Monday, April 28, 2008

Windy City Story Slam makes storytelling a competitive event

The Windy City Story Slam grew out of a trio of Chicago traditions: the eponymous poetry slam, Studs Terkel-style oral storytelling and the competitive boxing community. That’s right—the event’s founder, William Hillmann, won the Chicago Golden Gloves boxing championship in 2002 and was covering boxing events for small magazines when he met playwright Marty Tunney, a fellow boxer who introduced him to Skin author Don DeGrazia. Hillmann refers to DeGrazia, who now teaches pre-competition workshops for story slam participants, as the “godfather” of the Windy City Story Slam.

Currently an MFA student at Columbia College, Hillmann also drew inspiration from Professor John Schultz’s Story Workshop method, which takes into account the movement of the voice as well as perception and narrative structure. But the Story Workshop method isn’t the only copyrighted concept from which Hillman has borrowed—he also asked poetry slam founder Marc Smith personally if he could use the word “slam” in the title of his event.

The Windy City Story Slam began just four months ago and takes place in the Quennect 4 Gallery. The show opens with a featured guest (this Tuesday, that guest is none other than Marc Smith), followed by five official story slam competitors. Participants regale the crowd with original narratives, putting themselves at the mercy of the audience members, who determine the winner with their own cheers and applause.

Storytellers offer a rare peek into a particular time, place and subculture in Chicago’s history. Marty Tunney, who will perform this month, tells stories of growing up in the Irish Southside, while another contestant, Humboldt Park resident Jose Rivera, recounts the rampant gang activity his neighborhood saw in the 1980s.

“We get a good mix of humor and serious stories,” says Hillmann, who also admits the show can get “a little wild” at times. It’s open to all ages, he says, but attendees should be forewarned that the show is “definitely uncensored.”

Local nightlife personality Jojo, former hairstylist to Dennis Rodman, will also make an appearance. The performance artist and famed figure in Chicago’s gay community will appear in his hand-crafted, awe-inspiring costumes, with a collection of his puppets in tow, and may even tell a story of his own.

Following the competition, the floor opens up to anyone brave enough to adlib their own stories in “The Talking Shit” open mike. The mic stays on until everyone is done telling their stories, which can take until the wee hours of the night. The scene seems a timeless one, perhaps hearkening to a prehistoric era when our first ancestors sat around a campfire, telling stories until the embers pulsed dimly and listeners began to nod their heads sleepily.

The connotation certainly wouldn’t be lost on Hillmann. “Before books, before written words,” he says, “there were stories. I feel strongly about embracing that and celebrating it.” –Cory Robertson

The Windy City Story Slam takes place on Tuesday, April 29 at 8 p.m. at Quennect 4 Gallery, 1823 W. North Ave. Suggested donation is $5.