The Encyclopedia Show Arizona
A Successful Community Theater Model
On May 10th, 2013, I watched a Direct TV salesman perform a slam poem about human cannonballs. The Empty Space Theatre—a black box on the Arizona State University campus—was decorated with streamers, balloons, and a projector screen on the back wall was lit with a picture of a big top. The theme of the evening was “The Circus.”
The aforementioned poem was sandwiched between a slideshow presentation about the history of the circus and a half-dragged juggler, tossing scarves and comparing the trick to balancing gender as a gay man.
The Encyclopedia Show Arizona is an offshoot of a national project started in Chicago in 2008. Co-founders Shanny Jean Maney and Robbie Q. Telfer created the “live variety extravaganza” with the mission to “chafe against logic and proof, find meaning in obfuscation, and wrest truth from fact once and for all.” The first show’s theme was Bears and invited “local and touring artists and experts” to present on subtopics of the theme (like grizzly bears or polar bears). In the past five years, the show’s format has spread to several other major cities in the world, including New York, Seoul, Austin, and as of fall 2011, Tempe, AZ. Each new city uses the same trajectory of themes from the original Chicago curators, but subtopics might be new.
As alluded to in its name, the show strives to be somewhat educational, but also funny, musical, diverse. In the Arizona show, there is often an audience participation section of trivia.
Humans are creative by nature. They say the arts are dying, and, yet (or perhaps because) it seems now people have more creative outlets than ever. The internet lets anyone with thirty seconds and a smart phone create and share a 140-character quip on Twitter, a hip filtered photo on Instagram, or a six-second edited video on Vine. But, with the trade-off of ease and quantity comes the journey away from quality of yore. Read: theater is strugglin’.
They say the arts are dying, and, yet (or perhaps because) it seems now people have more creative outlets than ever.
Many people in our society truly don’t care whether or not their community and commercial theaters stay afloat, but many do. However, it’s hard to justify bolstering an art form that needs constant support when so many new outlets exist…for free. Twenty-five dollar tickets to see the local production of Into the Woods sounds nuts when you can Netflix stream the original cast into your living room. In places like Phoenix—not necessarily a hotbed of free and willing theater practitioners—even people who wish to participate in community theater often can’t because of the time, money, or membership commitment. And herein lies the beauty of The Encyclopedia Show Arizona.
This is community theater at its purest, grittiest form. Literally anyone is welcome to perform in one of the eight(ish) five-to-ten-minute slots. The curator of the show, Nick Klemp, ends each show by announcing upcoming shows’ themes (one per month) and extends the performance opportunity to anyone by sending an e-mail of interest. Obviously, there are downsides to this model. I’ve frequented the show several times before “The Circus,” and I’ve seem some truly horrendous sketch comedy attempts. But, if the exchange is getting to see a local teacher with cyphoskoliosis present on circus freaks in juxtaposition to her own life as a “freak,” I can live with that. Additionally, there’s always at least a couple of extremely talented performers who might not have the time for a normal non-paid community show, but for a one-time low-key engagement? Sure. For example, Paul Davis is an Arizona native pursuing film in LA, but he was willing to take a weekend trip to bring down the house with a monologue about professional clowning. The next performer, a volleyball coach, reading an original poem was of a different talent caliber, but both segments were equally charming within the context of the show.
This is community theater at its purest, grittiest form.
Because The Encyclopedia Show Arizona is sponsored by the Hugh Downs School of Communication, the venue is free, so the admission can be too. This also helps the show’s success. For better or worse, the volunteer performers can take risks that professionals might not be able to. Show curator Klemp, decked in ringmaster mustache and top hat, sang a “Single Ladies” parody including lines like, “If you’re a lion, then you listen to the ringleader, ‘cos I don’t give a shit about PETA.” The audience—a nearly full eighty-seat house—laughed along happily. The University of Phoenix enrollment advisor…is no Beyonce. But when he mimicked the superstar’s music video dance, he was greeted with an applause break. There might be a different reaction if the show weren’t free. The aesthetic is straightforward—don’t expect too much, but something will probably blast through your expectations anyway.
Besides diversity in performers’ skills and backgrounds, the “variety show” type format allows for extreme diversity in viewpoints, often resulting in hypocrisy within the show as a whole. For example, Meg Howell, the “circus freak” presenter made us keenly aware of how sad superficial bullying is, so when Davis described class clowning half an hour later with an anecdote about making fun of his fat teacher, half the audience laughed and the other half winced.
Live art gives us something our screens can’t. Sure, there’s something romantic about absorbing the same experience as other breathing bodies in a space, but that cozy communal space also doubles as a trap of sorts. A good trap! When people can click out of 99% of the creative expression they consume, they experience a type of artistic confirmation bias. But, when stuck in a room, people are much more likely to be patient and listen. If I could have, I might have skipped some of the performances after the first minute of performance, but, luckily, I wasn’t on YouTube, I had to experience all the diverse viewpoints. I am sure I learned something from each. The benefit of live theater forcing us to slow down is hyper-present in The Encyclopedia Show. The whole point is to slow down and examine a topic, a sub-topic even, in a Wikipedia world.
The structure of The Encyclopedia Show is a huge help to its success. Not just any “grown-up talent show” could garner an audience month after month. The inherent focused structure of theme—especially on a national, pseudo-historic level makes the concept of randos performing together just a bit more enticing. The two shows prior to Circus were Wyoming and Insects. The tinge of intrigue goes a long way for audiences.
The structure of The Encyclopedia Show is a huge help to its success.
Also in terms of structure, all the Encyclopedia Shows have some reoccurring “characters” that thread together the acts. The most notable figure is a “fact checker” who represents the fictional organization The Institute of Human Knowledge and Hygiene. The show’s fact checker annotates the show by offering cynical, “factual” feedback. The bit is a type of commentary on how we think we can ever pin down truth. For AZ the fact checker is a rotating character, played by a fake expert on the topic. For the Circus, for example, it was “Grumpo the clown”—played by a local bartender who offered off-the-cuff dirty remarks and skepticism toward everyone’s performances. The AZ show has multiple reoccurring characters who enact their own loose narratives around the performances. There’s a “social media expert” played by an Apple employee. A snide “tech guy,” played by a financial analyst. The plot of the reoccurring characters is simple enough to welcome anyone in on her first show, but entertaining enough that the more an audience member comes back, the more endeared she feels to the performance. This framework does not only work in terms of creating a rolling narrative show to show for audiences to enjoy. The framework of having banter between segments on the show also ensures that while the curating team must take chances on the open call for acts, there will at least be a set format to reel audiences back in.
In a perfect world, everyone who wants to should be able to enjoy community theater—as an audience member or a performer. In an imperfect world, The Encyclopedia Show Arizona offers possible solutions for success. I’ll leave you with this, the last lines delivered of the “Human Cannonball” poem: “I want to be a Human Cannonball/Because I need to know what it’s like to have flown/rather than just watching others fly.”