At Write Club ideas become blood sport
Overlord Ian Belknap | Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston
7 p.m. Jan. 7, first of monthly shows
(847) 492-8860 or www.evanstonspace.com
Updated: January 4, 2013 12:44PM
Two competitors face off. They stand on opposing sides of a theme.
A bell rings.
Each has exactly seven minutes to outwit their competitor.
Boxing? Wrestling? Dueling? Nope, it’s a competition of words where wit and intelligence face off in a battle of ideas.
Welcome to the Write Club where they tout literature as a blood sport. Twice a month writers meet up for a competitive reading series. The structure is such: three bouts of readings with two opposing writers sounding off on two opposing ideas. (Think hot/cold, salty/spicy, fire/ice, with each performer taking one side.) The audience picks a winner and a cut of the proceeds goes toward a charity of the winner’s choosing.
Write Club is the brainchild of founder Ian Belknap, an actor, standup comedian, writer-performer and current “host and overlord” of Write Club.
“We wanted to put on a show that’s smart, fast and intellectually stimulating,” said Belknap. “It’s not just a popularity contest here. Everyone is battling on behalf of not only their idea but also for their pet cause.”
Since 2010 Write Club has put on shows on the third Tuesday of the month at the Hideout in Chicago. In January, they’ll start up a second show monthly at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston.
Accolades are pouring in. They performed at the Chicago Humanities Fest this fall and have been named a Top Five Literary Event of 2011 by Newcity, Critic’s Pick in Time Out Chicago, and Best Reinvention of the Reading Series for 2012 by Creative Loafing Atlanta.
Writers are given the themes and then left to their own devices. Belknap performs hosting duties, adopting a fast and loose, sometimes obnoxious, attitude. Audience members are encouraged to mess with him; but that tone changes as soon as the artist steps on stage. And although the pace of the show follows Belknaps’s fast and furious guidelines, he doesn’t expect performers to adopt his style.
“There are (writers and performers) who are more nuanced and gentle,” he says. “My hope is that whatever they choose to do, it’s completely unsparing. It’s great when they go after the ideas and perform them unapologetically.”
Audiences have seen stories, personal essays, poems and songs performed. Sometimes a writer will dress in elaborate costume or incorporate a dance-type routine. Anything goes as long as it relates to the theme and as long as it adheres to a strict seven-minute limit.
“It’s literally ruthless,” said Belknap speaking about the time limit. “The bell sounds and you MUST stop talking. I’ve been to too many readings where there’s a looser time limit and people go on and on over that limit.”
This is definitely a show, not a performance or a reading; it’s more theater than fine art.
The performers change frequently — rarely does someone do more than two or three shows a year. The vast density of talent in the area allows for in-depth performances and unique ways of approaching a topic.
Charity is a big part of the event. Attendees vote on the winners but they don’t know the artist’s chosen charity until after they have been proclaimed the winner. This assures that the performance wins on the basis of artistic and literary merit, not the cause.
Write Club has now expanded into five other cities, including Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto. Each chapter adds local flavor and idioms so while they’re similar, every club is unique.
“The thing that constantly astonishes me is that you can give someone a one word or short assignment and what they can do within that strict time limit is pretty limitless. Some just blow my mind: the complexity with which they treat this simple idea. It’s a privilege to witness.”