Essay Fiesta is a "charitable live lit event" that incorporates a raffle that raises funds for the 826-CHI nonprofit and tutoring center. Their mission is to bring together a cross-section of Chicago’s art and writing communities for a night of first-person, non-fiction essays and charity. It is held at seven p.m. in every third Monday of the month at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. The event is currently hosted by Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin. This interview took place in the Spring of 2011.
Laura Pearson: How did you initially decide to launch a reading series featuring first-person nonfiction? Did you always plan to include the charity element?
Keith Ecker: Alyson Lyon and I come from the comedy world. We met in July 2009 when doing a stand-up comedy show in Sawyer, Michigan. She gave me a lift to the venue, and during the three-hour ride, we just clicked. We both discovered that, although we respected comedy a great deal, we were interested in expressing a different side of ourselves. Stand-up certainly allows for personal self-expression, but we wanted to infuse the humor with some real poignancy.
About a month later, I was turned down for a comedy show audition. Although I was disappointed, I saw it as an opportunity to create something new outside of traditional comedy. Because I've always considered myself a writer first and foremost, I thought of the idea of doing a show that captured the same first-person, nonfiction element of stand-up but peeled back the punchlines to reveal the deeper truth underneath. It also would give performers the opportunity to concentrate on one topic for up to 10 minutes rather than jump around from anecdote to anecdote. I shared this idea with Alyson at a dinner party in September of 2009. She loved it, and thus the show was born.
As for the charity component, that was always there from the beginning. I knew we weren't going to be making any significant amount of money for ourselves by producing this show. But I knew we could make some money, and that money could be used to help a very worthy cause. Plus, adding a raffle at the end of each show really feeds into the festive atmosphere we try to cultivate. I have many friends who have used the services at Howard Brown Health Center, and so that became the first charity we helped. We ended up raising about $3,000 for the organization. We have since partnered with 826-CHI and are currently funding them. All of the money we receive, whether through raffle tickets or donations, goes to the charity.
What's the most important thing you've learned about coordinating a reading series?
If you want to build an audience, you have to put in the work. Alyson and I nurse Essay Fiesta like it's our baby. We each spend several hours a week working on the series. I do all our marketing, from press releases to Facebook updates to updating the blog and putting together our e-newsletter. Alyson coordinates with all the readers and manages all our scheduling needs. We love doing it, but it's certainly not something that runs itself.
Where do you find your readers—or do they find you?
It's a combination of both. I'd say the majority of readers we find. Some are people we have known from our experiences in the comedy, theater, and journalism worlds. (Alyson has done a lot of theater, and I have a journalism background.) Others are people we have seen perform at other reading series. But we do accept submissions from anyone, and we get back to everyone who submits. If we reject a submitter, we try to provide feedback about how they can revise their pieces to fit our show's format. Alyson and I are really big on creating an inclusive atmosphere. If you have a story, a talent for writing, and a flair for performance, we want you.
Do you attend any other reading series in the city, and if so, are there any you find especially exciting or interesting?
I've attended and performed at nearly a dozen different series. I usually stick to the essay format, but sometimes I write comedy pieces if that's what the show calls for. Some of my favorite nonfiction storytelling series include Stories at the Store and This Much Is True. Story Club is another great show that features a lot of nonfiction work, and it has an open mic component. Write Club is a really unique series. It pits two writers up against each other, and each must defend an opposing topic. Alyson and I competed in that show. Her topic was girls. My topic was boys. I lost.
For the uninitiated, what's the Chicago Story Collective?
The Chicago Story Collective is an assembly of three reading series: Essay Fiesta, Stories at the Store and Story Club. We banded together to produce themed shows. Our goal is to celebrate the human experience through storytelling, with a concentration on "celebrate." These aren't your ordinary readings. For example, in December, we did a show called "Holidays Are Hell." It was at Town Hall Pub, and we used a ton of chintzy Christmas decor to transform that bar into the coziest, cheesiest holiday venue. We all dressed up, and I wrote a song that we used to intro the show. There was a raffle, and Jell-O shots. Good times.
We're producing our second show on April 29 at Town Hall. It's called "High School Horror Stories." This one's prom-themed, and it features some great special guests. Then on June 23, we're producing a show at Stage 773. It's going to be a sex-themed show, and we're collaborating with a burlesque troupe. So, yeah—readings with a twist.
Keith Ecker is the co-producer of Essay Fiesta (along with Alyson Lyon), in addition to being a monthly featured reader. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. When the journalism industry became a joke, he decided to get into comedy. He has studied improv at the Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theatre. He was a founding member of the improv groups Armchair Showcase the Local 405 and Road Eagle; he was the co-founder, head writer and producer of the sketch group The Alliance’s premier show “Gayrilla Warfare”; and he’s performed stand-up all around Chicago. He’s also a professional freelance writer and is a theater critic for the Chicago Theater Blog.
Laura Pearson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Currently, she is the arts + culture editor at Time Out Chicago.