Literary fisticuffs abound at Write Club, where opponents duke it out with lightning-fast essays on pre-assigned, opposing topics. But is it really literature as blood sport?
"The stakes are real," says founder and self-proclaimed overlord Ian Belknap. "Writer-performers know right away, via hollering, blood-lusting audience, who wins or loses. [And the] artists fight for a cause—a cut of show proceeds are donated to charities of the winners' choosing. This avoids 'Dancing with the Stars'-style, bull[bleep] popularity contests and renders the entire enterprise one that's driven by purpose."
Since January 2010, when the monthly show debuted at the Hideout, Belknap has expanded into five additional cities—Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and Athens, Ga.—and plans to bring it to five more in 2013. A second monthly Chicago-area show kicks off Jan. 7 at Space in Evanston
"If we do everything right," Belknap says, "a year from now, Write Club, Inc., will be donating $30,000 per year to charity."
But first, there's the 2012 main event—the Write Club War on Xmas Benefit Show, in which Belknap ("Santa") takes on L.A. comedian Mike O'Connell ("Jesus"); former WNEP Theater artistic director Jen Ellison ("Give") battles National Poetry Slam champion Lisa Buscani ("Receive") and Encyclopedia Show founder Robbie Q. Telfer ("Naughty") steps up to 2nd Story literary director Megan Stielstra ("Nice"). The festivities include post-show treats and a champagne toast.
RedEye caught up with Belknap to find out more.
Why enforce a 7-minute time limit for competitors?
This serves several objectives: 1) writer-performers who know a bell—a loud-ass bell—will sound at 7 minutes exactly are on their toes and will cut all the fat and gristle off their essay. It will be nothing but lean, delicious literary meat; 2) audiences are likewise leaning into things to a degree they might not otherwise—they can see the clock winding down and they know they're on the hook for picking a winner of the bout they're watching, so they pay a fuller brand of attention than they might to the corduroyed and bespectacled nerdster reading a selection of unknown duration from their book in progress.
The Write Club aesthetic: start in the middle and go fast—no bios, no extemporized contextualizing, no dicking around. Overlord tells audience your assigned topic, sets the clock and you haul ass. It's the difference between those lights at the starting line of a drag race—red, yellow, PUNCH IT—versus the start of a lecture. For both driver and spectator, you know exactly when this thing is over. You wave the checkered flag and then the next pair of high-performance lit machines are at the starting line.
Any memorable essays?
This is no joke—I’ve been doing this show at least once a month for three years, and a show does not go by when I am not dazzled by some turn of phrase, some unexpected treatment of the assignment, some nuance of performance. The privilege of doing Write Club as often as I do is that I get to have the ass of my mind kicked each and every month—whether here in Chicago or in some new city.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen at Write Club?
The weirdest thing that happened to me personally—other chapters in other cities each have their tales of WTF-ness to report—was actually at the most recent show in November. The show was Thanksgiving-themed, and my bout was “Grateful vs. Hateful,” my assignment being “Hateful.”
I narrowly won against L.A. comic Nate Craig, and the judges—randomly selected audience volunteers—determined that I was [the] victor. After finding in my favor, though, this woman whom I do not know in the slightest—having apparently seen me perform in some other live lit show at some point—chastised me for the darkness of my piece, and let it be known that she wished in future to see greater variety in my work, and that I had somehow proved disappointing to her.
So, though decades separate me from high school, I'm still publicly getting the “You have so much potential” speech.
What’s the difference between an overlord and, say, a curator or a host?
On paper, of course, a good deal of overlording duties are about curating and hosting the show here in Chicago. But I'm also interested in the care and feeding of the enterprise overall—the six cities now in the fold, and the many yet to be conquered.
The self-bestowed title Overlord is for a couple reasons: 1) I find titles generally ridiculous; 2) if you're gonna pour your volunteer labor into something you invented, why not grant yourself the title that implies a blood-streaked battle axe and a throne made from the skulls of the vanquished? and, 3) in the “if you build it, they will come” model for making a go of this enterprise, if you keep announcing with enough persistence and fortitude that what you're doing is potent, and if you consistently back that up with a show that kicks ass, then your enterprise will one day become powerful. Whereas a curator-host is more about tea-stained tweed and murmured pleas for attention that will never come.
Which two literary lions would you like to see duke it out on the Write Club stage?
I'd like to see George Saunders schooling [Jonathan] Franzen. I also obviously gotta get [Chuck] Palahniuk in there at some point. If I could time travel, I would bring the show back to Dorothy Parker and would likely never leave that era.
But another Write Club virtue is that it's an outstanding cross-pollinator; artists from many disciplines can excel. Dream bouts: Louis CK vs. Patton Oswalt; Paul Mooney vs. Dave Chappelle; any surviving cast member of “Monty Python” vs. any cast member of “Kids in the Hall;” Tina Fey vs. Amy Poehler; Nick Cave vs. Tom Waits; Maria Bamford vs. Sarah Vowell; Jon Stewart vs. [Steven] Colbert.
I wanna see Dr. Cornel West crush anybody from Fox News. The possibilities are limitless.
Write Club War on Xmas Benefit Show
Go: 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.
Tickets: $25; 773-227-4433; hideoutchicago.com/event/189985
More Write Club: 8:30 p.m. Jan. 5; 12 and 17 at the Fillet of Solo Festival, Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.; 773-761-4477; lifelinetheatre.com ($10)
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor.
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