On the third Tuesday of every month, theatrical group Bootown hosts Grown Up Story Time, in which writers submit short essays to be performed by readers selected and matched by the staff at Bootown. Usually, an attentive audience gathers at Rudyard's to get a little drunk while listening to stories that are themselves often about being a little drunk. The last session, the 43rd in Houston history, was a bit different, though, because the tone of the readings became very unkind. I left Rudyard's thinking I would never go back.
There are risks inherent in the process used by Bootown. The writers, who remain anonymous, don't get to pick a sympathetic reader, while the readers can get stuck with offensive or boring material. That, of course, is the challenge that makes GUST interesting. The handful of times I've attended, the readings were usually funny stories about drinking, drugs and embarrassing moments told in a straightforward manner -- just good, clean-ish fun. Sometimes people wear costumes or involve audience members, and those are even better.
But the January reading was not like that. One reader, who had a story about the insufferable behavior you see working in the restaurant industry (customers yelling about their pizza orders and bad tippers), seemed to take issue with the writer's stance and showed it by rolling his eyes and sprinkling in a "Yeah, right" every now and then. The worst was when another reader pulled a projector screen onstage to tear apart a story for grammar mistakes, spelling errors and style.
It's doubtful that this joke would have been successful for even two minutes, but it went on for 20. It was painful to watch, imagining what the writer must have felt being ridiculed onstage, so I left the room for a while. At least two other readers that night took a contemptuous tone, as if a domino effect of negativity was at work.
Bootown Artistic Director Emily Hynds agrees that GUST 43 was different. "Every Storytime has a life of its own. As the years have progressed, we have come to terms with the idea that once we send the stories to the readers, it is in their hands to take care of the writer and themselves as an artist. Sometimes it's a magical night where everyone is on their game, but it's also interesting when it turns into something that might make one of us cringe."
Hynds explained that "sometimes the tone shifts to mocking when a reader is unprepared. We have a postmortem meeting after every GUST and sometimes decide not to ask that reader back." She also claims that the projector story was something that the writer and performer were both happy with. That writer must have thick skin, because I would not have gone through her experience with such grace.
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Even though the GUST mission values both the reading and writing equally, it's the readers who get the final say and it's also the readers who get paid (plans are being made to pay writers sometime in the unspecified future). It's great that Hynds and Associate Artistic Director Lindsay Burleson take responsibility and action towards readers who bring down the tone, but to me it seems like more work could be done on the front end of the process instead of once everything is over.
GUST addresses an interesting literary concept: The difference between what the writer meant to say and what the reader got from it and whether what the writer meant even matters. (Is Dumbledore gay if J.K. Rowling says he is?) But there are close to no guidelines for the writing. The online submission form only asks for a "crazy/awesome/heartwarming/funny/amazing story," and neither a writer nor a reader needs any qualification beyond that.
Houston is a great artistic city. Big-name authors frequently come to town for readings and at the level below that, there's Poison Pen at Poison Girl and the new Slinging Ink series at Big Star. Remarkable performances are given at cozy places like Opera in the Heights and grand ones like the Wortham Center. Giving the most amateur writers and performers a platform to express themselves is a great thing that Bootown does. But by not pushing their writers and readers for better work, I think that they're missing an opportunity to contribute more to the artistic community.
The projector screen girl was obviously prepared, she brought a projector, but I think that if the writers and readers aren't selected with higher standards, then what could possibly happen at GUST but a sloppy sarcasm fest? If they pushed for better submissions from a wider range of people and then gave the pieces to the readers with some actual performance guidelines and more time to prepare (more than one or two nights ahead), GUST could actually be something.