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The Special Relationship #2 (a guest post by Jarred McGinnis)

[The Special Relationship is a new multi-genre performative reading series in London. Jarred’s report on the first one is here. —Adam]

A slide from "The Seven Trials of Jason Tallents" (see below)

The Special Relationship – Episode Two Trip Report

The day before the show, we had 31 guests confirmed through Facebook. If you guess that Facebook RSVP attrition is about half, we were looking at 15 guests. We also didn’t do any press, because our PR man is currently eyeballs deep in the most incredible and top secret project that he will unveil at the Edinburgh Festival next month.

The low expected turnout was doubly disconcerting because, in a moment of hubris, I had contacted the editors of Granta to see if they would like to be involved in the night. They had enthusiastically said yes. I was facing having the prospect of having Granta folk outnumber the audience members.

For me, Granta sits in the pantheon of lit journals beside Paris Review and McSweeney’s. I’m a fanboy of the magazine for a number of reasons:

1) They have a more cosmopolitan selection of stories. Exhibit A:  Aminatta Forna’s recent story about the only vet in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Paris Review, God Bless their pointy heads, can be a little too obsessed with the going-ons of Manhattanites.

2) Granta is hellbent on engagement with the community, both online and in the real world. If you look at the heroic list of events in support of their recent issue and the developments on their website, you see a magazine actively working to figure out how to exist in our digital, content-saturated, multimedia, short-attention-span world. I knew Granta would lend respectability to our young endeavour, and I’d be guaranteed quality from whomever they sent to perform.

They suggested Colin Grant, author of the most aptly titled Marcus Garvey biography, Negro with a Hat, which I am currently devouring. The level of scholarship makes my academic brain sing while the narrative keeps my writer’s heart content.

Colin Grant

Colin is the definition of gentleman and a scholar. At our event, he read his contribution for the latest issue of Granta, which hails from his memoir  Bageye at the Wheel. In that short selection he was able to capture the humanity of an immigrant, working-class father, his community and the beautiful complexity of a father/son relationship.

A good lesson I learned from approaching Granta is always talk to strangers; they may say no but they may say yes. The corollary is never talk to a stranger’s agent; their default answer is “no” or “how much?”

Continuing to aim high, we invited Tim Wells to participate. Tim is from a particular breed of poet that only cities like London and New York can produce. Cut Tim and he bleeds Thames. When he dies, they’ll name a road in Stoke-Newington after him.

Tim Wells

The poems he read took us to the moment you realize you are in love to causal murder in an east side cafe and visiting Topshop along the way. (On a side note, Tim has incredible taste in classic soul and R&B. I recommend you find him on Facebook and listen to his musical selections.)

Tim and a Special Musician Friend

After Tim, I read a very short piece about love and webbed fingers, then showed a film about love and hostages called “7:35 in the Morning”:

I know the film well, and watched delightedly as the audience reacted to the unfolding story.

A hostage audience

The second half started with Samuel Taradash and I reading “The Seven Trials of Jason Tallents,” a story for two voices. We’ve been co-authoring stories, exploring the different ways two writers can author a single story. As the night is called “The Special Relationship” due to the Anglo-American demographic of the organisers, we thought an American road trip story would fit the bill.  We could entertain the British audience while demonstrating the glory of the Stuckey’s Nut Log.

Samuel Taradash and Jarred McGinnis

Throughout the performance, while one of us read, the other held up illustrations that related to the story. Enhancing the All-American nature of the piece, each illustration included a “Where’s George Washington?” mini-game.

Samuel Taradash
Jarred McGinnis
Where's George Washington?

The comedian and actor Katy Wix read next. Last month, we had a story abusing the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. This time it was Sting. I’m thinking this could become a feature of the night.

Katy Wix

Katy’s performance is a perfect example of how much better actors are than writers at reading fiction. She read from Sting’s ‘diary’ as he deals with Satan, a Rabbi and his own existence. Fiction writers and poets have a lot to learn about the difference of what works on the page versus in front of an audience, as well as little things that are muscle memory for actors—like eye contact. (Eye contact with the audience still fucks me up.)

Finally, comedian Tom Basden (who MC’d the night) closed the evening with a short story of his own. Besides being an award-winning comedian, Tom is a playwright. His reading on the night proved that his phenomenal talent is not bound by one genre or form. His piece about two teenagers awkwardly shedding their childish understanding of the world, and their attempts to deal with adult world was incredibly accomplished.

Tom Basden

The only difficulty came from the audience who, having gotten used to Tom’s comedy throughout the night, took a little while to shift their expectations. I’m not sure how better to sign post that shift in tone when the performer is the same guy. Maybe it isn’t an issue and it’s fine that a few don’t get the shift. If Tom keeps writing like he doesn’t I don’t give a damn frankly. It’s enough to be involved in a night with writing that good.

According to my score, we are two for two—another incredible night that proved our manifesto works. And what about the audience of only fifteen I was worried about? Not only did we sell out and make a dozen poor bastards stand at the back, we were turning people away. I don’t know how word got out this quickly. We even had a handful of rock stars and tv stars in attendance which I believe gives us a fifty point bonus on our cool score. Ten more points and we get a free pair of shades and a heroin habit.

That said, an issue we still need to address is persistence. A good night out is well and fine, but we risk waking up the next day with only the hand-shaped bruise from patting our own backs. This time around, in addition to recording the performances in video and still photos, I asked the artist Freeda Sangra to give a courtroom illustrator’s impression of the evening. I wanted to capture more than the pixels that cameras and video are limited to. I liked how the artist incorporated an actual artifact from the evening (i.e. a subscription form left by Granta) with her collage of images.

Courtroom illustration by Freeda Sangra

For our September show, in keeping with our remit to show storytelling in all its forms, we’ve asked the incredible documentary photographer Tom Stoddart to attend. We are also looking for a musician (think murder ballads). And if you have any short film recommendations, send me an email via Facebook.

We should also soon have our website up and running, providing a home for the photos, drawings, stories, and videos, as well as links to the performer’s works in the hope they can shift a few books on the back of participating.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

5 thoughts on “The Special Relationship #2 (a guest post by Jarred McGinnis)

  1. Congratulations on another great night, Jarred. I agree with you re Tom’s piece, I could sense a shift in the audience’s reaction. However, it was a fine story and thoroughly accomplished, it reminded me of an almost Evelyn Waugh-like comic-tragedy.

    I think these nights really teach writers looking on. Performance is an important weapon in the bow, and helps us to consider our audience. Despite this, there has to be an emotional engagement. There’s a delicate balance to be struck. Its not enough to be enthralled or entertained, in my opinion, which admittedly is akin to that of a grumpy old git with an unhealthy obsession with analysis. Either way, you got this balance pretty much spot on, I was knocked out by Tim Wells in particular.

    Can’t wait for round 3, will be recommending it to all and sundry!

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