Alicia Louise Merchant is not laughing
“The main reason why I do these things is because they are events I like attending.” Writer, host, and curator, Alicia Louise Merchant has two series under her belt—Raconteurs, a live storytelling event, and Write Club, an event where writers compete against one another by reading work they’ve prepared the week before and receiving votes from the live audience. While each event has a different style, Merchant and her co-hosts—Laura-Louise Tobin of Raconteurs and Catherine McCormick of Write Club—always make sure that the audience is central to both events.
Merchant’s work with Raconteurs started in 2010. “Raconteurs started as MothUP Canada, a satellite event of The Moth in New York. We were using the Moth style and name, but there were a lot of rules. We were with the Moth for about a year and a half or two years, and then we flew away and became Raconteurs. We do storytelling style—people telling true, personal stories.” Merchant maintained connections with the organizer of MothUP Atlanta, and this connection gave her the tip that would lead to the formation of Write Club Toronto.
“A year ago, or a little more than a year ago, she sent me a message on Facebook: ‘Hey, there’s this new event coming to Atlanta that my friend started, and I really think it’s right up your alley. It started in Chicago, and the guy who started it wanted to run it in other cities. They aren’t nearly as tightfisted as The Moth is. They’re really interested in working with other producers to make this thing go. You could be a partner in this.’ She gave me the basic idea of what the show was and expected me to contact him. I read the website and still wasn’t sure quite what it was, but I knew that I liked it and knew I wanted to do it.” Merchant exchanged a few messages with the founder of Write Club, and “by the end of the day, I had booked a ticket to Chicago to see their next show. Because it’s something you really need to see and understand for yourself.” By July 2012, Merchant had agreed to set up a branch of Write Club in Toronto.
Part of why Write Club needs to be seen to be understood is the competitive format. “Some people think, ‘What? I have to write in seven minutes?’” Write Club pits a pair of writers against each other with each competitor arguing for one side of a binary (such as old versus young, dad versus mom, hero versus villain, and so forth). The audience votes for the winner simply by cheering for their favourite, and money goes to the winner’s chosen charity. “I really, really like that Write Club gives money to charity as a way to entertain and also give back to the community. Everyone is involved. The audience participates and the writers choose the charity. It’s not just like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this event and I, as the promoter, am going to send the proceeds somewhere.’”
Merchant strives to make her events accessible and pays careful attention to her very different audiences. “With something like Raconteurs, it’s emotionally much more intimate. The audience is extremely supportive. Which is important because it doesn’t feature professionals performing, for the most part. Sometimes it’s just people who are sharing things about themselves that they’ve never told anyone else before. There’s a feeling of support and encouragement. There is a lot of crossover in our audiences, but the feeling between the two is definitely separate. One main difference is that the audience at Write Club is encouraged to participate audibly. They’re supportive, but they’re supportive in a different way. It’s okay to berate an author. The audience at Write Club is responsible for instilling a sense of competition. Whereas with the audience at Raconteurs, we really want them to be there and part of it by being supportive and by listening.”
Raconteurs is housed at No One Writes to the Colonel, and Write Club puts on their shows at The Garrison. Both venues are popular for literary readings and word-based programming, but have very different atmospheres. “No One Writes to the Colonel is the perfect venue for Raconteurs. I think we need to have that intimacy; we want to bring everyone really close together. And with Write Club, we do want to have more of that sense of it being like a rock show—if you really love someone, cheer them on.” Write Club has been compared to a rap battle on T.O. Battle Blog, and this comparison is something that hosts Merchant and McCormick encourage. “I’m glad we have that comparison because we want it to be something where writing and the accompanying readings are more accessible, and not just for literary people. It’s something you can go to and enjoy even if you aren’t typically a book person.”
I believe that readers, as well as the show’s organizers, have a responsibility to be aware of their audience and not be exclusionary in their performances. Merchant agrees. “If you want to be funny, what are you going to do for a laugh? You don’t want to offend people. For instance, this comes up at both Raconteurs and Write Club, where a bit of the humour hinges on some guy being called gay when he’s not. You have to be aware that this mistaken identity might be funny to you, but it shouldn’t be a ‘funny thing.’ It’s also not a space to pontificate and show off how smart you are or how many big words you know. Write Club and Raconteurs aren’t spaces where you should be aiming for laughter alone. It’s more than just that. You’re there to tell stories.”
To get involved with Write Club or Raconteurs, come out to one of the shows first. “Most problems with people really bombing, which doesn’t happen that often, happen with people who aren’t familiar with the event. With Write Club, Catherine and I have made a rule that if you want to be in a show you have to have gone to one before.” While exceptions are occasionally made to this rule and Raconteurs does accept pitches, the best way to perform at Write Club or Raconteurs is by attending and introducing yourself to the hosts. Pitches for Raconteurs can also be sent to email@example.com.
I asked Merchant what she hoped for the future of her series. “Raconteurs right now is everything I want it to be. I can’t really say I would change anything about it. With Write Club, we just want to grow. At some point, you get happy with it, but we want to raise more money for charities. Catherine and I do Write Club for the love of it; we do not get paid in any way.”
Raconteurs is on holiday for August and will return on September 10th. After a brief break for July, Write Club returns on August 20th and continues to run on the third Tuesday of each month. Come on out to watch Merchant’s hosting in action and “see it for yourself.”