Open Mic Night at the Kelly Writers House

"Anything goes, you say? All right, count me in!"

The Bi-College News
February 8, 2005

Open Mic Nights at the Kelly Writers House on the University of Pennsylvania campus are usually advertised under the slogan "Speakeasy: Poetry, Prose, and Anything Goes." So it was not surprising that half the pieces performed on the evening of Wednesday, February 2, 2005 belonged to a class of literature that can only be described as "previously unheard of."

The February 2nd Speakeasy featured 16 poets, fiction writers, comedians, musicians, and rappers. Each performance went on for five to seven minutes, and the whole show, hosted by Jill Ivey, lasted for about an hour and a half. The pieces were extremely diverse in nature, from "A Sonnet for Beer" to an a capella song to a breakup speech in the form of a rap.

The audience of about 50 people included Penn faculty members, Penn students, students from other campuses, and friends of the House. The show took place in a small, cozy parlor with French doors and three large windows, and the lights were dimmed in order to create a cool, relaxed atmosphere. None of the chairs in the room seemed to match any other, and they were all old and scarred. Nevertheless, the antiquated effect made the whole scene even more artsy. The only "new" piece of equipment in sight was the microphone resting on the weathered podium.

Many rules governed the event: the performers were told not to detach the microphone from the stand since the electrical cord was too short to move around and the use of cellular phones and other noise-making devices was prohibited. Interaction between performer and audience was very liberal, however, and many performances were made livelier by cheers, comments, and friendly jibes from the spectators. After the last act was over, there was a brief, informal reception during which performers socialized with their hosts and visitors browsed through the house, signed the guestbook, and picked up pamphlets, calendars, and free literary magazines from the hallway display table.

Many of the performers chose to present unique pieces. Some of the performances consisted of diary entries and letters to and from actual people read aloud, songs written during travels, and personal responses to existing literature. Most pieces seemed to be related to the author's private lives in one way or another, creating an atmosphere of intimacy.

Throughout the years, many performers have showcased their talents in this unique venue, as this year marks the 10th anniversary that the 13-room Victorian style Kelly Writers House on Locust Walk has served as a haven for writers. Each week, the house showcases roughly 150 events -- literary readings, film screenings, seminars, lectures, dinners, radio broadcasts, workshops, art exhibits, and musical performances. The House has a living room for readings, a seminar room for classes, a publications room for printings, an office for business dealings, a dining room for parties, and a kitchen for pleasant conversation. The innovative interactive webcasts developed by its staff have allowed listeners across the U.S. to talk with such authors as John Updike, Robert Creeley, Tony Kushner, and Grace Paley.

The main goal of the house's performance organizers is to foster contemporary literature through its projects and programs, "addressing writing both as a practice and as an object of study," according to a statement on its website. It serves as an institution of support for both professional and amateur authors, and reaches out to many readers and writers beyond the University's campus. Its staff, led by Faculty Director Al Filreis, Director Jennifer Snead, and Program Coordinator Thomas Devaney, consists of 15 student workers, a resident intern, and several part-time assistants.