Pygmalion’s Literature Festival both astounds and affects

By Ashish Valentine

Editor’s note: The following article was written for an Ebert Fellowship in memory of the late Roger Ebert.The fellowship works with the forthcoming Roger Ebert Center at the College of Media. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips advises the Ebert fellows.

There’s a feeling somewhere between being torn and confused, like hearing a great joke at a funeral, that characterized the tonally diverse performances at the Pygmalion Literature Festival. One performer’s comically angst-ridden teenage diary entries on crushes and fights with her mother were presented before another’s hushed, intimate poem detailing a child’s fear as his mother’s abusive boyfriend beat his fists at their front door. These readings, each superbly crafting its own impression, contributed to a cocktail of beautifully discordant emotion.

Performances on Saturday opened with the Lit Crawl, a series of free readings at venues across downtown Champaign, including the Blind Pig, Exile on Main Street and Mike N’ Molly’s, allowing audience members to choose from a selection of performers at any time. The presenting writers came from a variety of backgrounds; some were recent MFA graduates from Illinois, while others had several popular books under their belts. Some were online writers and stage performers.

From the rambling descriptions of a child’s struggles with authenticity by a wildly gesticulating Colin Winnette, to a series of dryly delivered aphorisms dealing with snobbery, insecurity and pretense by Kathleen Rooney, the event presented an offbeat set of distinctive styles and subjects. Even the presentation of each author’s work varied significantly; John Dudek, for instance, pausing between impassioned fits of poetic output, peppered his readings with trivia about the frequently absurd phenomena that inspire his work. Examples included an urban legend in which a train carrying tons of cheese once derailed and sent rolls of giant cheddar thundering into the nearby forest, or a metaphysical experience while reading old Scottish folktales.

Not all of the presenters chose to read specific prose and poetry, at least in the traditional sense. After notifying the crowd that her recent work was all depressing nonfiction, Lindsey Gates-Markel instead chose to read excerpts from the diary she kept as a teenager living in a small town, describing with glee the horror of dating difficulties and more in her high school days.

When such a variety of performers and styles are represented at an event, it’s evident that not every one of them will be to every taste. However, every performer present at the event was able to leave me with a distinct impression of their style and a strong emotive response, be it tickled pink, drily entertained, or profoundly disturbed. Roya Khatiblou, ending the series of readings at the Blind Pig, struck a chord with a darkly present tale of fear and violence hidden amid the chaos of the kitchen behind a diner.

Following the Lit Crawl was Mortified, a specially priced event brought to Champaign from its regular performances in Chicago. At the event, a selection of writers and comedians fearlessly presented the most embarrassing works they could find from their childhoods. These performances were as varied as one woman’s reenactment of attempting to woo her high school prom date with a ukulele rendition of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” a short film in which a teenage version of the presenter acted out every role in a James Bond-inspired spy movie set in his basement, a Heavy Metal Jesus-rock ode one boy composed to the youth room at his childhood church (complete with a verse dedicated solely to the foosball table) and readings from a high school journal whose melodramatic author was convinced she was writing the next diary of Anne Frank.

While the lit crawl was at times poignant, melancholy or wistful, Mortified aimed for the much more specific emotional register of ludicrous hilarity. Attending Mortified directly after the readings was proved to be somewhat of a jarring experience. Leaving an event at which a poet intimately discussed family abuse and arriving immediately afterward at an hour of full-out comedy proved to be a challenge in compartmentalization.

However, Mortified never failed to keep the attention, and the same impressive variety that Lit Crawl picked in tone and style was matched by a variety of performance styles at Mortified. At a $15 price tag, the event did make me cringe when considering how I’d had a much more varied set of experiences at the free-to-attend lit crawl just moments before, but considered on its own, Mortified’s remarkable set of performers made the event worth the price of admission. I naturally was not as moved or affected by Mortified, but by design, it certainly had different goals from the Lit Crawl, which it met admirably.

As the lights went down on Mortified, I became conscious of this frenetic, hilarious performance as composing yet another part of the disjointed feelings that the entire festival evoked for me. The Lit Crawl’s emotionally dissonant mix of jarring realism, dry wit, and eccentricity was not undermined, but strangely supplemented by an evening of raucous high comedy. The result of attending these showings filled me with chaotic, conflicting emotion, and the one solid conclusion I could draw from my experience was that it was entirely worth doing again.

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