The Encyclopedia Show: America's Live Infotainment-Storytelling Spectacular

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A Dozen Shows About Bears

Ian Belknap is here to give you a history lesson. The topic: Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case which established segregation de jure in the United States for more than half a century.

Belknap is professorial in his manner, booming in voice. He approaches his lectern and produces, from a Whole Foods grocery bag next to him, a ceramic plate and several chocolate chip cookies.

“Patrick!” he calls. Patrick the Intern (a.k.a. Patrick Carberry), wearing a newsboy cap and a decidedly terrified expression befitting his job title, shuffles back on the stage. Belknap motions to him.

“Patrick, would you like a cookie?” Patrick enthusiastically motions toward the plate of tasty baked treats, but Belknap stops him and threatens to break each of his fingers should he even think about grabbing a cookie. Belknap removes another plateful of cookies out of the bag and tosses them to Patrick like a flying disc. The plate falls to the floor with a clunk and shatters into pieces; the cookies crumble. These are Patrick’s cookies. Same plate, same cookies, different location. Separate, but equal.

Welcome to The Encyclopedia Show, a monthly variety show created in Chicago in 2008 by two Illinois poets, Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney. Each month, Telfer and Maney choose a theme and assign subtopics to a host of local, national and international creative talents who then perform short pieces. Creative nonfiction, essay, poetry, comedy, journalism, music—even visual art.

“There’s this scene in Chicago that’s like this perform-literary-theater thing that’s happening,” says Megan Mercier, the show’s production coordinator and “fact-checker” and member of Chicago’s long-running Neo-Futurist improv comedy troupe. “It’s a type of performance and writing that’s really appealing to me and I think it’s really fresh and original.”

The Encyclopedia Show is part of a number of performance-based literary events that have been popping up in Chicago over the past few years. Belknap, who gave the compelling example of Plessy’s inherent horribleness from before, launched Write Club, a literature-as-bloodsport event in which two esteemed writers go head-to-head on a chosen topic. Like EncycloShow, Write Club has expanded to other cities, including Atlanta; New York; Los Angeles; Athens, Ga.; and San Francisco. Poet Christopher Piatt has The Paper Machete, a weekly free “live magazine” melding pop culture, current events, comedy and storytelling, among other things.

There’s an informative, thought-provoking element to all these shows, but none so simultaneously academic and ultimately zany as the EncycloShow. What sets it apart from the rest of the scene is the commitment to each topic, hand-picked by Telfer and Maney to be not too broad, not too specific. Telfer says the specificity of the topic and the process of zeroing in on this one little idea can often open up a piece to greater conceits.

“We’ve done a show on Wyoming, which sounds like it’s very specific and like there’s not a lot of stories there,” Telfer says. “But Wyoming is a place that has existed for centuries and has lots of history, and apparently, according to the show, a lot of it is sad.”

Maney and Telfer choose which participating writer or artist takes on which topic, and try to stick what works best with their voice. One of Telfer’s favorite examples is New York poet Mahogany Browne, who participated in the first ever EncycloShow (topic: Bears). Telfer gave Browne the topic of the “grolar bear,” a polar-grizzly hybrid. He envisioned it as an environmental piece, as the two species are breeding more often, their habitats being melted closer together. Browne flipped the suggestion on its head, and wrote a very moving poem about interracial relationships, still a popular piece in her repertoire.

James Rickel, a show regular who has missed just one installment since its inception, says the goal of the show is “to educate us the way Glenn Beck would want us to be educated.” By this he means a show that pretends to be heavy on truth and facts but is really just heavy on theatrics. But Telfer says the research and commitment to bringing the audience new knowledge is essential to the show’s success.

“I find it very unsatisfying if at the end of a show, you haven’t actually learned something about your topic or haven’t found new insight about it,” he says. “There’s a show we did earlier this year that the pieces were all really goofy and fun, but you didn’t feel like you were any closer to understanding the topics.”

This month’s theme is The Supreme Court, and as such, most of the assignments are about iconic Supreme Court cases, from Marbury v. Madison to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The experts have come from all over the Midwest, and include an English professor living in South Bend, Ind., and a group of high-school-age poets from Tulsa, Okla. The comic narrative thru-line of the show—a recent development according to Mercier—spoofs everyone’s favorite television guilty pleasure, Law and Order, “dun-dun” and all.

Most installments of the show include a guest appearance from an expert on the subject to up the informative ante. For the Supreme Court show, this was Dr. Anna Law (perfect name, right?), a political science professor at DePaul University who broke down various Supreme Court cases and how they affect us in our everyday lives (most notably Citizens United). One of Rickel’s favorite shows was the “Serial Killers” installment from 2009, in which real-life forensic psychiatrist and serial killer expert Helen Morrison was interviewed. Morrison brought in a rather visceral artifact from her work: the brain of Illinois murderer John Wayne Gacy, in a plastic bag. “It slid down the bag,” he says. “That set the bar pretty high.”

“I love any situation where you accidentally learn something,” Mercier says. “That’s something that people like from the time they’re kids. That’s why you get to go on field trips, because you get to do something fun and learn all this stuff.”

The Encyclopedia Show has expanded to cities all over the country—and the world, adding a series in Seoul, South Korea, in late 2010. The Austin incarnation, launched in February 2010, has gained a lot of traction, and last year featured the likes of poet Anis Mojgani and newspaper blackout artist Austin Kleon. The Austin cohort have put on a number of special shows, including some dealing with more serious topics like stereotypes and censorship. With the exception of specials like these and certain shows adapted for regional translation (e.g. the Chicago show on the suburban village of Schaumburg, Ill.—“Processed meat-butcher to the Northwest Suburbs, Lego-maker, stacker of flat-packed furniture,” according to Carl Sandburg—became Pflugerville, Texas in the Austin version), all Encyclopedia Show companies must follow the same show topics, in order. New York and Los Angeles are on the same schedule, Telfer says. And everyone must start with the Series One, Volume One topic: Bears. That means there have been 14 or 15 shows about bears, and they have all been completely different.

“One thing that we learned from the show is that [it’s] just a skeleton for artists of all kinds to hang their artistic meat off of it,” Telfer says. “Everyone has a different flavor of artistic meat. We could do the Bear Show forever, because every single human being experiences bears in a different way and practices their artistic voice in a different way.”

There is little respite between shows. Next month’s theme is “Puberty,” and the performers are already waiting for their assignments.