STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE. A lesbian saxophone player and Chinese-American libertarian mime walk into a bar...
"Allegra Lingo and I were [out] drinking, following the 2007 Minnesota Fringe Festival," says phillip andrew bennett low (the lowercase is intentional).
Both low (the head of the theater troupe Maximum Verbosity) and Lingo (who tours with the band Buckets & Tap Shoes) had hit solo shows at the Fringe that year (Descendant of Dragons and I Hate Kenny G, respectively). The Minnesota Fringe Festival has become a haven for solo performers and spoken word artists of all stripes -- poets, comedians, storytellers -- but the festival only lasts for 11 days each summer.
Lingo continues, "[We] were talking about how much we love Fringe because we get to hang out with other solo artists and talk and see each other's work. We wished there was something that existed for us during the rest of the year."
"[Allegra] pitched the idea of a bunch of Fringe spoken-word artists getting together year-round," says low.
"Phillip said, 'Why not?' and that was the beginning."
"So, Allegra created the original concept, and the two of us really hammered out the details," low continues. "We each created a list of solo performers that we really wanted to work with, put the two lists together, and asked everyone."
"And, hence, the Rockstar Storytellers were born," says Lingo. Their original selection criteria for prospective performers were rooted in their desire to assemble "a group of people who had experience in doing what they do," Lingo says.
low adds, "Our original criteria were basically [to ask] people that we liked, drank with, and wanted to work with more. We've added more performers in the meantime, and I think the criteria have grown a bit more demanding since then. It's not set in stone, but I think, at this point, any new member of the Rockstars would need:
1) to be a spoken-word artist of some sort,
2) to have had at least one hit solo show under their belt,
3) to have an irreverent style of performance, and
4) to be awesome to drink with."
Sixteen monthly showcase performances, one Fringe show, and a double-CD compilation of greatest hits later, the Rockstar Storytellers are still going strong. Currently, the group consists of Laura Bidgood, Allison Broeren, Mike Fotis, Allegra Lingo, phillip andrew bennett low, Curt Lund, Courtney McLean, Dave Mondy, Rik Reppe, Amy Salloway, Ben San Del, and Joseph Scrimshaw.
Since all the Rockstars seem to have pretty healthy careers of their own in their solo acts -- why join forces? Read on for a roundtable discussion about the group's origins, its continuing purpose, and what each member gets out of the ongoing collaboration.
Lingo - "We thought it'd be fun, and it is. This group is all about making audience connections and generating new material. For me, it's a good reason to continue writing throughout the year and to make sure I'm still on my game, because you don't want to suck on the Rockstar stage. When you're a performer who writes their own material, performs said material, and it's just you out there...it gets lonely and the drive is sometimes hard to find."
Ben San Del - "It's a change of pace for me--gets me thinking in different directions. Otherwise, I'd just be focusing on writing comedy. It keeps us on our toes and out of a rut. But I think, for the most part, we do it just for fun (no money is to be made...yet), though it can be a lot of work."
low - "A lot of the drive to do something like this was born out of that old problem so many local artists have -- we can generate a strong fan-base during the Fringe, but we have a hard time sustaining that interest through the year."
Courtney McLean - "Actually, one of the original intentions of the Rockstars was for the group to serve as a booking agent for each of us, individually. Our website is a home-base directory where interested presenters can harvest our information."
Allison Broeren - "By joining forces we can help each other out [with] everything from conception of pieces, to promotion, to sharing gigs. One of us might be better at show descriptions than another, or have experience working with agents, or connections to getting published, or on recording, etc. [Working together] makes everything a bit easier for all of us."
Curt Lund - "The group is also flexible enough that there's room for those of us to whom it's a passionate hobby (while maintaining a career -- or two! -- in another area) to work alongside the folks who are making a career out of writing and performing."
low - "Also, there seemed to be a hole in the 'monthly-Fringe-type-showcase-thingy' in the Twin Cities -- there was Sin Cities 7 before us, and The Scrimshaw Show before that. (Ironically, the creators of both of those shows are now Rockstars themselves.)"
Broeren - "I personally appreciate the low drama [among the Rockstars], and how enjoyable it is to be with everybody. Most of us are from different enough backgrounds that we wouldn't overlap very much without the Rockstars, and I think that is awesome. There isn't any pressure to look like one certain thing; instead, you can take your art, and how you do it, and share it with others who are excited to hear it."
low - "I really believe that everyone in the group's an extraordinary entertainer in their own right, so getting to work with them has been exciting. What's more exciting is the fact that we've all become exponentially better writers over the course of the past two years."
In their first year together, the Rockstar Storytellers did a series of seven showcases (and a live CD recording session of the year's greatest hits) under the collective title Undressed.
McLean - "The 'Undressed' idea was Allison Broeren's, and we thought it was a brilliant place to start with. Each show theme was encapsulated in a title that had to do with a piece of clothing, i.e., 'Tore My Heart Off My Sleeve: Stories About Love & Heartbreak.' [That consistent theme] gave us a very broad area in which all of us could contribute with our very different styles, but it still seemed well put-together to have the 'Undressed' through-line."
Lingo - "We put together a show format where one of us hosted and five other performers did stories. People chose the shows they wanted to perform in based on their availability and interest. We all have enough confidence in everyone else to know that we're going to put on a good show, no matter what set of people are on that month. I think it was, for many, a great incubator of new material."
Broeren - "For every show we do there are some people who find it easier to get material together for the theme than others. I struggled with some, but found it to be a great motivator to keep writing. A lot of us try to do new material at all of the shows. That was one of the things we wanted Rockstars to do for us -- keep us writing all year round."
Lingo - "The monthly shows also open up opportunities -- individuals have gotten radio gigs and have been invited to do other shows because someone saw them, for the first time, at a Rockstar show."
Broeren - "I think the high point was our live recording in July. We made CDs, and a film crew from New York flew out to make a mini-documentary on us. They had found us on the internet."
So, what are they doing now? For the Rockstar Storytellers' second season this year, they changed things up for a new set of challenges - known collectively as "The Rockstar Chemistry Set."
low - "The new direction of the second season was largely my idea -- we had a successful first year but the real challenge, at this point, was to find a way to sustain audience interest."
Lingo - "'The Rockstar Chemistry Set' grew out of the notion that, yes, the first season of shows was great, but it was always only more of the same -- really good performers getting up on stage to tell a really good story. Since part of our mission is to push each other creatively, we came up with the idea to take on an 'experiment' each month - new angles to work from."
low - "The concept was basically to experiment with form rather than content. In the first season, each show revolved around a specific theme to write about; in the second season, we have to find ways to fundamentally change the way we write."
Lingo - "We've been letting the audience vote -- either at shows or on our Facebook page -- to dictate what each performer will actually write about. It's been very interesting, and surprising, to see what they've come up with!"
McLean - "I'm appreciating the move towards writing outside the normal monologue/story style (as in our interpretations of Dr. Seuss); or performing the story differently (as if under the influence of a drug)."
low - "I think this season, we're doing some of our best work yet. We've done evenings of competitive storytelling, featuring stories broken down into smaller pieces that the audience votes on."
Reid Gagle, a regular Rockstar show attendee, was one of those voters - "Each storyteller started a story for two minutes. Audience members gave Olympic scorings to the stories and knocked out the losers. Another three minutes of story, another round of voting, and so on. Only one story got to be told through to the end."
Lingo - "We've done music (all stories had to incorporate music, either live or recorded, in some way); a show entirely in verse; an evening where six of us wrote stories for the other six to perform (that was a first for many of us -- seeing someone else performing our writing)."
Gagle - "Given the major differences in style among them, that particular format worked quite well. A standout in that show was a story written by Joseph Scrimshaw for philip low, where words (e.g., pulchritude) were the protagonists, and the action took place inside the dictionary."
San Del - "'The Evening of Desperation' fundraiser asked audience members to bid money to go on stage and be in a Rockstar story. I got someone to pay $10 to be a part of mine; thinking of a way to incorporate a random audience member into a predetermined story was one of the hardest writing assignments I've ever had to do. I ended up just swapping little improvised stories with the audience member and got her to do half the work. It was awkward, but fun. She ended up telling a story about a former boyfriend of hers who was in a professional porno where he got paid to be filmed masturbating. After she told the story she put her head in her hands and said, 'I can't believe I just told that story.' Poor girl. That was a crazy night."
Lingo - "This summer our other experiments include evenings of inspiration (writing in the style of a writer that inspired us - May); miniaturization (one-minute stories - June); and then, in July, we'll again be doing our live recording session of the best of the second season."
In addition to the monthly Rockstar shows, the group has branched out to help develop new talent with a monthly open mic, 'Word Ninjas', run by a veteran of such free-for-all events, Allison Broeren.
Broeren - "As co-Slam Master of SlamMN!, it has been a goal of mine to build opportunities for the Twin Cities spoken word communities to interact together; I think we are definitely seeing that happen at the open mic nights."
low - "'Word Ninjas' has taken off to a ridiculous degree. There's a significant body of people in this city that actively seek out open-mics -- we've hardly done any marketing, and yet more and more people keep crawling out of the woodwork to find this thing."
Broeren - "They're getting great crowds and a large range of spoken word performances -- from pros to first-timers. The one thing I love most about the open mic is how almost everybody sticks around at the end and talks to each other. Often times you see artists that met the night before add each other as friends on Facebook or MySpace; it's community building."
Lingo - "The 'Word Ninja' open mic series [has been] called out by Minnesota Microphone as the highest-quality open mic in town. We don't do any adjudication for them -- anyone who has something that is primarily spoken word-based can sign up and get five minutes on stage. We also include a Rockstar host for the evening and a featured Rockstar performer (one month we also brought in a nationally-known featured guest, Big Poppa E). We've seen a few new voices -- Rachel Teagle [of Questionable Company Theatre] comes to mind -- and the series has also allowed us to hear some more established voices (author Rob Callahan usually stops by, and he is now helping me edit my own manuscript for publication). Rockstar Storytellers was never meant to be, solely, a once-a-month show performance group - this is just one of many projects we're interested in pursuing."
So, looking ahead, what's on tap for Season Three of the Rockstar Storytellers (aside from the ongoing monthly shows and the 'Word Ninjas', of course)?
Lingo - "The last couple of months we've collected all of the stories we've written for shows so far, and we are putting them together for publication. We're also looking at adding an educational component, teaching workshops -- participants would be able to take writing with some of us, move on to others for performance, etc., etc. That's still in the very early stages."
Broeren - "We're still learning and experimenting with what the group can be -- it's ever evolving. I've personally learned how important it is to have a support system to bounce ideas off of. There isn't a lot of competition between us and it's great to have people you trust, but who will also be honest with you."
McLean - "From the sounds of it, the third season is going to be WEIRD... I can't wait."
Give me your best pitch: Why should people come see the Rockstar Storytellers in action?
McLean - "The more we get up on stage and do our shows, the crazier we're getting. I personally feel a lot more comfortable taking risks through our collaborations and I think that we're doing storytelling a favor by giving it an edge. Coming to a Rockstar Storyteller show, you'll experience seasoned performers opening up to the audience in a way that isn't always accessible in non-Fringe parts of the year."
San Del - "I think people have a lot of fun watching these storytellers flounder creatively outside their own respective boxes. The shows are deceptively playful and informal. While sometimes we make it look like we just threw it all together at the last moment, we've actually been working on the stories and overall show for weeks."
Gagle - "[My wife, Genene McNabb, and I] see a LOT of theater and other performance work. We're theater junkies, really. The Rockstars are unique in their determination never to rest on their laurels. They keep coming up with extremely different formats for their shows. Between the format variety and the fact that a different group of performers will be on stage each month, you can guarantee that no two Rockstar shows will be alike. And if, by chance, you don't like a particular story, another story by another Rockstar will be along in twenty minutes or so, and the odds are good that you'll like that one."
low - "People should come because it's a supergroup of some of the hottest entertainers in the Twin Cities. Because it's bawdy, gross, weird, sexy, and fun. Because you can drink during the performance. Because we can drink during the performance. Because the cabaret format and the caliber of the performers guarantees there'll be something for everyone. It's one of the wildest, awesomest variety shows in the upper Midwest, and it's right in your backyard. And I'm not just saying this because I'm the Chair -- the reason I was so excited to help form this group is because it's exactly the kind of group that I love-love-love seeing. New developments seem to pop up every other week, and I'm still shaking my head in awe and amazement that I get to be a part of this."
The Rockstar Storytellers' next performance, "An Evening of Miniaturization," will be at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 23 beginning at 8 pm. The evening will also include performed readings from a selection of 2008 miniStories authors, winners from last year's flash fiction competition series presented by mnartists.org. You can visit the BLB website or call 612-825-8949 for ticket information (you'll get a 2-for-$10 discount if you mention the code ROCKSTAR and reserve your tickets in advance).
Beyond that, Rockstar Storytellers are on stage every fourth Tuesday of the month, 8pm, Bryant Lake Bowl. You can find out more about them by visiting www.rockstarstorytellers.com, their mnartists.org pages, or on Facebook.
'Word Ninjas' spoken word open mic takes place every first Tuesday of the month, 8:30pm, at Kieran's Irish Pub.
You can also catch the Rockstars performing at this year's Fringe Festival; visit the Minnesota Fringe Festival 2009 website to get more information
About the author: Matthew A. Everett's latest production, Medea & Jason: Rubicon Waltz, was an entry in the American College Theater Festival for Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. On stage in Minneapolis, his play Two Left Feet was voted the audience favorite in Commedia Beauregard's "Master Works: The MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) Plays." His play Leave (afterdark theatre company) made Lavender Magazine's Top 10 List for Theater in 2008. Matthew is the recipient of a Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Writing for the Theater, and is a three-time recipient of support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. His blog about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and theater in general) can be found online at Twin Cities Daily Planet. Sample scenes, monologues, and further information on Matthew and his work can be found online at www.matthewaeverett.com and, of course, at www.mnartists.org/matthew_everett.