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Letter Show

Art is where you say it is.

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Cindy Salach, boho in her black sweater, black tights, faded gray cutoffs, and short blond hair with two-inch black roots, walks down from her seat in the auditorium, steps up to the mike, flashes a quick smile, and says, "I'm going to read some love letters from second grade and fourth grade, sixth grade and high school. The first letter is from second grade. I know it by heart. 'Dear Cindy, Kevin and Doug think you're fat. But I think you're just right. Love, Tom.'"

The audience applauds and Salach grins proudly, all white teeth and crinkled eyes--a dim echo, perhaps, of a long-gone second-grader's grin.

This is the second time in a year Salach has read at Chicago Filmmakers' Spoken Word Cafe. Last spring she read selections from her journal at the Diary Show.

"This next letter," she continues, "is from the fourth grade: 'Dear Cindy, As you told me about the Fun Fair, I would watch out because Kevin, Doug, and Bob are going to follow you, and when they find out, they're going to ask me to follow, but I will say no, and I may ask Kevin if he will go to the Fun Fair with me, but if he says yes, Doug and Bob will probably not follow you, and if it's OK with you, if your cousins are not going with you, write me a note and I'm kind of glad your cousins are going with you, because they were going to follow us to see who grabbed hands first, but if they weren't going to follow us, I would like to go with you. Love, Tom.'"

It's clear that Salach, a veteran poetry slammer and cofounder of the performance group known as the Loofah Method, participates in the Letters Show for the sheer love of performance.

Other readers seem to have mixed motives. An actor named Edward reads a rather bitchy, slander-filled (and hilarious) letter to purge what he describes as the "two acid-bath-like years" he spent at the DePaul theater school.

Actress Shirley Anderson, holding a handful of stationery decorated with red tulips, pastel flowers, and shiny green shamrocks, seems to view the show as a chance to engage in a little symbolic familial revenge: "My mother put the fear of God in me. Don't write anything down, because someone might read it. So I'm reading my mother's letters." Which she does--dashes, X's, O's, catty remarks about family, and all.

Others read to reconnect, if only for a moment, with someone far away, or lost in the past. A woman named Kathleen, in white pants, pink shirt, and pink headband, reads a letter "written to me ten years ago by someone who fell through the cracks." It begins with the apology "I hope you don't interpret my not writing as a nonverbal message that I don't care for you."

Wearing his trademark gray fedora and aviator glasses, David Hauptschein, curator of the Spoken Word Cafe, begins the evening by repeating the ground rules. Reading order will be determined by picking names out of a bag.

"I apologize for the randomness of numbers."

Every participant will have the same amount of time onstage.

"I brought my grandmother's egg timer with me," he says rather nerdishly, prompting someone to shout back: "Uh-oh, your grandmother can't make eggs."

Hauptschein ignores the remark as he figures out how much time each reader will get. "Let's see. We have 11 readers so that means, um, each reader has seven minutes."

At that moment a woman walks in.

"Are you reading?" Hauptschein shoots from the podium.

"Yes."

He writes her name down on a slip of paper and puts it in the bag. "Now it's going to be six minutes, 47 seconds a person."

Steve Seddon, in a black shirt, jeans, and wire-rim glasses, steps up to the podium and says: "Tonight I'll be reading some letters from rock fan magazines of the early 70s. I'll begin with Hit Parader, April 1972. 'Dear Editor, I really enjoyed reading the article on Grand Funk Railroad, Enemy of the Establishment, in the November issue. I could see why the press dislikes these three guys. They are a heavy group and they are beautiful people. Grand Funk is a group that wants to help and love their country and their brothers and sisters. The older generation should listen to Grand Funk rap because they make sense, man. The older generation might learn something from this group. Signed, Killy Welles, Millford, New Hampshire.'"

The Spoken Word Cafe was conceived in 1986 as an evening of literary readings and performance poetry (plus a couple of David Lynch's early experimental films)--an attempt by Chicago Filmmakers to expand beyond the narrowing confines of experimental film. Five years ago Hauptschein began the twice-yearly "Diary Shows," in which audience members are invited to come up onstage and read from their journals. A year ago he branched out from diaries to letters and was so pleased with the results--one woman read from a rather intense intimate letter she received from Robert Culp--he decided to make it an annual affair.

Hauptschein reaches into the bag and pulls out a slip of paper. "David Kodeski!"

From the back of the auditorium, Kodeski walks to the stage, carrying a handful of letters. On the back of his black T-shirt (this year's uniform for boho men?) is printed: "If you can't dance, you can't be part of our revolution. Emma Goldman."

"I have a friend who sends me letters that are basically summaries of shows she's seen," Kodeski explains, holding up a sample letter. It's thick, easily nine or ten pages, and, as we soon find out, brimming with eyewitness descriptions in mind-boggling detail of whatever TV show the friend happened to be watching as she wrote: "Oh no, Julia was fucking Carlo! Richard and Melissa begin fucking!... Richard's adopted father tells Richard the plot to buy the vineyard is off and demands they return to New York. Richard refuses. Diana (Shannon Slut Tweed) is a spy for them. E.G. Marshall threatens her if she doesn't bring Richard in line.... Angela and Julia walk in on Mel Ferrer and another man. Richard threatens to kill Diana (Shannon Slut Tweed) if she betrays him."

In all that Kodeski reads, only one sentence refers to life outside of the box populi: "I got a really nice letter from _______." But this is quickly followed by, "What I really like about Falcon Crest is..." Hauptschein's grandmother's timer rings just after the line: "I repeat, Gina Lollabrigida is an old bag with too many letters in her last name."

Hauptschein, a filmmaker turned writer, considers himself to be very much in the surrealist and dadaist traditions. Like Andre Breton and company, he is fascinated by the bizarre workings of the unconscious mind and has a special interest in the writing of "people with paranoid vision." And like Marcel Duchamp he loves everyday artifacts--bicycle wheels, urinals, or, in this case, letters--that become art when you say they are art.

Kim, a blond woman in a T-shirt and jeans, a yellow highlighter hanging from her collar, steps onto the stage and unfolds a gigantic piece of light yellow paper. "I was married when I received this letter from a coworker. This was the same time he sent nude Polaroids of himself to all the secretaries, before he was sent to the psychiatric ward at Saint Joseph's." On the paper is drawn the Sears Tower, with a long car ramp leading to the observation deck. "The caption reads that in order to make the ramp level enough to be driven on, it would have to be 400 miles long." Kim then turns the paper over and begins reading a letter so long, manic, and continually digressive, it's impossible to assemble my notes of it into a coherent facsimile of a letter: "Think it's possible to fill this entire construction sheet?... I want to make you squirm. Ha!... And I'm doing it to you. Prematurely, natch. You won't see me writing like this near the bottom of the page, because I've got more control.... I'd really like to write about sleeping with you.... Maybe I can fill up the whole page with "I don't know what to say."

Steve Seddon: "This is from a Canadian rock magazine called Beetle, from December 1974. "Dear Editor, I just want to tell you how great your article was on Anne Murray.... Could you write me a little note telling me what it's like to interview her?"

Cindy Salach: "This one's from sixth grade. 'Cindy, I think we owe each other an apology. I owe you one for laughing at you. And you owe me one for calling me asshole, stupid, idiot, jerk. So now I'll say "I'm sorry." I'm too chicken to say it face-to-face. Now, in a note, you say you're sorry. OK? I still want you for a girlfriend. I hope you want me for a boyfriend. Love, Scott.'"

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