The Paper Machete Keeps the News Alive
The Paper Machete, which describes itself defiantly as a weekly "live magazine", is a theater company like the Huffington Post is a newspaper. On the one hand it's formally divergent and intrinsically modern, but on the other hand entirely familiar. "There's something really obvious about it," says founder and host Christopher Piatt. "I don't feel like I thought of it."
Indeed, Piatt points to the "Living Newspapers" of the Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression as an important inspiration for this live variety show about current events. The shows were bare-bones, almost always free of charge, and were conceived as a means of entertaining and informing Americans of current events. Although we no longer live in a world where news is hard to come by, Piatt argues that engaging cultural commentary - as an antidote to punditry - is in shorter supply and even greater demand.
Piatt also acknowledges the influence of radio on this almost deliberately non-visual brand of theater, "As a kid in Kansas I loved listening to old radio shows. This is very much a nod to those shows and those comedians." Elaborating, he describes the personal appeal of theater that doesn't rely on sumptuous images, "I'm super blind, by the way. I can hardly see. But, I have really high aural reception so I love a rich auditory experience. It's really intense."
Part of this intensity comes from the encounter of essayists, performers, and musicians with a live audience. And especially, since the shows take place, not in an auditorium or traditional theater, but in a little bar in Lincoln Square. Piatt says each show guarantees to be both funny and smart, commenting on current events with a partially personal point of view. Additionally, he says, "The more we hone it, the more it becomes a real variety show and a vaudeville about the news. Performed by and for Chicagoans, with the occasional out of town guest." Appropriately, shows tend to include a variety of essays, brief performances, and musical guests, all of which vary from show to show.
Nine months into curating this weekly show with a constant demand for new talent, Piatt's been lucky to be able to call upon his previous career as Theater Editor of Time Out Chicago to gather his friends and colleagues from over the years to join in. And with such a huge talent pool to call on, he sees no end in sight for the demand either to watch or participate in the shows.
Recently, The Paper Machete has begun to post recordings from each week's show to podcasts available on iTunes and The Paper Machete's own website. Piatt admits that, in a sense, the podcasts and the recordings are the ultimate goal - allowing the work to proliferate more easily, and create a permanent record of opinions and reactions to the news of our day, but that without the live audience and the theatrical element of performance, the show couldn't exist.
"I love live performance: people gathering in a room and listening and watching together. It creates a whole host of problems that regular studio radio [doesn't have], but it really raises the stakes. You're facing your audience. It adds an element of accountability that's really satisfying. Even when the show is mediocre, people leave having had a good time."
You can download podcasts of The Paper Machete via iTunes. You can learn more about The Paper Machete's past and future by visiting their website, becoming a fan on Facebook, or following them on Twitter.
You can read more of Theatre In Chicago contributor Benno Nelson's writing at The@er (http://the-at-er.blogspot.com)
Read the other articles in Benno Nelson's "Full Storefrontal" series that focuses on small theatre companies around Chicago on the Full Storefrontal page.
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