The stage is bare except for an old metal music stand and a microphone. Off to the side, David Sedaris straightens his cotton T-shirt and then politely weaves his way through the crowd to the stage, carrying a small piece of paper, his introduction for the performance artist Cheryl Trykv. He adjusts the microphone, then recites a series of adoring adjectives--such a torrent of outrageous, parodic hyperbole that you can't wait to see the woman described. How can she match this?
Sedaris and Trykv, though they're friends, do not really work together. Both can best be described as literary readers; Trykv recites from memory, and Sedaris brings a notebook onstage. Their acts are low-key and low-tech: both recite compelling prose compellingly, and they can be entertaining, cruel, even shocking. "I like to make people laugh at things that are a lot of times terrible," said Sedaris, who admits to being obsessed with acts of physical and emotional cruelty against gays. "I want to say: 'You're as capable as anyone else of committing a horrible act.' I want them to get lost in the story--surrender to it," he said.
Sedaris describes one of his short stories, published in Outlook, the gay magazine originating in San Francisco: "It was about a guy who falls in love with someone who abuses him until he becomes smaller physically, until he gets so small he climbs in the guy's asshole and realizes his lover is just like him. He wants to be borne by him, then he starts growing."
Occasionally they're surprised by how their stories affect the audience. During one recent performance at Club Lower Links, Trykv talked of a difficult boss, whom she had told to "go fuck himself." Since then, several people from the audience that night have thanked her for giving them the courage to tell their bosses the same thing.
Trykv isn't sure how to respond to this. "I'm a writer," she explained. "My job is to share my experience and present a picture illustrative of experience. People can do with it what they want." Her raw material is anecdotes from her own life; she paints pictures in prose and poetry.
Whether you just laugh or decide to look for a new job, watching these two is an enlightening experience; they offer their unique perspectives next on July 25, as part of the next Milly's Orchid Show at the Park West. Emceed by performance artist Brigid Murphy, the show gives these artists a chance to broaden their exposure.
Trykv and Sedaris, who met last year during an earlier Milly's Orchid Show, today are each other's biggest fans. "The performance-art scene in Chicago is pretty friendly," said Trykv, a Los Angeles native. The growing audience here has led to an increase in performance venues, including the Edge of the Lookingglass, Randolph Street Gallery, Club Lower Links, and MoMing, among others.
Although the Chicago scene has been booming for a while, Trykv didn't move here until December. Her first reading was in 1985, in Los Angeles at a concert for the band 405. She had written a poem called "Bondage," and one night the band asked her to read it for the audience. When it got a good response, the owner of the club asked her back. Since then she's performed in clubs all over Los Angeles, one in Paris, and several here.
Sedaris, too, happened upon the story-telling art while doing something else. He has always written, but in 1984 he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago to study painting and sculpture. "I wasn't a very good artist," he admitted. "I had two styles of painting and one style of sculpture. With my writing I took a lot more chances." A couple of years later, during a party at a friend's loft, he was asked to read from his diary. From then on, the calls have been coming in steadily for him to perform.
"When you're reading out loud, you have to have some gimmick for people," Sedaris remarked. "As Flannery O'Connor said, 'If you're not surprised by the story, no one else will be.' I never know where the stories are going when I write them. I tend not to write about real experience because I know how it ends.
"I don't believe you have to have a lot of experiences all the time to be a writer," Sedaris said. "O'Connor said that by the time you're 18, you should have enough material for the rest of your life. It's more important to contemplate life. In fact, I'd probably stay home and never leave if I didn't have jobs." (Sedaris teaches creative writing at the Art Institute and does odd jobs as well.)
What should people know about making performance art? "Never get drunk outside your home--especially if you're going to remain in the public eye," Trykv declared. "Read a lot, go to readings. You have to sit through the bad stuff, waste your money, to support the art. If the stuff is good, I'm inspired to do better. If it's not, I feel good knowing that I'm not that bad."
Trykv and Sedaris are both performing--along with other, possibly outlandish, musical and performance acts--at this month's Milly's Orchid Show (celebrating Milly's birthday), Wednesday, July 25, at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage. Show time is 8:30 PM and admission is $6. Call 929-5959 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.