Christopher Piatt and Ali Weiss
Christopher Piatt and Ali Weiss Credit: Evan Hanover

Things are so grim in the news business that last week Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school hosted a lecture titled “HELP! Strategies for Career Survival in a World Where the Only Constant Is Change.” It promised advice from former Newsweek and LA Times reporter David Friendly, who’s survived by switching careers, from journalism to showbiz.

Friendly is now a successful film producer whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and all three entries in the Big Momma’s House series. But most of us drones still laboring in print-centric journalism are here for a reason. Unkempt and shy, we tend to be a klutzy lot, tongue-tied unless we’re in front of a keyboard—except for the drama critics, nearly all of whom are closet thespians. That gives them a leg up in the new media environment, where reporters and editors are increasingly expected not only to write but to wield microphones and cameras and perform in front of them.

This hybrid creature—the performing wordsmith—has been spotted recently in a couple of local experiments. The Chicago Tribune teamed up with Second City to produce Chicago Live!, a weekly talk and variety show where for $25 a head live audiences watched reporters and critics chat up the folks they cover. (It was recorded for late-night broadcast on WGN radio.) One recent performance—held downstairs at the Chicago Theatre and attended, as far as I could tell, largely by friends, family, and coworkers of the performers—featured Trib books section digital news editor Amy Guth singing Del Shannon’s “Runaway” with novelist Scott Turow and Red Eye writer Kyra Kyles accepting a bouquet and a kiss from interview guest Joe Russo for the “fabulous piece” she wrote about his South Loop nightclub, the Shrine.

This year’s series is over. Trib reporter and host Rick Kogan said from the stage that they’ll see whether there’s another.

Meanwhile, on the north side, former Time Out Chicago theater editor Christopher Piatt continues to enlist former colleagues and others to stage The Paper Machete, the weekly variety show he launched in January at Ricochet’s Tavern in Lincoln Square. It’s fast-paced, quirky, sometimes blue, and free. A “salon in a saloon,” it starts at 3 PM every Saturday in the open back room, running about 90 minutes. It resembles a 1940s radio broadcast, with performers taking their turns in front of an old-fashioned microphone; the pieces are recorded for podcast.

The lineups include an irregularly recurring cast of musicians and stand-ups like Paul Brittain (known locally for his “Sex” Ed Vincent character), who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in September. Then there are the wildly varying guest essayists, drawn mostly, Piatt says, from Chicago’s “enormous, underutilized talent pool” of comics, writers, actors, and members of the press—though he adds that it can include anybody with something to say and an entertaining way to say it in ten minutes or less. Among the journalists who’ve stepped up to the Paper Machete mike so far are Time Out‘s Hank Sartin, Caitlin Parrish, and Jonathan Messinger; freelancer Kelly Kleiman; the Onion‘s Nathan Rabin; and Reader critics Justin Hayford and Kerry Reid. Reader senior editor Tony Adler is on the bill for November 27.

In addition to hosting, Piatt performs his own essays—like the one he reprised a few weeks ago in which he talks about locking eyes with Barack Obama over the heads of the shorter folk at an campaign appearance at the Boys Town bar Sidetrack. Piatt, an improbably stretched collection of parts topped by a big bald head, also does a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it version of his intermission theme, Tex Williams’s 1947 hit “Smoke Smoke Smoke (That Cigarette),” his grasshopper legs bending and hands flapping at the end of serpentine arms.

The last time I saw The Paper Machete, on November 13, the other acts included actor/Montessori teacher Cynthia Castiglione with advice for the new head of the Chicago Public Schools, writer/director Joe Janes on The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure, and Brooklyn playwright Itamar Moses—in town for Theater Wit’s staging of his The Four of Us—recalling his first motorcycle ride.

The Paper Machete is on a roll. The show attracts SRO crowds, and the podcast, started in August, hit the main page of iTunes its second week out. Last week Piatt inked a partnership with WBEZ, which is now recording the podcasts and distributing them on its own website.

But Piatt and his collaborators, producer Ali Weiss and business manager Maggie Boyaris, are still working mostly for free. The show’s only funding so far is a $10,000 grant from the Driehaus Foundation and about $1,000 in individual donations that have come in through Fractured Atlas, an artist-support group. There’s no money component to the WBEZ deal, and the cash the audience drops into a pitcher on the bar after the show is split among the performers.

Piatt, 33, left one of the city’s plum arts journalism jobs 18 months ago. Since then, he says, he’s been “underemployed,” staying afloat by bartending and freelancing.

He grew up in Victoria, a small Kansas farm town where his parents taught school and encouraged their two sons to explore the arts. It worked: Piatt’s younger brother, Matthew, a pianist, is assistant chorus master and an assistant conductor at Lyric Opera. Christopher majored in theater at Kansas State University and spent two years with the Barrington Stage Company, a nonprofit theater in the Berkshires, before moving here in 2002. He’d read edgy Chicago work, like Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe and the NeoFuturists’s Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind plays, he says, “and I wanted to be part of that very contemporary theater scene.”

By 2004 he was freelancing theater reviews for the Sun-Times and the Reader. The following spring he became the inaugural theater editor for Time Out Chicago, where he says he got “an education I don’t think I could’ve gotten in graduate school.” In more than four years he worked on 222 issues and “saw a lot of important theater.”

But it was an exhausting gig. “The theater section went to print Monday morning at ten o’clock,” he recalls. “To make that happen we could only review three plays that happened over the weekend. Every Monday morning I had to be up at 5:30, and I am not a morning person. And then I was thinking, ‘I’ll never be an artist because I have to be a critic for the rest of my life.’ I remember one night sitting in a show at the Chopin basement and going, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to do this job anymore.'” He quit in May 2009.

A fan of vaudeville, old-time radio, after-dinner speaking, and the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper, which used free plays to engage the public in current events, Piatt started writing and performing short solo pieces. “I wanted to talk about what was happening with the gay rights movement and was trying to figure out if there was a way to use comedy to do it,” he says. “I’d read monologues for ten or 15 minutes. But you can’t invite your friends to come out and hear you just do that, so I started adding other artists to the bill.”

He put together a few shows at the Playground Theater in the summer and fall of 2009, then mounted a year-in-review show at Ricochets on a Saturday afternoon in December. “We saw that we could get people to come during that time slot, and that a spoken word show that used the news as a jumping-off point would be cool,” he says.

He was cautioned by others involved in spoken word shows not to risk audience, talent, and personal burnout by doing The Paper Machete weekly. But, he says, “it was clear to me that if we were going to make it work and find a voice, we were going to have to do the show a bunch.”

Pieces are podcast selectively. Some stuff that’s great in the bar doesn’t work as well as audio, Piatt says, and “we kind of like the fact that you have to come to the show to get the whole show.” Ricochet’s doesn’t charge for the use of the space, and “the regulars in the bar are our best audience, even when they heckle us. There’s no accountability like reading to a room of people.”

Piatt is convinced that improv and sketch comedy are the antidote to “the problem of young people who don’t want to go to theater because it’s too expensive and it’s not really engaging with American life.” What he’s aiming for with his mix of comics and journalists is “something that encourages live performers to engage with American life and to do so as quickly and as thoughtfully as a journalist has to.

“Journalists and improvisers have a lot in common,” he says. “They’re both first responders.”