massmouth member Jim Stahl reporting from The Windy City National Story Slam, at the beautiful Pritzker Auditorium of the Harold Washington Chicago Public Library, Sunday, June 13, 3 PM. Click here to see the Windy City Website with profiles of the tellers: http://www.windycitystoryslam.
Story tellers representing 10 cities buzzed into the city of broad shoulders by car, train and plane to tell their stories before a lively and literate Chicago audience. The program was part of the annual Printer's Row Literary Festival. Tellers came alone, some with brothers, some with handlers from their story organizations, and some with lovers/spouses. Bill Hillmann and Nicolette Kittinger, the co-heads of the Windy City Story Slam, put the gang up in a fine motel 15 miles east of the Loop. With other business in Chicago, I slept between satin sheets in a 4.5 star hotel that I booked for $100 on Priceline. One teller in the group slept in a city park before being pushed awake by one of Chicago's finest at 4 am.
Saturday night the gang got together for pizza (I missed that, attending a farm wedding in Iowa, five hours West), and then Bill, renting a blue van for the occasion, brought the group to Nicolette's condo in west Loop for donuts and coffee. The spirit was friendly, upbeat, supportive. We were each asked to tell out story on the condo balcony, for an audience of three, so Bill and Nicolette could get a sense of things, think about timing, and help tellers shake out the nerves. They ended up choosing the performance order by picking numbers from a donut box, so the stories on the balcony may not have been necessary. I was number 3.
Bill, who was a Chicago-area Golden Gloves boxer, handed out cool laminated LIT FEST badges to all the tellers, identifying the wearer as "talent" and getting us past the formidable array of guards at the Library and auditorium. We gathered in a small auditorium next to main Pritzker Auditorium, which holds about 375 people, for final prep and to meet the judges. Their names all escape me, but several were literary well-knowns. One had a best-selling book on the Times list. After four minutes and thirty seconds, we were told, a set of keys would be jangled; at five minutes, two bicycles horns -- think Marx brothers -- would be sounded. Someone asked to hear the keys jangled for practice.
The performances were great, of course, and seemed to get stronger as the show unfolded. Nancy Donoval's winning piece, remarkably, was a condensed version of a piece that usually is 30 minutes long. Now that's editing. Her work is poetic, concise, and honest. The Audience Choice story, by local Chicago guy Alex Bonner, was gritty, literary, and energized, a story of urban friendship and violence. After the last teller, as all of us stood on stage and, separately, took applause as the applause-o-meter registered decibel levels, Alex enthusiasts roared like drunken stevedores, and rightly so, as his piece was stand-out. The near-miss for Audience Choice, Regie Cabico from Washington, D.C., (who introduces himself in conversation by saying that he's trying to bring down the Republican party one blow job at a time), got nearly the same deafening applause and hoots, missing only the benefit of having some home-town fans in the audience. He's from Washington, where he is very active on the performance scene. I laughed hard at his monologue about growing up a Filipino in an aspirational household. (My own story about the bouncing eyeball and the girl whose hair smelled like cookies) got respectably high marks from the judges, but during the cattle call the dial never lit up on the applause-o-meter. Next time I'll wear my Speedo.
Bill brought us to local bar on State Street, near the Library, for drinks afterward, which could not come too soon. All of us seemed relieved, relaxed, happy, exhausted, and proud to be involved in stage one of something -- a vibrant national annual story slam -- that should grow and thrive. This was Bill Hillmann's vision, beginning several year's ago, and my guess is that it will materialize.
Thanks to Norah, Andrea, and Stu for making all of this possible for massmouth members: their hard work on behalf of our group's participation helped make this a very strong, even historic beginning, of something real and lasting for the storytelling community. Next year in .... Boston?