- Mckenzie Schwark
WRITE CLUB began as a much-needed creative endeavor for the then frustrated Ian Belknap. Belknap had been working as an actor and a standup for over fifteen years, but with two young kids he was looking for a way to stay active in the performing community without committing to long rehearsal processes or having to travel.
‘I’d been to see some storytelling shows which I felt were promising, but were looooooonnnnnng and slooooowwwwww and too often boooorrrrrrrring,’ Belknap says. ‘So, in a kind of soul-tantrum, I devised a show that had to be fast and loud in its bones, had to be urgent and have real stakes, had to enlist the audience in a much more invested way than the ‘wait for the end, and offer a docile smattering of applause’ way that’s become entrenched in theater and storytelling.’
Thus, WRITE CLUB was born. From its competitive nature, to its commitment to giving back, WRITE CLUB stands apart from any other storytelling performance in Chicago. Writers are given opposing topics that coincide with the month’s theme. They go head-to-head, performing their written pieces for an eclectic audience of young, old, educated, blue-collar and everyone in between. The room buzzes with energy as Belknap’s producing partner, Lindsay Muscato, sits in front of a large, yellow pie chart that counts down the strict seven-minute time limit given to each performer.
The fast pace adds an almost anxious thrill to the high-energy event.
‘In the same way that the dude pitches rocks at the tanks as they rumble toward him, we try to keep it human in scale, hand-to-hand combat,’ Belknap says. ‘If we were a fighting style, it would be Krav Maga – not long on nuance, maybe, but you get in there and inflict maximum damage.’
Other than becoming fiercer and more sure of itself, WRITE CLUB has not changed much since its start in 2010. The show has been held every month since June 2010 at the Hideout in Chicago. The Hideout, a bar located in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, exudes a tough Midwestern charm. The eccentric, scuffed-up, log cabin-like tavern is adorned with wooden walls and mounted taxidermy fish. It hosts concerts, comedy shows, and literary events. For Belknap, it is the perfect home for WRITE CLUB.
In 2011, Ian Belknap coined the term ‘live lit’ to better describe what WRITE CLUB and similar performances were doing. He wanted a term that better embodied this kind of storytelling and this new sector of the performing arts in Chicago.
‘I felt very strongly then and still do today, that we need some means of characterizing literary performance that is not narrative, necessarily,’ Belknap says. ‘The term ‘storytelling’ leads to a set of expectations, as does ‘spoken word.’ What I like about the term live lit is that it celebrates both aspects of this form – the writerly and the performative – without over determining what the content, tone, or style might be.’
WRITE CLUB is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and was recently awarded its first grant from The David & Reva Logan Foundation. At the end of each show the winning performers pick a charity to which to donate. WRITE CLUB has given over $15,000 to all kinds of different charities. ‘Not too shabby for a shoestring startup,’ Belknap says.
Over the past several years, WRITE CLUB’s success has grown within and outside of Chicago. Today, the show is performed in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto. WRITE CLUB also produces a podcast, and it published an anthology, Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of WRITE CLUB, in 2014.
The next WRITE CLUB performance is Tuesday, January 26 from 7:00-8:30pm at the Hideout. More information, or to check out the WRITE CLUB podcast and anthology, visit www.writeclubnation.com
By McKenzie Schwark
McKenzie Schwark is a student at DePaul University studying English. Originally from North Dakota, McKenzie shows her love of her home state by baking plenty of tator tot hot dish. In Chicago you can usually find her waiting for the Brown Line, attending an improv show, or eating pizza and watching really bad reality TV. You can read her everyday thoughts condensed into 140 characters on Twitter @schwarkattack