Everybody's Talking at You

Austin's reading series scene is booking good

If print is dead, as has been suggested by the usual boys and girls who cry wolf every time a leaf drops, then there's a fierce plethora of literary zombies shambling through the Austin nightscape these days. Used to be, you couldn't walk two yards in this town without tripping over some unemployed bass player; now, the situation with reading series seems intent on reaching similar proportions.

Reading series: Where people take a microphone and read a thing, or – stretching the parameters just a skoshie – tell a thing, spin a tale, relate a narrative that's so well-spoken it might as well be committed to the pages of a literary anthology or an alt-weekly or some superlative pulp-fiction throwback.

Reading series: You have in your mind's eye, what, some image of a clutch of geezerly writer manqués stinking up a popcorn-ceilinged community-center rec room, taking turns intoning flaccid prose between changes of their colostomy bags?

Eighty-six that notion, good citizen, and put your hands together for Teleportal Readings. For Five Things. For Utter Reading. For Whiskey Rebellion. For the Encyclopedia Show. For the Awesome! and Great! Reading Show. For the Bat Cave's Story Department. For local instances of national phenomena Mortified and the Moth. Put your hands together for your friends and neighbors who know that print isn't only not dead but that it gains greater life than ever when shared within a context of camaraderie and, sometimes, music and, perhaps especially, booze.

A few geezers may well be in attendance, yes, for some of them (as ever) know what's up, but they stick out like palsied thumbs in these crowds of twentysomething scenesters and postgrad reprobates and younger working-class wordsmiths tangling with their first marriages and mortgages and experiments in flash fiction. These crowds, gathered together, in bars and clubs and theatres and wherever there's room to wet a whistle and prick up an ear, to hear people read.

Teleportal Readings

Jess Sauer
Jess Sauer (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: Hotel San José courtyard, 1316 S. Congress

Next event: October, at the Texas Book Festival

Website: www.monofonuspress.com

"Teleportal is sort of like a monthly Reading Rainbow for adults," says Jess Sauer, who runs the series under the aegis of Monofonus Press. (See "When Creative Types Combine Powers," June 13, 2008, for more on Monofonus.) "We usually have two live readers, and we have a lot of literary content from media outlets around the country. And, where the title comes from, we produce a 'teleportal' reading – which is where we have an author reading in front of a green screen, and we have video artists mess with it, adding effects and animated text or whatever. We had one author who wanted to be made into a cartoon, so we did that. Last week we went to New York and taped like nine different writers. And, for the audience, people are used to relaxing while watching movies and TV, and I think that aspect of the series makes it a really good experience even for people who bristle at the mention of poetry or find the literary world pretentious."

Teleportal is held in the courtyard of the Hotel San José, the show's lively atmosphere enhanced by the gorgeous minimalist architecture – and the full bar – there. The show's been well-attended from the beginning (January of this year), drawing Eastside artists and citywide literati and SoCo regulars looking for something new to spike their highballs with. "Having gone to graduate school and been included in that whole academic sphere of readings," says Sauer, "I wanted something that was really not academic and not exclusive-feeling or in-crowdy or in-jokey. It's real easy to become all niche-y, and we wanted to be something that was a little more generally user-friendly.

"Monofonus' Morgan Coy and I came up with the idea for the series," she says. "We wanted it to be multimedia. I think Morgan came up with the green screen idea; I came up with the name Teleportal. And, of course, we also have local, nonteleported readers. But, even there, we try to have interaction – a PowerPoint thing, or a group discussion. And we make sure not to feature writers who, you know, who just blow at reading. Because there are people who are excellent writers but who, for whatever reason, they're really bad at reading? That's not what I'm interested in."

Five Things

Stacy Muszynski (l) and Amelia Gray
Stacy Muszynski (l) and Amelia Gray (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: United States Art Authority, 510 W. 29th

Next event: September

Website: www.fivethingsaustin.com

"I moved to Austin from San Marcos in 2007, and there weren't a ton of reading series," says Five Things originator Amelia Gray. "And that was before I hooked up with Featherproof Books out of Chicago, but then I was talking to those guys more, and Zach Dodson suggested that I start a show here. So we went together to read in Houston, and on that road trip he convinced me to start the series. He told me about the series up there, called the Dollar Store, and lied to me and said it was really easy to do. So here we are."

"We" includes Stacy Muszynski, who's been helping run the series since attending the first show in September 2008. Five Things takes place at the United States Art Authority next to Spider House, and it almost didn't get going that early. "I was wavering back and forth on actually starting the show," says Gray. "But my birthday is September 17th, and my boyfriend bought me the FiveThingsAustin.com domain name, and it was like, okay, now I have to start it."

And what sets this monthly series apart from the others?

"Well, it's every other month," says Gray.

"And we take summers off," adds Muszynski.

"The next one's in September," says Gray. "And I like the structure of having a theme, and it helps add continuity to the series. I really like short readings and short-short stories, so the five minutes is appealing."

"It's five minutes, five performers, one thing," says Muszynski. "We choose performers, assign them a topic, off they go."

The first show involved stories based on objects purchased from a Dollar General store; the second revolved around signature shots of something: tequila, maple syrup, Peruvian Pisco; the third, women talking about their men. And so on, to – from all accounts – much laughter and applause.

"And we usually have an acoustic music thing before the reading and one band after it," says Gray.

"And Warren McKinney works with us," says Muszynski, "and he's helping us incorporate an audiovisual aspect into the shows, with slide shows and projection screens."

The Story Department

Elena Eidelberg (l) and S. Kirk Walsh
Elena Eidelberg (l) and S. Kirk Walsh (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: AAMP Art Space, 411 W. Monroe

Next event: Sept. 9

Website: www.austinbatcave.org

"I'm the co-founder and board president of Austin Bat Cave," says S. Kirk Walsh, who's been in Austin and involved in its literary scenes since '87. "We're a writing and tutoring center that was inspired by 826 Valencia, which was founded by Dave Eggers in 2002." (See "A Generation Gets to Talking," Feb. 19, for more about the Bat Cave.) "We provide free workshops and school writing support and tutoring for kids, and we're always looking for money in order to support that mission, and Elena came up with the idea of a reading series."

"I was in New York around last year at this time," says Elena Eidelberg, "and I went to the Moth. I was surprised by the amount of interest – the line was around the block with people who wanted to participate in the storytelling. It was put-your-name-in-the-hat, and if you got called you stood up and told your story, and it was competitive and just an amazing quality of storytelling. And I called Kirk and said, 'I want to do this in Austin,' and she said, 'Can we do it as a benefit for the Bat Cave?' And a month later we had it up and running, so it's been going on monthly since October of last year. We've held it different places, but I think we've settled on the Austin Art + Music Partnership space at 411 Monroe."

The unusual thing about this series: Nothing is written down.

"The format," says Eidelberg, "is no notes, five minutes, and it has to be true. Our permanent host is Bernadette Noll, and she's amazing."

"We have anywhere from five to seven storytellers," says Walsh, "and there's a theme each time, so there's some unifying thread. It's this coming together of people who want to tell stories. And the thing that's interesting to me as a fiction writer is how telling a story is so much different from writing and reading a story, and seeing which people are more adept at the storytelling, who are more natural at it. ... It's not all writers: It's actors or designers or people from totally different professions."

"We want people to know that anyone can come down and tell a story themselves," says Eidelberg, "but they should know that the Story Department is for adults only. Even though it benefits the Bat Cave, it's not a child-friendly event, so people can feel free to tell a story that might be a little bit, uh –"

"Racy," says Walsh. "And sometimes we'll have a keg that's been donated."

The Awesome! and Great! Reading Show!

Elizabeth Crane
Elizabeth Crane (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: Momo's, 618 W. Sixth

Next event: Possibly October

Website: www.elizabethcrane.com/blog

"The concept for the Awesome! and Great! show is that you have two writers and one musician," says former Chicagoan Elizabeth Crane, who named the series after a short story from her collection You Must Be This Happy To Enter and has presented four of the shows at Momo's, the jazz club above Katz's.

"And the writers will read an original story that they wrote for the show, loosely inspired by a song that I give them. And then the musician does a song that's loosely inspired by a story. I try to draw from a broad range of music, something that suits what I know of the writers' work, but sometimes I'll just give them some weird, random thing. So we'll have a reader, then a song, then a reader. At the end of the series, I brought on Southpaw Jones to be our regular musical guest, and he's great. But now we're on hiatus for the summer, so we'll have to see if he's able to come back."

Crane herself, though, will definitely return to host the every-other-month series?

"Right now I don't have a plan for our return," admits the busy author. "My husband and I are going away until the beginning of September, so I probably won't have a show before October at the earliest. And, when I bring it back, I have a feeling it's going to be more quarterly, maybe, or whenever I have a particular group of people I want to put a show together for. A little more irregular."

Utter Reading Series and Whiskey Rebellion

P. Tyson Midkiff
P. Tyson Midkiff (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. I-35

Next event: Aug. 26

Website: none available

Contact: whiskeyreadings@gmail.com

"With Whiskey Rebellion," says P. Tyson Midkiff, who runs that quarterly series, "we're trying to shine literary lights on stuff that normally doesn't get much light. Normally it's poetry and literary fiction – which I have nothing against, because that's what I do. ... We want to get a mix of visual artists, music, and readers, make it a fun thing. I'm basically ripping off Five Things, too, because they do a theme every time, and I'm going to find four themes, and do one of them each season. So, during the spring, it'd be memoirs; then summer would be pulp fiction, Doc Savage kind of stuff; and, for the winter, we want to do a play, an original one-act from a local playwright. And, ah, who knows what the fall will hold? But we'll open with a band or two, have the readers in the middle, and then bring on the headlining band to close out the night."

Sounds like only plans, mostly, but then the Rebellion has just one show under its writerly belt so far and didn't start until March of this year. But Midkiff's other reading endeavor goes way back.

"I want to say the Utter series was started in '96 or '97 by a few Michener fellows who ran it for a while. Then S. Kirk Walsh, who runs Austin Bat Cave now, ran it for a while. Then David Meeker and Mike Agresta took it over, and they gave it to me last year. And then it kind of went defunct ... but I recently brought it back: We had a good show at House Wine on July 7. Utter is just readings. I give each reader 10 to 15 minutes, because 15 minutes is about the maximum that people will sit still for one reader."

And the next one? "There'll be another Utter when I can guarantee an out-of-town reader," says Midkiff, "but the Whiskey Rebellion, we're doing a show on August 26. We're having a reading at 501 Studios, at the ND, because we're going to have some bands and we're focusing on sci-fi and the kind of stuff that usually doesn't get read."

The Encyclopedia Show

Ralph Hardesty (l) and Mike Graupmann
Ralph Hardesty (l) and Mike Graupmann (Photo by John Anderson)

Location: ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. I-35

Next event: Aug. 19

Website: www.encyclopediashowaustin.com

Mike Graupmann and Ralph Hardesty, two literary movers and shakers recently transplanted from Chicago, have exploded on the Austin reading scene. Well, "exploded," except that what they're doing, besides running the Encyclopedia Show, is bringing things together.

"We've sort of made it our job to get to know all these people," says Hardesty, "because, when we moved here and started our show, there was no communication among the series. So Graupmann actually started talking to all the people in town, because, for example, when we went to the Utter Reading series a few weeks ago, it was on the same night at the Dionysium. And the Dionysium's not exactly a reading series, but they're trying to reach out to the exact same demographic. So it's, ah, silly that nobody's pooling resources or talking about scheduling things. So we're trying to get everybody together to share ideas on what's working – since everybody has a different angle on how their show works – and to provide access to different writers and performers. Like, we have ties to stand-up comedy and slam poetry, and Amelia [Gray, of Five Things] has ties to the San Marcos MFA lit program, and everybody knows somebody else, is involved with some other cultural scene in town."

"For the Encyclopedia Show," says Graupmann, "we're following the same basic format that our friends Robb Telfer and Shannon Maney started in Chicago, where there's a mythology behind it, this mysterious Institute of Human Knowledge and Research that says we're allowed to talk about feelings and have these readings."

"We're in a bar at the [ND at] 501," says Hardesty, "where people can come and just hang out for a little bit. And at 8 o'clock, we introduce the show and explain the concept, and then we bring on one of our regulars to present the research question, and then we start with our contributors, the people we've invited to perform on whatever topics we give them."

"We have five regular cast members besides ourselves who are onstage," says Graupmann, "and they each do a five-minute bit. But we also have like six contributors who each have five minutes to cover a subtopic under the main category. The last topic was vice presidents, and we assigned each person a different VP, so they could do the research and come up with whatever they wanted to do based on the information they discovered. Ralph and I came out as George Washington and John Adams, and Ralph sang 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' the Bette Midler song from Beaches."

Revelers at the Encyclopedia Show's Vice Presidents event
Revelers at the Encyclopedia Show's Vice Presidents event

"And we had a musician, an author, a poet – we try to draw from as many different people as we have access to," says Hardesty, "so there's some variety. So you're not sitting there and listening to, you know, three people, and they're each reading a chapter from their new book. That is hard to listen to."

"The topics we've done so far," says Graupmann, "are bears, the moon, the visible spectrum of colors, explosives, the future, and vice presidents. And the season finale in August is going to be mythological beasts. And when we start up again in October, the topic will be dinosaurs. And, after that, serial killers."

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