers of terror.
Next, Naomi Huffman took the stage. Managing editor of Curbside Splendor and the host of The Marrow, I had seen Naomi perform at Guts & Glory earlier in the year. I find her use of detail remarkable, and from the silence of the audience I’m guessing they did too. A description of the loops and lines of her mother’s handwriting reads like a love letter itself, to a woman she may never quite understand. A list of sounds that would signal her father’s violent outbursts read like a careful statement of charges. Her well-woven story was both a contrast and a compliment to the rest of the lineup.
Lily Abe is a radiant, sure storyteller, wandering off book and tossing out asides to the audience- you guys!- like candy from a parade float. She walked us through the streets of a rough Humboldt Park with a coming of age story set in the 1980s. Usually these stories consist of the author trading the sweet safety of youth for some harsh wisdom or insight. What drew me into Lily’s version was the opposite trajectory: with the help of a few truly strong adults, a childhood spent trying to stay tough gives way to rest, warmth and ultimately love.
The saying goes that where there is smoke, there is fire. In storytelling, the saying is a bit different: where there is a seemingly innocent packaged airport sandwich, there is food poisoning. That was only one of half a dozen catastrophes that plagued Dave Stinton and his wife on their French honeymoon. I know what you’re thinking: sure, everyone has a nightmare vacation story. That may be true, but how many of those nightmares start with a plate full of tripe, credit card fraud, and scrape the European rental car on the long spiral down?
In all there were six storytellers including our two hosts, and no two were alike. It was a cross-section of the Chicago live-lit scene, bringing comedians, essayists, playwrights and editors under one roof. At the very end of the show, the kids of 826CHI came up to introduce the organization and tell us a bit about themselves. It was a great way to end the show, with a reminder of how most of us got here in the first place.
The next Essay Fiesta will be 7pm on the third Monday of the month, January 19th, at The Book Cellar. In the meantime, check out www.essayfiesta.com.