At the very first Essay Fiesta performance on Nov. 16, 2009, founders Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon didn’t know what to expect. They’d invited a handful of writers they knew to read essays for strangers they hoped would come out for it, at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. The pair were in then-uncharted territory, seeking an audience for the live performance of written essays and first-person narratives. Live literature was new and Chicago, now the art form’s epicenter, was the wild west.
Next week, what was one of the first shows of its kind will turn five years old. Its founders have moved on to other creative endeavors, but the show is going strong with writers Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin at its helm. Celebrate the show’s fifth birthday Monday, Nov. 17 at the Book Cellar.
Shaping the Live Lit Scene
Ecker and Lyon met on the local stand-up circuit. Both were going to perform at a show in Michigan and the comedians bonded while on the road.
“He needed a ride, and I gave him one,” Lyon said. “We just hit it off on that trip. He had the idea [for a literature performance show]. I loved his personal writing and thought it was hilarious. Essay Fiesta was born from comedy.”
Ecker and Lyon scouted venues.
“I knew I wanted somewhere that served alcohol, since we came from the stand-up world,” said Ecker. “We didn’t want a stage or a black box theater space. It was so uncharted at the time, so we went to where that audience already was: an independent bookstore.”
At the time, all-female comedy group The Kates were already performing regularly at the book store, so Ecker knew the Book Cellar was open to performance. Lyon and Ecker were also adamant about the show having a philanthropic element, and Lincoln Square businesses early on were dedicated to donating raffle prizes to Essay Fiesta. Items were raffled off and proceeds at the time benefited Howard Brown. Today the show raises money for 826CHI, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center.
“We wanted it to be a reading series that had a charitable component,” said Lyon. “That was number one. And we thought we’d get some comedic element. It was a lot of comedians doing it early on.”
The first show went well, Ecker said.
“It’s crazy it was five years ago,” he said. “Alyson and I didn’t know at all if what we were doing was going to be successful. We were really anxious about it. Somehow, for some reason people showed up. It was a good crowd. It was a good inaugural show.”
Current host Nast was there for that first show, after reading about in the Red Eye. He would read there a year or so later.
At the time, said Ecker, there wasn’t a traditional format for readings.
“Our show helped find that sweet spot of having the right number of performers,” he said.
Both Lyon and Ecker are musicians, so they composed a theme song, which is still performed at the start of each show today.
Handing Over the Reins
Shimmin and Nast were asked by Essay Fiesta’s founders to take over the show because the latter were impressed with the formers’ podcast about writing, All Write Already!. Lyon had done an interview for their then-new show and she and Ecker believed they’d be a good fit to take on Essay Fiesta.
“They’re both great writers,” said Lyon. “They already had the podcast and we knew it would be a really cool fit. We just gave them all our materials. They’re really busy people, but they’re such great hosts.”
Lyon and Ecker wanted to move on to other ventures, but they didn’t want the show to end.
“I was starting to do Guts & Glory, and Alyson wanted to do other creative things,” said Ecker. “But the show had a great audience and promised a wonderful platform for writers. We wanted people who would continue the effervescent enthusiasm — that positive energy.”
At that time, in late 2012, Nast and Shimmin had only just started recording an inventory of podcast episodes. When Nast was asked about taking over hosting duties and picking his own co-host, he admits he was reluctant.
“My first reaction was, there’s no way I can do that,” Nast said. “But after talking to Karen, the only person I’d want to co-host it with, she kind of convinced me. I was preoccupied with the podcast, which I tricked her into doing. She [got me back and] tricked me into doing Essay Fiesta. Now I’m really glad because it’s a built-in deadline to write something every month.”
Ecker praised Shimmin and Nast as being talented, and said they had a great dynamic with each other already, which he and Alyson benefited from when hosting. Nast and Shimmin met in college, through the writing program at Northwestern. They ran in the same circles but didn’t become close friends until after graduation when many of their classmates and friends left Chicago and Evanston.
The pair’s eventual collaboration was thanks to “a bunch of accidents, one after another, basically,” said Nast.
Ecker and Lyon are thrilled with the direction Nast and Shimmin have taken.
“They ruined it!” joked Ecker. “I’ll never see it again! No. I don’t go to a lot of shows these days but I’ve heard the show’s doing really well and the audience is still really strong. It’s still this space for new and seasoned writers. They’ve done a wonderful job pursuing that.”
Nast said it never would have occurred to him to start a live lit show.
“It is so much work,” he said. “I really respect people who’ve built their shows from the ground up. Every month I’m convinced no one’s coming and then they do.”
Shimmin agreed that stepping into the role of co-host of an established show was a huge help.
“I think Keith and Alyson built up a really great rep for the show,” said Shimmin. “It’s a show everyone wants to read at. People don’t say no. That allows us to continue to book readers because the reputation preceded itself.”
In January 2013, Nast and Shimmin hosted Essay Fiesta for the first time and neither looked back.
The pair kept most of the show the same after taking it over, with the same format: Five readers, plus them.
“We kept most of the same things going,” said Shimmin of the set-up created by Ecker and Lyon. “We are just paler, and blonder.”
Supporting 826CHI is still a huge focus. In lieu of a raffle, they now simply pass the hat around for 826.
“They’re a really cool organization,” said Shimmin. “Everyone we’ve worked with is really passionate about the programming and the kids. They are just as enthusiastic as we are.”
Shimmin supports their mission and is thankful to 826 for stepping up during a time when cuts within Chicago Public Schools are changing education and cutting services sorely needed.
“CPS kids are getting less and less attention to their writing than what’s to-the-test, so they’re doing a real service and doing so much to work on creativity,” she said. ” They do so much one-on-one work. They publish the kids’ work and do a lot of readings with their kids, which really lines up with the live lit community. They tell them, ‘you made something, take pride in that.’ I want every kid to have that.”
Nast agreed, calling them the perfect partner for Essay Fiesta.
“If there’s an organization that makes more sense for us to raise money for, I haven’t seen it,” he said.
The Book Cellar
Essay Fiesta’s founders admit the show wouldn’t be what it is without its venue. Ecker said the Book Cellar was always open to his idea for the show, even if they didn’t necessarily understand what he and Lyon wanted to do based on their initial description.
“I had an idea of having a piñata at each show, but we got a ‘no’ on that,” joked Ecker.
Today, as it has for five years, the Book Cellar staff re-arranges the cafe area and some of the store’s shelves on the first Monday of every month to allow for the show to take place.
“The Book Cellar is a huge character in the show,” said Nast. “There are a lot of great bars in the city to do live lit like the Hideout, Mrs. Murphy and Sons — there are tons. But the Book Cellar brings something a little different to the table. It’s a place people want to go in the first place, to do more than just drink and hang out. It’s a different vibe in an intimate space. It’s easy to feel like you’re part of it there.”
Lyon agreed about the partnerships with the store.
“The audience at Essay Fiesta is so awesome and the Book Cellar is so supportive,” she said.
Celebrating Five Years
At this month’s anniversary show, a friend of the show will perform. Shimmin went to college with two of the members of Funky Hot Grits, an eclectic soul band, who will perform live at Essay Fiesta — a first for the show.
“We know them, and they just released an EP,” said Shimmin. “They’re a lot of fun. Five seemed like a big deal so we wanted to do something celebratory.”
Featured readers will include Ecker, Shimmin, Nast, Megan Stielstra, Erin Diamond, David Stuart Maclean, and Tiffany Wong.
As for the future of the show from here on out, attendees shouldn’t expect many changes, aside from a possible future audio component tied in with their podcast.
“Our plan is to keep doing it,” said Shimmin. “Raising money for 826 is so much a part of the show that it’s hard to think about it differently. We want it to continue to meet that vision.”
Nast said that while he understands why other shows are working toward monetizing in order to pay performers and moving to bigger spaces, he and Shimmin are content with what they have.
“We have this formula that’s working,” he said. “We do the show because we like showing up once a month. As long as the Book Cellar’s there, we’ll be there.”