“When I’m part of an audience, I want to get my ass kicked. I want the show to take a can opener to my skull and punch me in the brain.” This is the Gospel According to Ian Belknap, host (or “Overlord”) of the new reading series Write Club, slated for a trial run at the Hideout Tuesday 20. We’re sitting at Kopi Café in Andersonville and the darkly acerbic Belknap is nothing if not convincing.
“I’ve also come to the conclusion that every single play I’ve ever seen was 20 minutes too long,” he says. “I don’t want to be the dick in the back row looking at his watch.”
To retaliate, Belknap came up with Write Club. Set up like a boxing match with three rounds, the night features dueling writers who are assigned two opposing themes (e.g., Fate versus Free Will or Mind versus Body) and are given exactly seven minutes to expound on the topic. And if you think Belknap is flexible on that seven-minute time limit, a blaring buzzer marking the end of each match will fix that. “I find it helpful for writers to have rules,” he explains with a smirk. “Even if they’re arbitrary.” The writers are also competing for a cut of the door, which goes to a charity of their choice.
Back in January, when Belknap hosted the first incarnation of Write Club at Prop Thtr as part of Rhino Fest, he went toe to toe against local writer Jenny Magnus in a debate between Light and Dark. Forced to write an ode to Light, the cynical Belknap was definitively out of his element. But in just seven minutes he was able to discount the compulsively optimistic of the world in favor of the more genuine light that shines from the darkest places. “The light inside me might be the size of a gnat fart,” he wrote, “but it’s strong.”
And Belknap’s show does feel like a punch to the brain: 42 minutes of brisk, cut-to-the-chase arguments on life’s most notorious opposites interspersed with Belknap’s sardonic stand-up. In addition to his perpetual boredom at plays and readings, Belknap says his inspiration for Write Club also came from other writers around the city who spearhead similarly participatory readings. “There’s something awesome starting with these shows,” Belknap says. “And I want to be part of it.”
He’s definitely wedged himself in. Recently Belknap was dubbed the “Minister of Veracity” in Robbie Q. Telfer’s monthly series the Encyclopedia Show (a title not to be confused with “fact checker”), and he also performs regularly at Christopher Piatt’s live magazine the Paper Machete under the name “The Dean of Mean” (a moniker he relishes).
Before assuming the role of Write Club Overlord, Belknap was both a stand-up comic and solo performer. Readers may remember Belknap as the author of Wide Open Beaver Shot to My Heart: A Comedy with a Body Count a live-memoir show that ran first at Rhino Fest in 2005 and then again at the Neo-Futurarium. “The show is about my father’s suicide and my grandfather’s unsolved murder,” Belknap says without missing a beat. “And yes,” he reiterates, “it’s a comedy.”
This month’s Write Club lineup includes slam poet favorite Emily Rose, Paper Machete producer Ali Weiss, pop-culture writer Steve Heisler and solo performer David Kodeski. Belknap will be competing again, too, back in his comfort zone writing an ode to Hell.
Write Club does not ride on time constraints alone (though get-to-your-damn-point-already is an anthem for Belknap). It’s also about winners and losers. “I began to think about the role of competition in writing and theater,” says Belknap, “The code of conduct I’m chafing against is: Audience sits down, shuts up and receives.”