by Wonder Dave, photos and video by Cole Sarar
Loren Niemi is one of those lovely, curmudgeonly installations of the storytelling scene. Wonder Dave and I happened upon the idea of focusing on Loren’s work in the spoken word scene nearly simultaneously, so Dave interviewed Loren, and we attended his most recent “Two Chairs Telling”, to see what he had put together. This indulgent post gives you lots of Loren- the interview, some video of a recent story of his at Balls Cabaret, and a little discussion of his most recent “Two Chairs Telling”. Dave is actually performing in the upcoming May 18th event at The Open Eye Figure Theatre where “Two Chairs Telling” is hosted. – Cole
Interview with Loren Niemi
WD: Over the years you’ve held the label of scholar in residence, teacher, slam poet, published author, performance artist and storyteller. Care to describe where/how you see yourself as an artist these days?
LN: First and foremost I am a storyteller. It is life’s work and every one of those labels fits within the continuum of what it means for me to be a storyteller. As an artist, my role is to create, collect, teach and perform narratives. Sometimes it is oral, sometimes written, sometimes it is photographic images but it is always about what it means to be human, to embody a quote that I really like from Pat Costello, that “we story our lives into meaning; and those meanings shape our beliefs, values and actions.”
WD: One of your current major projects is the monthly Two Chairs telling show at Open Eye Theatre. The show pairs two spoken word/ narrative artists (often from very different back grounds) together what was the initial inspiration for this show? What inspires you to continue the project?
LN: The seed for Two Chairs Telling came from an experience I had in the early ‘80’s in a kitchen in Toronto when four storytellers including a Hungarian survivor of the camps and a Buddhist priest spent the entire night trading stories, poems and conversation. I wanted to give an audience a glimpse of that experience, the uncensored back and forth of artists responding to each other and sharing material that is more personal, raw, not necessarily a part of their performance repertoire.
What inspires me to continue that is seeing those pairings offer their authentic selves as responses to being together and the audience the gift of being in the room while they do whatever it is they will do. Two Chairs Telling has been produced for 8 years at the Jungle or Open Eye Figure theatre with my pairing approximately 123 performers for 72 performances. In all that time I think I’ve had maybe 1 “bad” show a year and I’ve got to be honest, even the train wrecks have had a compelling can’t look away quality.
CS: Do you make your living doing writing/performance/curation?
LN: Part of a living – combined with teaching/workshops/consulting and coaching. The corporate and nonprofit end of the work is where most of the money is… My curating Two Chairs Telling is at best a break even proposition since I am prepared to cover the costs our of my own pocket if admissions/grants/contributions don’t.
WD: March 16th Two Chairs Telling featured Katie Knutson & Dean Johnson and April 20th paired Leslie Ball with slam poet 6 is 9. How do you decide which acts to pair up?
LN: I begin with whose work do I want to hear? Who do I think they might have “juice” with? I like to mix established performers with newcomers and emerging artists, local luminaries with regional or national performers, men and women of various sexual leanings, artists of color, styles and ages. I try to have them balanced in terms of energy or presence because the worst parings are when one artist completely overpowers the other. I have a pool of whom I want to see or who has asked to be on stage and when I can find a match I put them on the schedule. I will admit that some part of this is my knowing a really wide variety of folks and trusting my instincts to have X be able to work with Y.
WD: You co-authored a book (with Elizabeth Ellis) entitled Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories. What made you want to tackle this topic? Why do you feel it’s important to talk about difficult subject matter in the storytelling community?
LN: When the American storytelling revival began in the ‘70’s it was wide open. Storytellers of every stripe – from traditional Native American or Appalachian tellers grounded in a specific community to the edgy experimenters, Spaulding Gray or my mentor, Ken Feit – had a contribution to make. As the revival became formalized and commercialized, what was deemed as appealing to the audience narrowed the telling styles, content and the audiences. A part of what I wanted to talk about in the book was the fact that there is a need and a place for those stories that are hard to hear and harder to tell. Every story does not have a happy ending and some audiences, especially audiences outside the while, educated, middle class that is the backbone of the revival, want and need to hear their lives, with all the messiness and challenge they contain, in stories as well.
WD: Where can people purchase this book if they find the topic intriguing?
LN: They can contact me – email@example.com or they can find it through Amazon or most of the other bookstore on the web. The value of contacting me directly is that I sell it a less than list price and – LOL -100% of the price goes to me not to corporate middlemen.
WD: Who were some of your influences when you first began performing? Who inspires you today?
LN: When I came to storytelling I was fortunate to have two mentors of wildly different persuasions. One was Ken Feit, who was a former Jesuit, a clown, a self-described “Holy Fool” whose work was very physical while at the same time being imaginative and grounded in radical Catholic social justice. The other was Rueven Gold, who was a teller of traditional Hassidic tales. His performances violated every rule – he would weep, be entirely caught up in emotions and the moment, laugh at punch lines before he got to them and yet his stories were a transformative experience of being in the moment. I was also influenced by the work of Lennie Bruce, Spaulding Gray, Elizabeth Ellis, poets John Berryman, Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg.
Who inspires me today? Khary Jackson, my old Slam team buddy, Bao Phi, Megan Wells, the fabulous Nell Weatherwax, Jim Stowell, Kevin Kling, and the late great Brother Blue would be on the top of my list.
WD: Allow me to indulge in asking you about your experience with one of my favorite art forms, Slam poetry. You were a part of the first Slam team Minnesota ever sent to the National Poetry Slam in 1998 tell us about that experience.
LN: That is a long story with subplots full of burning cars, trips to Fargo, Chicago and Detroit and 100 plus heat in Austin, Texas. The five of us, Diego Vazquez, Bao Phi, Kate Pearson, “Wildman” Patrick McKinnon and myself covered the entire universe of Slam styles. The bottom line – we did held our own against better-known and star-studded teams. I wrote two accounts of the experience, one a blow-by-blow narrative sent to a subscription list that I still have in my archives and a summary account that was published in one of the late 1998 issues of A View From the Loft.
WD: Are there any skills that you feel slam helped you to hone?
LN: Slam honed my willingness to improvise. I’d let the audience pick the topic and do three minutes on the fly. When it worked, it gave me both permission and powerful images that I developed into full blow stories and poems. When it failed, it was usually because I violated the time limits – ‘cause if you going to dive into making it work on the spot you’ve really got to get the heart and soul of the images quickly.
WD: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline we should be discussing right now?
LN: This summer Howard Lieberman and I will be taking our storytelling/”game” show – “55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation” to the Hollywood Fringe and back to the Indy Fringe where it was one of the ten best selling shows of 2009. It is a show in which the audience member gets to pick the topic and then be incorporated into the story. LOL – the number of people who want to be on stage is roughly equal to the number of people who want to head for the exit when it is time to get that audience participation the title promises.
We did not fare well in the MN Fringe lottery so unless we can find another venue/producer (Hello, Bryant Lake Bowl, let’s talk…) we will have to wait to bring this show here.
I’ve got a couple of other things in development, most notably, Bad Brother, a faux memoir/novel based on the seven years I was in the religious life. LOL – It begins with the line, “Poverty, Chastity, Obedience – I was only good at one of them.” I think it’s a comedy but I haven’t come to the end yet.
Two Chairs Telling: April
Two Chairs Telling is an ongoing series hosted by local raconteur Loren Niemi. Each month Mr. Niemi pairs together two different spoken word/ narrative artists often from two very different backgrounds. This last month’s show saw the joining of performance powerhouse and jack-of-all-trades Leslie Ball with slam poet superstar Khary Jackson a.k.a. 6 is 9.
A lineup of this nature promised a high energy, well-crafted evening and the performers did not disappoint. Throughout the evening they touched on a variety of themes taking us along for a ride that followed them through linear time stopping at key emotional moments both personal to the performers and to the characters they gave voice to throughout the night. The night was filled with music, laughter and in an especially memorable moment tears as Leslie heard Khary’s persona poem “Heaven” for the first time. Part of the show’s joy was watching the performers play off of one and other so well throughout the evening despite having never worked together before that night.
The show began in the past, Khary setting telling the story of Stradivarius the violin maker and the death of Stradivarius’ first wife Francesca. What this piece showcased to me was not Khary’s ability to step into a persona (I already was aware of his ability to do that) but his attention to detail when researching the violin crafter Khary noticed that the period in which Stradivarius’ highest quality violins began right after the death of his wife. He made a connection. Created a story and presented in beautifully.
Leslie Ball brought us a little closer to modern times with the love story of Howard and Harriette two lovers perhaps not best suited to one and other but important in each others lives all the same. This was one of many pieces to showcase Leslie’s musical talents.
From here the evening progressed rapidfire and beautiful, the performers taking turns. The second round was more personal with Khary recalling the joys of his grandma’s house and the sadness of its selling. Leslie then told the story of her life as it related to the State Fair. As a child Ms. Ball was intrigued by the spectacle of it and wanted to attend but her mother was a woman who according to Ball, “loved human kind but would rather not rub up against it”. In the story a young Leslie asks if they can go to the fair saying because it sounds like fun only to have her mother reply, “It sounds like fun dear, but it isn’t”. Leslie then told details of her life and the joy she had when as an adult she finally made it to the State Fair and found “her people”. Khary revealed that he is in fact not a fan of the fair and seemed reticent to take up Leslie on her offer to go with him. I myself cannot imagine that going to the fair with Leslie would be anything but delightful after hearing her speak with so much enthusiasm.
The performers then took turns discussing Alzheimer’s with Khary performing his slam staple piece “Heaven” and Ball recounting a her time in seminary and the time she spent working with Alzheimer patients.
The evening continued filled with various twists and turns more of Leslie’s wonderful musical talent, Khary performing two pieces written in the style of Shel Silverstein, Leslie listing off some of life’s quirky joys such as warm moist q-tips, cross sums and compound words, a discussion of the fears that go along with illness, love poems and songs, happy dogs and a tale about poultry including three geese in a polyamorous relationship (this was a true story, by the way).
Two Chairs Telling was an excellent event and certainly deserving of its recent mention in the City Pages’ “Best of” listings. The greatest thing about this event was getting to see two performers who I have seen regularly in a different light and watch them interact in new exciting ways.
Two Chairs Telling happens at the beautiful Open Eye Figure Theatre, monthly, in and amongst the set pieces that may be on its small thrust stage, against the background of its raw brick arch. The Open Eye is located at 508 East 24th Street, in Minneapolis. You can find more information about Two Chairs Telling at the Open Eye’s website.