Bringing People Together: 2nd Story's Programming Director Bobby Biedryzcki Talks With Chicago Literati

Bringing People Together: 2nd Story's Programming Director Bobby Biedryzcki Talks With Chicago Literati

Winter still clings to Chicago the day I meet Bobby Biedrzycki at the 2nd Story headquarters in Ravenswood. As I push the buzzer, I stare up at the sky awash in pewter and stuff my frozen hands in my pockets. There is a release and I push open the heavy, brass doors. I walk up the large, antique staircase. The building the studio occupies is labyrinthine, with lacquered wooden floors and long, door-lined corridors that are identical. Just as I feel I’m about to be swallowed up by one of the infinite hallways, I hear a familiar voice call my name.

 “Abby! Over here!” it is Bobby Biedrzycki. He pokes his head out from the studio door. His bearded cheeks and stocking capped head are a welcome sight, and I gleefully make a beeline for the door that he left ajar for me.

 The studio itself is massive and free and always bustling with activity. Biedryzcki takes me on a brief tour, but stops in the center of the room before a large wall.

“This is where the magic happens!” he says with a grin. Large sheets of paper cling to the wall riddled with author headshots and four correlating post-it notes. The company is in the midst of planning a slew of new shows. A meticulous and daunting task that is a labor of love for those involved.

For a little under three years, Bobby Biedryzcki has worked as the programming director at 2nd Story. For him, there is no better job in the world. He is in good company, with the likes of Julie Ganey (the Director of Education), Megan Stielstra (the Literary Director) and countless others, 2nd Story is what happens when artists and writers work together to create something beyond the sum of its parts.

He leads me up from the sub-level to a quiet part of the room. As I settle into a big, comfy chair and turn on my voice recorder, he leans forward and tells his story.

What are some of the challenges you face as the programming director for 2nd Story?

 The first challenge is, that there are a bazillion amazing stories from Chicago writers and performers, and only four seats at each of our Webster shows. You can imagine—just with the amount of people who submit and audition and the amount of people that I just know in the Chicago storytelling community—you end up feeling like, oh what an incredible position of responsibility and privilege, to be one of those people to offer those opportunities.

That definitely is a huge challenge for me, the idea of like, who that microphone is going to be put in front of. It’s not like we’re the only place people can tell a story, but it’s amazing that there are so many people interested in doing it with us. So there’s that, right?

Another challenge is continuing to build many well-rounded, interesting nights that have many levels and diverse voices, and again, there are only four spots. However, those are wonderful challenges to have.

On average, how many submissions do you get?

We just did a submission’s push for 2013-2014 season that will start next September, and we had over 100 people submit. We saw 38 auditions, and out of those 38 auditions, there will maybe be spots for 12 to 14 of those folks, so it ends up being around 10% or 15% of those who submit who end up being in the chair with us, and that’s just people who are straight up coming through submissions and auditions, we also commission work and then we have our own company, and they are also given opportunities for those events, so we kind of work our way through lots and lots of people and stories.

That sounds like an in-depth and vigorous process.

 It is, but it’s rooted in the idea that we’re an audience-centered company. Everything we do is about audience, so it’s very process based. We feel like if we’re going to ask people to come out and spend a significant amount of time with us, let alone a significant chunk of money, we want to give them something that’s really special. We usually start building stuff at least two or three months in advance depending on the type of show it is and the amount of components that are in it, something like Story Week that has a live music component behind it, is usually built six months in advance. It really starts with curators, somebody who initially meets with storytellers, all hang out with each other. We tell stories first orally, read stories, decide what pieces the four of them are going to do, kind of drafting with each other the whole time. The hope is that everyone will have a stake in the evening, and that all the work will flow together and that no one tells a story alone. We also hope our performers will leave the process with some new artistic contacts. We want them to build their own artistic community through our process. For us, I always think the show is kind of the cherry on top of everything. For me, it’s the actual months that lead up to it that are really most exciting, because that’s the building and the drafting and all that.

You get such a great reward from seeing the show go on.

 (He laughs) Yeah, hopefully that’s what happens. I always relate this to when I was a kid and I would work on something for my mom—like a card or a craft or whatever—you have to go and show somebody the gift, and there’s always that suspense, “Did I make it good enough?” and it’s the type of thing where it comes from the heart, any type of gift is going to be great, so long as it comes from a sincere, heartfelt place. I feel like that’s part of our process—we toil and toil away for months on this thing and then we hope that with all the people involved, there’s enough checks and balances for people to be like, “This is really dope, I love it,” but there’s always that moment, right before, where you’re like (makes an unsure noise) “Ahhhh!” and then it’s out of your hands.

What do you look for when you’re doing a show?

 Initially, I follow my own curiosity. Just to be clear, I don’t choose people by myself, the entire company reads the submissions and the auditions are seen by at least four members of the company. While I’m certainly a voice in the room, I am not thee voice in the room or the be-all, end-all. But when I’m reading submissions, or watching auditions, I’m always looking for something that peaks my curiosity, and that could be any number of things: is the person being honest in the piece? Or are they kind of ducking and weaving? Does the story have layers? Is it a story we haven’t told before? It could be from whatever angle, right? It could be a love story, and we may have told a thousand love stories, but have we told this one? We want to represent the widest section of humanity, again, if it’s a kind of human that hasn’t been on our microphone before from a different part of the country, or a different continent, or they’re older or younger—that is particularly interesting to us, to represent as large of a cross-section of humanity as is available, and Chicago is a pretty big place.

 What have been some of your favorite 2nd Story performances in the past?

 I could talk about any single one of them and be like, “Here’s why I love this one so much!” our November event at Webster’s was called, “Hell No, We Won’t Go: Stories of Digging In” and I was particularly fond of that one. Lizzie Duszynski did a story about being a liar when she was a kid—a really compulsive liar—she felt the need to lie about really serious stuff like telling people she had a deathly illness or being born on a steamship that was crossing from Germany, and so that was one of my favorites. A guy named JC Aevaliotis did a piece about how, when he went to Yale Divinity School he did a grad school fellowship in Bethlehem and it was about becoming close friends with a Palestinian guy. The story was all about how we take for granted the privilege of movement we have in the U.S. It was wonderful because those two pieces were so different, and that show had stuff coming from so many different angles and it was just one of my favorite experiences to be in.

 What have your experiences taught you?

 That stories have the ability to connect people in ways that a lot of other forms of communication do not and make people more able to empathize with each other. I continue to be overwhelmed by the power stories have, and also, at that reaction that folks have when they come to one of our shows, how they end up loving it and want to watch more and more shows. That to me is a fabulous thing that I learn and continue to learn.  That stories can change the world.

And it’s great because you have the new platform with the Podcasts that gets it out even more.

 Yeah, that’s becoming a remarkable thing. We’re getting hundreds of new subscribers each month. That ability to let the work live beyond that one night of performance is really exciting for us.

 What do you love most about writing?

 I just really love making things. You know how I told you about making the card for my mom and stuff? I just really love making things, and I particularly  love making stories, and so a lot of time that means writing, and other times that means collaborating with a bunch of other folks and putting it on a microphone or a stage. I think when I was younger, I would have said I like the isolation of it—but that’s not my favorite part anymore. My favorite part of writing now is sharing it with other people.

Especially in the community you’ve built with 2nd Story, to have that safe atmosphere and streamline together these stories that at first glance seem so disparate, but actually share a common ground.

 (He nods) Exactly…

It’s very hard to do.

 I think the storytellers do the work, the best we can do is guide things in a certain direction.

 What is your favorite quote?

 Oh my gosh, there’s a quote by Walt Whitman, “Be curious, not judgmental.” I use it all the time around here, and when I’m teaching places, whenever I encounter a situation where I find myself being judgmental about something I try to redirect myself into a place of curiosity. I think curiosity is hugely important when it comes to stories, because ultimately as storytellers we need to be almost obsessively interested in people. Our company member Khanisha Foster is a mixed race woman and she says whenever she encounters racism or sexism, she’s less likely to judge the people doing it, and instead be curious about how they acquired those views and the experiences they’ve had that have led them up to this point. Essentially she’s asking, “What might their stories be?” I’ve always thought that was a profound way to approach adversity, to be curious. I really feel like that ultimately, we could all benefit from a little more curiosity.

What inspires you?

Bringing people together.

Over good food, wine and beers?

 (He claps his hands) Absolutely! As far as story goes? Yes! That’s absolutely the vehicle we use to bring people together: stories, food and wine. I’m interested in bringing people together in all sorts of ways though, I really feel like there’s this race going on, which is—are people going to continue to feel separated from each other, feel angry at each other, feel discontent with one another and push away—or are we going to start loving each other? I feel like one of those two things is going to win, eventually. The disconnection one is moving really fast right now, what with our environmental issues and wars and other violence, but are we going to let it win? Or are we going to get together and start loving and for me, that’s really the only answer for this. To get interested in each other, and to love one another. So any opportunity to get people in a room together that leads towards connection and togetherness, is something that I’m incredibly inspired by and I feel like it infuses any kind of work I do in the world, 2nd Story or otherwise.

 What is your favorite book of all time?

 That’s a super tough one. My favorite book of this year was Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, which blew my mind for multiple reasons. I feel like it’s similar to something I’m working on. I also loved, from this year, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It Till It Hurts, it’s an awesome book about two African American brothers adopted by two white families, they both went to this war in Afghanistan and they’re returning home. Again—I’m super jealous. I’m always super jealous about everyone’s first novel because I’m currently in the process of crafting my own, and when I hold one that’s so amazing like that, I feel closer to it than any other book at this point. I feel like the book that really broke things open for me was Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, for sure. That was her first novel and you can see the gears turning, and that taught me a lot about letting go and just telling a story. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for someone who works in Creative Nonfiction, that is like the pinnacle. I could probably go on with a million more books.

What was your favorite book as a child?

 Both of my favorite books as a child were both by Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends were my total jams as a kid. And there was this other one, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I LOVED that book.

 If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would you meet and why?

 I continue to be blown away by non-violent forms of protest, and so somebody like Gandhi or MLK would be right up there for me.

 What brings you joy?

 Seeing people connect with each other authentically. I just love it. I love it anytime I see it happen anywhere—on a bus, in a school, at a 2nd Story show—seeing people, whether it’s through conversation or story, or just somebody else giving someone a ride home. Seeing people connect with one another and treat each other with love always brings me joy.

 Bobby Biedrzycki is a writer, performer, and social activist who came to Chicago from St. Paul, Minnesota via The Bronx, New York. His writing has appeared in The Black Bear Review, Ghost Factory, Ante:thesis Volumes I & II, and Hair Trigger, and he is a company member of 2nd Story, where he serves as Director of Programming. Bobby is an adjunct faculty member of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago, and he teaches personal narrative performance at Gallery 37 for the Arts and the Goodman Theater.

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