Dana Norris, Keith Ecker, and Ian Belknap at Powell's Books
Dana Norris, Keith Ecker, and Ian Belknap at Powell's Books Credit: Anjali Pinto

Storytelling may not be the oldest profession in the world, but it’s probably the oldest unpaid gig, and might be the oldest art. It’s a method of historiography, a means of storing memory, a desire to capture an instant like a fly in amber, and then pass it hand to hand.

A scene was already taking shape in Chicago when, in 2009, the national radio show The Moth struck the live-lit match. Almost overnight, upwards of a dozen shows were drawing crowds to Chicago bookstores, basements, and bars. Maybe it’s the rise of the virtual world and the erasure of the real, maybe an attempt to reweave the fragments of culture, but live lit has taken hold of Chicago and shows no sign of letting go.

A snappy little label usually credited to writer-performer Ian Belknap, live lit is a hybrid form. More stripped-down than spoken word, more intimate than a reading, less frantic than stand-up, less showy than theater, it’s essentially a reader and a mike and a room full of people. Live lit is verbal seduction, polemic, rhythm and lyric, bedtime story, bombast, and lament all at once.

“People don’t get true stories anymore,” says Dana Norris, who founded and produces the monthly Story Club. “We’ve had a lot of reality created around us that is in fact fake. We’re looking for somebody to come in on a train from Schaumburg and stand on a stage and say, ‘This is what happened to me.’ And you feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, now I can see the world. I know what the world looks like now.'”

“In stand-up, I can feel good about the material I wrote, and it can still die a thousand deaths,” says Belknap, a comedy and acting veteran who’s forsworn both and is now overlord (his word) of Write Club, the biggest live-lit show in town. “There’s not the freedom to explore ideas and emotions and experience in a rich way.

“And I secretly believe that ideas are fascinating—that ideas are worth fighting for,” he says, then looks concerned. “Don’t print that, or nobody will come.”

The shows vary from the highly competitive to the experimental, from polished pieces of performance to bundles of raw material bound with chutzpah and string.

“Sometimes there is stuff that is raw, unprocessed emotion,” says Norris. “I have seen performances where I want to get up and take the microphone and put a blanket over them and hug them and give them cocoa and say, ‘Let’s talk this out, just you and me.'”

Belknap says, “It’s not confession. It’s not therapy. The same rules of good writing apply to this as to any other form of writing.”

Keith Ecker, who cocurates the show Guts & Glory with Samantha Irby, is sitting next to Belknap. “But in performance, you only have so much time to get a point across,” he says, “so you don’t get to do lengthy descriptions of what the hills look like at sunset—you have to talk about what actually was happening.”

Belknap says, “Right. Like, if you’re losing your virginity on the hillside—the sunset doesn’t matter.”

“[Live lit] is the most sincere art form I’ve ever participated in,” Ecker says. “It’s the concentration on trying to achieve a universal truth that I find most appealing about this form. That’s what’s most important about art. That is the beauty of art. That’s the beauty of expression.”

There’s a pause. Belknap and Ecker look at one another, thinking as if with a shared brain.

Belknap says, “I feel like we’re taking a hit for the team.”

Ecker says mildly, “It’s very Christ-like.”

Belknap says, “So what I mean is, we’re bigger than Jesus.”

Ecker nods. “Right,” he says