Amina Cain and Jennifer Karmin declared their new Red Rover reading series would be different, and all it took was a guy in a bear suit to prove them right.
Red Rover's first show brought out a story that rearranged and repeated its parts so many times it imploded on itself; another that began with the author reclining on a vintage couch and wheeled out in front of the crowd; and still another in which the author sang her story, accompanied by a dancing marionette and the aforementioned bear-man. The show's air of unconventional creativity had the vibe one imagines exists solely on the set of a David Lynch movie.
"There was something magical about that first one," Karmin says of the April reading. "[The writer] was singing this fairy tale and there were all these things going on around her, and it just did this great job of bringing the audience to a different place."
That premiere Red Rover performance found other ways to distinguish itself from most readings. The audience gathered not at a bookstore or bar, but at the Spareroom, an alcohol-free artistic co-op space with white walls and hardwood floors. The Humboldt Park space seems like it could easily house an art opening one night and a racquetball tournament the next.
And aside from the bear suit and the free-wheeling couch, there was yet another abnormality—all the readers were women.
"Last year, I realized Jen and I were in sync with some of our political ideas," says Cain, 33. "There were some basic ways in which we wanted to have the series not just women-involved, but women-oriented. We wanted to have a series that was not quite so male and not quite so white."
Agrees Karmin: "We would take a look around [at readings] and realize we were two of the only women there. We didn't feel there was any discrimination or negativity, but in some ways it did feel like an old boys' club."
The two began hatching the idea in late 2004, though they've shared a similar sensibility since they met in 1999. Cain was finishing her master's degree in creative writing at the School of the Art Institute when Karmin was considering enrolling in the program. Karmin had just moved to Chicago from Japan and was still undecided about the city. She came by the creative writing office to check out the school, where she met Cain.
"Amina was the first person I met in Chicago," says Karmin. "I thought, wow, she's really cool. The students here must all be really cool."
The two became close friends, drawn together by a common interest in experimental literature. Cain has published work with local lit-mag THE2NDHAND and the acclaimed avant-garde prose poetry journal 3rd bed. Karmin, 31, teaches poetry in Chicago public schools and at Truman College, and works with the public-art collective, Anti-Gravity Surprise. The seeds for Red Rover were planted when the two helped AGS with an election-themed project last October.
"After working together there, we talked about doing the readings for quite a few months, trying to grasp what we wanted to do," Cain says. "At one point, it was like, 'Are we ever going to do this?'"
At the April show, the audience packed the Spareroom's space, with latecomers sitting on the floor and others standing in back. The curators hope to rearrange even the seating plan from performance to performance. The upcoming show will feature readings along the theme of "prayer," while the August show explores "feral."
"I like the idea of playing with the reading so the audience never knows what way it will go," Cain says. "We have some ideas for how to get the audience involved in the next show, but maybe I shouldn't say what those are."
If it's anything like the last performance, the audience should expect at least a few happy accidents. Cain proclaims in Red Rover literature that she's interested in exploring "awkwardness" in her writing, and there definitely was a bit of that in April. Take, for example, the teenage kid inside the bear-suit, who often had to pause to ensure his head didn't fall off as he loped around stage.
"We don't feel like we have to provide the ideal reading experience," laughs Karmin. "We expect to be interesting, but definitely not perfect."
Marvin Tate and Beth Snyder read at the next Red Rover on Saturday 18. See listings for details.