Readings are always a little bit of a slog, even for tweedy masochists like me. But for this year's Bibliophilia at Theater Schmeater, writer/editor/organizer/comedian Jekeva Phillips will inject the humor, drama, and spontaneity of improvisational theater into what would already be a pretty stellar series of readings by local poets and writers.
"You're going to watch one art form and another art form collide to create something entirely new," Phillips said. "So it's like watching this little artistic baby being born."
The festival features five original events over the course of three days (April 19–21), but it kicks off the week before with a Belltown bar crawl on Thursday, April 12.
Phillips and I sat down at the French Quarter Kitchen to talk about her plans and to get tipsy on L'Étranger, a refreshing yet authoritative drink created specifically for the crawl. To drum up some money for the improv performers and the writers, participating bars created signature cocktails based on literary figures.
Bartender Adrienne Tippins said she made the L'Étranger with Oloroso sherry, absinth, lime juice, house-infused Fuji apple bourbon, and house-made mix berry jam. When I asked her to explain the relationship between the drink and Albert Camus's book, she said, "The main character in The Stranger thinks the world is absurd, and this cocktail is a little like that. It's absurd. You don't expect all these flavors to go together, but they all play well in hindsight."
The absinth asserted itself during the course of the interview, but I never felt overwhelmed with drunkenness. It was good, she was good, and now I want to go to French Quarter Kitchen all the time.
Phillips, who owns no pets but longs for a Weimaraner or a wiener dog, began coproducing the festival with Theater Schmeater three years ago as a way of showcasing contributors to Word Lit Zine, a quarterly publication she edits. Poets Frances McCue (Timber Curtain) and Quenton Baker (This Glittering Republic) have recently been featured in the zine. Phillips also does improv at CSz Seattle, and she's bringing in local heavy hitters Chris Allen, Yolanda Suarez, and Drew Simchik to create live performances based on the literary works.
Baker will read some work for the festival's Poetry Verse Play event. Directly after his reading, a group of improv artists will perform a new play based on the poems they heard.
A similar dynamic will play out in an event called Chapter One. Hugo House prose writer in residence Sonora Jha will read the first chapter of her novel Foreign, and then an improv troupe will act out the chapter. In Heathcliff Letters, audience members will shout out the titles of books they feel like they should have read in high school but never did, and then improvisers will perform a 10-minute version of it. Someone might shout "Lord of the Flies!" and then the performers will have to mount a live performance of Lord of the Flies on the spot.
Phillips says the events will take on a range of tones. "It's all about re-creating what you see," she said. "Improv can be funny or it can be dark, and it can deal with big subjects. If the subject matter is very serious, our improv artists are smart enough to go to the mat and create drama from the social or political questions literature has always posed."