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The Paper Machete: Sharpest New Reading Series in Chicago

By Laura Pearson | Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Christopher Piatt, founder, host, and co-producer. Photo courtesy The Paper Machete.

Every Saturday afternoon, the back room of Ricochet’s Tavern (4644 N. Lincoln Ave.) is home to a “live magazine” show called The Paper Machete.

Created and hosted by former Time Out Chicago theater editor/critic Christopher Piatt and co-produced by writer/performer Ali Weiss (remember her from this viral vid?), it’s a reading series that slices through convention, delivering clever and often hilarious commentary on politics and culture and featuring a wide swath of Chicago talent—journalists, actors, publishers, comics, and other “miscellaneous characters” (e.g., a recent show featured Pocahontas opining on Arizona’s new immigration law).

And yes, you read that correctly: It happens every Saturday.

When Piatt conceived the show, which he describes as an “idea pageant” or a salon crossed with a variety show, he thought that Lincoln Square would make for a great location. Despite the many cultural events happening in the neighborhood, it’s kind of a literary and performance series desert.

“There’s a bunch of people that live in the hood who participate in a lot of live performance events around town, but very few of the events are actually in the neighborhood, with The Book Cellar being sort of the awesome exception,” Piatt says.

He and Weiss decided they’d like to host the “live magazine” at Ricochets, their local watering hole, and the bar was accommodating. (Indeed, “Home of the Paper Machete” is now painted in the front window.)

As for the frequency of the saloon salon, Weiss says, “That’s all Christopher.” She explains that she originally tried talking him out of the weekly format, thinking it would be too difficult to coordinate, and Piatt says his other friends who run shows told him “You’re crazy!” too.

Most reading series in Chicago are held once a month, or in some rare cases, on a semimonthly basis. But having worked for many years at a weekly magazine, Piatt finds this way of operating familiar and incredibly motivating.

“It’s exhausting,” he says, “but I think we function better this way. Something about it forces a degree of quality and accountability… You learn lessons hard and fast, and it’s also a great buzz-generator.”

The Saturday afternoon time slot also seems to work well, since many participants in The Paper Machete have performances later in the evening.

“It’s kind of an unoccupied space right now in the Chicago weekly arts calendar, which allows us access to an audience without having to compete with all the other shows in town,” Piatt says.

Ali Weiss, co-producer. Photo courtesy The Paper Machete.

Weiss, who runs the website, helps with fundraising and publicity, makes videos (and more), has come to appreciate the fact that they produce Paper Machete once a week, especially since the performers are responding to current events. (Past topics have included everything from Blago to the Gore divorce to Toy Story 3.)

“There’s a never-ending torrent of inspiration coming from the news,” she says. “So there’s always stuff to talk about.”

Piatt curates the talent for each week’s show, but how performers present the news or theme is up to them—their particular brand of commentary and their unique perspective. For actors, this is a chance to come off the stage and into the tavern.

“People have said to us that they’re thrilled to be given the opportunity to just speak as themselves,” Weiss says. “They might get up onstage and do amazing things every night, but they don’t get to get up out of character and speak from the hip on issues that are happening right now.”

For journalists and critics, it’s a chance to showcase their creativity.

“Part of the thing about being a critic is there’s that stigma that you can’t make anything yourself or you’re only doing it because you’re sort of envying other people,” Piatt says. “[Paper Machete] is a chance to both negate that and expand the relationships that critics and artists can have.”

He admits that he has read alongside some of the very people whose works he has criticized, but good things have come of the experience. The Paper Machete has paved the way for healthy collaborations between journalists and artists, united in the craft of commentary.

Since the show launched last January, it has showcased a range of performers, from WBEZ, Entertainment Weekly, The Second City, The Onion, Chicago Magazine, The Neo-Futurists, The Plagiarists, Threadless, and many other sources of art and media. In the future, Piatt says he hopes to diversify the talent, adding, say, public intellectuals to a lineup of legitimate vaudeville acts.

“My hope is that as we get more resources and have more editorial accountability, we reach out into other parts of Chicago to make it as diverse a bill of performers, ideas, styles, and stories as possible,” he says.

He and Weiss also hope to someday launch The Paper Machete podcast, with the goal of building a national listenership. “Our dream is to have a weekly podcast that we record on Sunday, the day after the show, where we talk about [the performances] and play excerpts,” Weiss says.

Soon they plan to start selling live advertisements during the show (“performance art ads” for local businesses) with the eventual objective of paying writers a little money.

For now, they’re experimenting with new ideas and building momentum, wielding their Machete with skill and care, while keeping the mood refreshingly light. It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.

The next Paper Machete show on Saturday, July 17, at 3 p.m., features: Michael Patrick Thornton (from the television show Private Practice and the Gift Theater in Rogers Park), Phil Dawkins (Chicago playwright and noted North Side dandy), Diana Slickman (The Neo-Futurists, BoyGirlBoyGirl), Lisa Buscani (National Poetry Slam Champion, the pilot of This American Life), Paul Brittain (iO Theater), Faces for Radio (an all-women a capella pop group), and Justin Hayford (longtime Chicago Reader theater critic and a cabaret artist).

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