Youve seen Keith Ecker around. Journalist, teacher, co-founder and host of Essay Fiesta, Ecker makes his presence known. Now, hes teaming with the equally omnipresent Samantha Irby of “Bitches Gotta Eat” fame to create a new Live Lit series, Guts & Glory. He spoke with Our Town about Essay Fiestas future, and what to expect from Guts & Glory.
Our Town What originally made you want to take on the responsibility of creating a reading series?
Keith Ecker I started Essay Fiesta after spending a number of years in Chicago’s comedy community as an improviser, stand-up and sketch performer. Although I enjoyed making people laugh, I began to have an urge to peel back some of my jokes and explore my topics with a greater mix of humor and poignancy. I also have a journalism background, so I’ve always gravitated toward writing. But I didn’t want to do a traditional reading series. I’d seen author readings before, and I found them to be really dry and boring. So I conceived of a show where artists from across genres could read personal stories with a dramatic flare.
OT How did you decide to step down from Essay Fiesta?
KE My co-producer, Alyson Lyon, approached me earlier this year about stepping down from the series. At first, I considered continuing without her, but I realized that the magic of Essay Fiesta,grew out of our collaboration. So we mutually decided to pass the baton to two new producers, Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin. They are the blonder versions of Alyson and me. They’re a fantastic duo. The show will have a hiatus in December, and they’ll take the reigns in January. I believe I’ll be a guest at that show. It depends if they book me. (They better book me.)
OT Whats different about your new series?
KE First, the new series is co-hosted by the amazing Samantha Irby. The two of us have a vibe all our own that’s more in-your-face and aggressive than Essay Fiesta. The mission of the show is different too. Guts & Glory aims to challenge its performers to take a personal risk, whatever that means to them. We want our storytellers to really reveal themselves on stage. If you’re not scared when you’re sharing, you’re doing it wrong. Essay Fiesta certainly had some of that, but that wasn’t a priority. For me personally, I wanted the opportunity to share some of the stories I wasn’t able to share at Essay Fiesta, stories that are more adult in nature. I always have said that Essay Fiesta is a strong PG-13. Guts & Glory has already jumped way over the NC-17 line. But to be clear, it’s never purely to shock. At the heart of Guts & Glory is a desire to communicate and connect on a universal level. It just so happens that the stories often focus on the darker or more embarrassing aspects of life.
OT What makes you and Samantha a good team?
KE Sam and I have been good friends for a while. We met at a show that we both performed at, and we kind of fell instantly in love with one another based on each others work. After hanging out and getting to know each other more, we fell even deeper in love. And then we decided to have a baby, and that baby is Guts & Glory. I think the show works so well because both Sam and I come at storytelling with a mentality of fearlessness. Truth can be pretty ugly, and we have both had things happen in our lives that are pretty tragic. But we also both like to express the tragedy with a lot of humor.
OT When writing for a live reading as opposed to writing for the page, how does your method and/or style differ?
KE I don’t find them to be too dissimilar. I certainly approach both with a similar method, which is to picture a specific audience in mind as I write. It doesn’t matter whether that audience will be hearing the words from me or reading the words themselves. I’d say the biggest difference is that live reading providers the writer with the luxury of expressing timing, whether comedic or dramatic, through the performance. It’s trickier to express comedic or dramatic timing purely on the page. That definitely requires a bit more finesse.
OT Why do you think Chicago has a thriving live lit scene?
KE I think a lot of people have gravitated to storytelling and live lit in general for a number of reasons. One is that it’s live. We live in a time where so much socializing is done online. It’s refreshing to be around real breathing humans. Also, writing is a very solitary art form, so having a community for writers is very supportive. But I think the overriding reason why this has become so popular goes back to why I started Essay Fiesta. Irony has lost its charm. People want sincerity, and that’s what this storytelling scene provides.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” was called poetic and heartrending by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.