Chicago is decorated for Christmas. In the old lot where Buddy Guy’s used to be, evergreen trees lean against the wire fence, their scent permeating through the December air. The Caribou Coffee in the South Loop is teeming with people, most of them students from Columbia who are getting coffee before the next round of classes begin. As I make my way through the crowded café, I see Megan Stielstra sitting quietly by the window. I quickly sit down to join her, pulling out the wooden chair that screams against the wood floor. Megan looks up at me with her beryl eyes and smiles warmly. Her wavy blonde hair is in a demure side part and she wears a black long-sleeved shirt and jeans with a red-and-white polka dot pashmina. She sips a chai tea latte and seems unaffected by how loud and boisterous the café is.
For over a decade, Stielstra has worked as the literary director at “2nd Story”, a unique performance series that blends theatrical and storytelling. Stielstra has been with “2nd Story” since its infancy in 2002 and remembers when it was just a bunch of friends getting tipsy after work.
“There was a guy named Adam Belcoure (who’s now the full-time casting director at the Goodman Theatre) and he was working upstairs at Webster’s Wine Bar and different friends of his would come hang out after work and they would sit around and drink wine together telling stories, and then those friends brought friends and it grew and grew.” She says with wistful ardor. For a while, “2nd Story” functioned as a cabaret where actors would perform short, solo monologues in front on an audience, however Stielstra notes the architectural misfortune of the venue:
“What’s interesting about the space at Webster’s Wine Bar is that it’s ‘L’ shaped so wherever the storyteller is sitting, about 40% of the audience can’t see you, so what was happening a lot–initially was–the performer would tell a story that they, most of them were professional actors, so they would rely on gesture and facial expression to communicate information and I remember being in the crowd—really early on, long before I worked for the organization, I couldn’t see the performer and what I heard was: ‘And then she was all…’ and the audience laughed, ‘and then I was all…’ and the audience laughed, so you know the performer was doing something amazing, but a huge section of the audience was closed off from that.”
In 2004, Stielstra–fresh from Columbia’s graduate program–suggested to Belcoure that he hire a writer to help sharpen the performers’ techniques. Stielstra explains how she joined the “2nd Story” collective:
“I said, ‘Adam, I think this is amazing, but I think maybe you could have a writer come to in and work with some of your performers so there could be a way to get that same energy in the text, so all the audience can feel connected.’ And he said ‘That sounds really great, do you want a job?’” It was Stielstra who would imbue the methodology she learned from Columbia’s Fiction Writing program into the series, having storytellers go through a three-month workshop process to better sharpen their stories and performance delivery. Since it’s humble beginnings as a cabaret, “2nd Story” has evolved, though it still remains true it’s roots.
“Now we have a company of 26 individuals, we have a staff, we have our own loft space where we run workshops, um, we run in a fully-crafted theatre season so September to June, and we’ve worked with over 200 storytellers and we have an archive of over 300 stories, we have a huge podcast series on iTunes right next to This American Life.” Stielstra says proudly. Program director, Bobby Biedrzycki works on quality assurance of the program.
“Bobby serves as the overall outside eye to see that all the stories are in conversation with each other. It is a very, very hard job and it is a very, very huge job he also directs and trains all our curators. There is a specific ‘2nd Story’ aesthetic and he wants to hold every show accountable to what that is, we’re very fortunate to have the audience that comes to us, and our shows sell out, I think they come back to us because there is a level of hopefully quality and that means something to us, and Bobby is that eye and I’ve never seen him miss.”
This year, “2nd Story” released its first book: a collection of stories from over ten years of performances. “2nd Story” is nothing if not collaborative, and Stielstra worked with fellow members of the collective to “divide and conquer” when it came to the publishing of the anthology, Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low-Flying Duck.
“About a year ago we began having a conversation about how we wanted the stories to live outside the ten-minute performance—so much work goes into their creation, so we formed a publishing committee of six people and we’d sit around drinking beer in Andrew Riley’s (the co-editor’s) living room talking about what we wanted that committee to do. We already had the podcast series, but then we started talking about a book and what would be best for us as an organization, would we want to self-publish it or do an e-book and work the podcast into the book, or did we want to go a more traditional publishing route? So we all divided and conquered.”
Stielstra sought out Jotham Burrello, owner of “Elephant Rock Productions” and adjunct faculty member at Columbia College Chicago.
“I went to Jotham because I love his work, (he worked with Patricia McNair on, Temple of Air) and I went to him with no intention of seeking him as a publisher, but merely as way to pick his brain about the publishing industry, because he knows about it better than anyone else I know, so I thought, ‘Jotham is Yoda and he will tell me what to do!’ And so I asked him I was like, ‘Jotham when can I take you out for coffee because I want to ask you about the publishing industry for the anthology,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ll publish that.’”
Burrello was very passionate about the publishing of the book. Where Stielstra feared that the energy from the performances would be lost on the page, Burrello assured her of their strength. Burrello was also the one who urged the stories to be published under essays rather than fiction.
“2nd Story” is committed to telling stories that are real. We’re using literary techniques to tell real stories. The 23 (stories) came from the diversity that we sought. I hope there’s another book.” Stielstra says with glee.
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