14 East tackles the wilderness of isolation | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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14 East tackles the wilderness of isolation

The DePaul-based online magazine adapts its annual live storytelling event for quarantine.

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On May 29, 11 DePaul students will present a series of their written and multimedia work as part of 14 East’s third annual live storytelling event. 14 East is an independent online long-form magazine staffed and run by DePaul University students. As is the case with every other event in Chicago for the foreseeable future, this live storytelling event won’t be “live” in the traditional sense of the word; in lieu of a stage and audience, the event will be prerecorded and streamed on the magazine’s Facebook page. 

The magazine’s editorial emphasis on multimedia and data-driven reporting has well-oriented it for this year’s digital event platform. Its theme, “Venture into the Wilderness,” which was decided on late last year, has also taken on new significance in light of coronavirus and the widespread social distancing it has necessitated. 

When the staff first started discussing the wilderness theme for this year’s live event, associate editor Grace Del Vecchio’s mind immediately went to relationships. 

“Learning about relationships and learning how to communicate within a relationship with other people is something that we're trying to navigate every single day of our lives,” she said. “It's difficult, but all of us do it because we all are in relationships of some kind—not just romantic relationships, but also platonic and familial. Navigating relationships is kind of like navigating wilderness.”

For her live storytelling submission, Del Vecchio interviewed Tim Cole, an associate professor at DePaul’s College of Communications with a PhD in relationship communication. She also filmed interviews with three different pairs of people, asking each pair the same set of questions centered around the navigating of relationships and intimacy, physical and otherwise. 

“The personal experience I’ve gained in dating and relationships, and my own thankfulness—really—for my nonromantic relationships [made me think] this could be something that could be interesting to explore,” Del Vecchio said. “And when I brought it up at our 14 East staff meeting, a lot of people were like, ‘Yes, absolutely. Relationships and love is a wilderness.’”

Del Vecchio participated in the live storytelling last year while she was enrolled in the 14 East reporting class that is offered through DePaul’s College of Communication. While the transition to Facebook has been an adjustment for Del Vecchio and the other performers, they’re “moving with the culture and living with what’s going on,” she said. 

She’s focused on finding the bright side to this format as well; while she’s comfortable with public speaking and enjoys live performance, her topic of exploration is one she’s never spoken on publicly before.  

“So I'm going to find solace and a certain type of safety in knowing that I can rerecord it and then send the video,” she said. 

The chance to get comfortable with new storytelling formats, such as in Del Vecchio’s case, is one 14 East editor-in-chief Marissa Nelson said she hopes the staff carries into their regularly scheduled repertoire of reporting post-coronavirus, as well. 

“I think for everyone right now, during the pandemic and during COVID-19, we're finding new ways of doing the work that we were already doing,” Nelson said. “I think seeing that we can pull together a multimedia show that is heavily video-based from our homes, [shows] we can do that when we're able to go out and report on stories like we traditionally do. Hopefully it will encourage us to use more video throughout our website.”

In the previous live events, some of the performed work was previously published 14 East content repurposed for live performance. This year, all of the content is new material, said Mikayla Price, 14 East’s event planner. 

“We purposely kind of leave the theme vague in order to see what direction people take,” Price said. 

“But still, when we chose the theme wilderness in the fall, we had no idea how relevant it would be,” Nelson said. 

While some people are sticking to the theme more literally, addressing Chicago’s ecosystem and biodiversity or contrasting the wilderness of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Illinois, with the wilderness of property developments in Chicago, and others, such as Del Vecchio, are tackling the more metaphorical wilderness of love and relationships, some participants are addressing coronavirus head-on, or at least tangentially. 

One submission addresses the emptiness of public spaces during quarantine and the idea that people seem to be becoming much more in tune with nature and being outside during this period of social distancing.

Nelson, who will perform her piece at the end of the show, was originally planning to address the wilderness of navigating one’s twenties. 

“And then, as the pandemic happened, I shifted my focus to, ‘How are we finding joy and . . . still connecting with each other and experiencing togetherness when we can’t physically be together?’ she explained. “That wouldn’t have been as relevant two months ago as it is now, so that piece for me has definitely shifted amid COVID-19.”

While the storytelling event itself will be prerecorded and then streamed, the magazine staff plans to host a conversation on Instagram Live following the performance, in order to retain some element of live interaction, Price said.  v

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