Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Windy City Story Slam takes it national. article from Time Out, Chicago

 Last week, in the middle of all the heat and whirlwind of activity, I was interviewed as a rep of massmouth about our participation in the Windy City Nationals. Here is the article.

Glam slam
The Windy City Story Slam takes it national.
By Robert Duffer
top: Alex Bonner, representing Windy City Story Slams, Photo: Tim Schreier
below: our massmouth rep, Jim Stahl
Photo: Norah Dooley

Two years ago, the Windy City Story Slam was an idea. Now it’s a sensation. Story-slam representatives from eight cities will hit Chicago at this year’s revamped Printers Row Lit Fest for the first National Story Slam Competition. From Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, the slammers are coming, and they’re following Bill Hillman’s lead by making it happen at the grass roots.

“The story slam revolution is in full go,” says Hillman, who is a construction worker and grad student in the creative-writing department at Columbia College Chicago. “Story slams have been popping up completely homegrown and community-based.”

Three weeks before the nationals, massmouth out of Boston held a competition to decide which of its 12 slammers would win the $240 airfare to Chicago. “With massmouth, we want to engage a whole new audience and firmly plant storytelling as an art form in our culture,” says Norah Dooley, the Boston slam’s co-founder and champion of Hillman’s efforts. (my emphasis)

This national support helped Hillman convince the Chicago Tribune, producers of Printers Row, that an amped up national showcase on Sunday afternoon at the venerated Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library would be better than a regular WCSS under a tent outside.

“I can sell ice to Eskimos when I believe in something,” Hillman says.

What is the draw, and how is it different than a reading? The attraction is the dynamic interaction with the audience. Hillman, the 2002 Golden Gloves champion, likens live storytelling to a bout where he was outmatched and beaten down by a bigger, better boxer. A knockout was imminent, but the crowd rallied and kept Hillman in the fight.

“I couldn’t believe I did that,” Hillman says, smiling and shaking his head. He didn’t win that one, but he learned to feed off the crowd. So do his storytellers. “The energy of the crowd can bring incredible things out of people. It’s electric.”

For the WCSS to host nationals seems like a natural progression. Since its inception, the monthly series has courted many and pissed off a handful, packed the Metro, featured headliners from great Scot Irvine Welsh to National Book Award–nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell, incorporated a musician from the Old Town School of Folk Music into each show, finally found a regular home at the Empty Bottle, and now established a national event.

Massmouth, like most slams Hillman has recruited, from Portland, Oregon’s Story Theater to Philadelphia’s First Person Arts, specializes in the personal narrative. “We get fiction usually, but for the nationals it’ll be true stories,” Hillman says.

That’s not the only difference. The Windy City Story Slam was built on audience involvement. Applause crowns the winner, as it did for Alex Bonner, this year’s All-City Champion and Chicago representative. Heckling can also shut slammers down. During the All-City Championships at a packed Metro in January 2009, the title event of a banner inaugural year for the WCSS, Hillman couldn’t persuade the crowd to give less-seasoned performers a fair chance. “I should have done a better job reining it in,” Hillman admits, wishing he had mesmerized and enchanted the crowd more like his slam mentor and inspiration, Marc Smith, the Slam Papi of the Green Mill’s legendary Poetry Slam.

At the comparatively reserved Pritzker Auditorium for the nationals, Hillman and his crew will recruit five judges (who hadn’t been named by press time—Smith was top on the list) to choose a winner. The audience won’t be forgotten, Hillman assures; there will be an audience choice as well. Both winners receives Story Slam bragging rights—over the entire country.

The slam throws down Sunday 13 at 3pm at the Harold Washington Library Center, 450 S State St.

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