Open Stage Showcases the Power of Positive Thinking

Richardson venue welcomes all, from bards to belly dancers.

It's a quarter to 8 on a Monday night at Open Stage, the weekly talent showcase at House of Poets in Richardson, and the incense is growing Vatican-thick. The show happens on a raised platform along one wall of an oblong banquet hall at the back of a shopping center, behind a Salvadoran café and next door to a hookah bar. The room is as dim as an opium den, and the sticky-sweet patchouli scent hangs heavy in the air.

For a $5 cover you get to sit in a straight-backed chair or curl up on a pile of velvet pillows on the concrete floor down front to watch six to 10 acts, depending on how many sign up. About 40 people are in the audience for this evening's performance. Many are in costume, as if they just got off work at Medieval Times. Or perhaps they're among that small slice of the population that shops for everyday clothes in booths at Renaissance fairs.

The master of ceremonies is Russ Sharek, who founded Open Stage as a spin-off of a juggling club he started a few years ago. With his shaved head and long goatee, Sharek, wearing a stocking cap, red and gold vest and brown harem pants, is an impish Cabaret version of Rasputin.

Bards and belly dancers share the spotlight at the weekly Open Stage showcase in Richardson.
Matt Walker
Bards and belly dancers share the spotlight at the weekly Open Stage showcase in Richardson.

Details

Open Stage 8 p.m. every Monday at House of Poets, 580 W. Arapaho Road, Richardson. Admission is $5. No reservations needed.

First order of business is the rundown of rules of decorum. Sharek tells the crowd, most of whom already seem to know the drill, that there's no getting high allowed at Open Stage. Drinking is fine, even encouraged. There's a "community punch bowl" by the door, and you can share in it or imbibe your own brought-in booze. You can order food, too. Hummus and shish tawook sandwiches can be delivered in sacks from the Lebanese joint at the other end of the sidewalk.

Next rule: Clapping and cheering are a must, but no mean heckling. Sharek holds up a plush toy called the "Positivity Pill" and says that anyone caught sending bad vibes toward the performers will have it lobbed at them.

Open Stage, Sharek explains to a visitor before the show, is all about taking risks onstage, but in a supportive environment. "They're all exploring and experimenting with their acts," he says. "We like to keep the atmosphere positive and encouraging."

First up on this Monday's show is Bret Crow, a gangly singer in a checked hat and horn-rimmed glasses. He slaps his bass guitar as he talk-sings a couple of songs about the meaning of life and things he'll never do again. Called back for an encore, he does another talky-singy tune, this time with considerably more head-nodding and bass-whapping, about going through a drive-through in the wee hours.

Act number two is Cypher, a spoken-word artist who launches into free verse she's written that sounds like many stanzas of "lovemommydaddylovemesomeone." She works herself up pretty good and the crowd responds with a loud burst of positivity. She's also wearing a tight miniskirt that threatens to creep up above the danger zone, something some in the audience seem to be trying to force with the power of positive thinking. She finishes her piece to big applause, having revealed nothing more than the depths of her soul.

Up next, guitarist/singer Kelly Nygren and partner Will Richey. She has a singing voice as warm and dark as a cup of fresh java, but she only gets the choruses. Richey talk-sings lots of verses of "I'm in Love with a Hypocrite," reading lyrics off lined paper. He rhymes "cash" with "cash" and "moon" with "moon."

Samantha, Summer and Judy, generously proportioned belly dancers in matching low-slung black pants, sparkly bra tops and jingly coin hip-scarves, come next. They undulate to Middle Eastern Buddha Bar music and make their arms go snaky as their hip joints roll. They're good, but they don't relax and smile until they take their bows.

Then comes Wayne Greene, another folk singer and acoustic guitarist who talk-sings about taking the subway out of Greenwich Village. Greene's a longtime regular on the local coffeehouse circuit. He spent eight years playing guitar with singer/songwriter Emilie Aronson and has opened for John Sebastian, Shake Russell, Nanci Griffith, Dee Moeller and the late Townes Van Zandt. Now he's here, buried deep on the bill in an amateur showcase. But musicians have to make music whenever, wherever, right? Any night on a stage is a little better than a night without one.

Sonya Jevette, a tall black woman in tight jeans, boots and straw cowboy hat, comes on to big applause. She hits the button on her drum machine and makes liberal use of a wah-wah pedal as she pushes her big voice and good guitar plunking into a couple of original songs that straddle rockabilly and R&B. The crowd loves her and shouts for more. She goes with "Big Girls," a sexy, bluesy rant that lets men who think otherwise know that in bed "the bigger the cushion, the better the wobbly-wobbly." Sing it, sister.

Tonight's final act is Dallas burlesque performer GlamAmour. She's been doing her "Stripping Poet" routine at Open Stage since May, combining mild ecdysiasm and recitations of classical works. She has stripped to a monologue from Cyrano de Bergerac, some Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems and is working on baring to the Bard with excerpts from Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew. On this night, she's in a playful mood, having just celebrated her 40th birthday. Built like a taller, rounder Mae West, GlamAmour steps onto the stage wearing ruffled red boxers and a silky black kimono. As she reads the first few lines of "Line and Squares" by A.A. Milne — "Whenever I walk in a London street, I'm ever so careful to watch my feet" — she slowly and a little awkwardly peels off the robe.

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13 comments
Innocent Bystander
Innocent Bystander

The irony is that the poet she mentioned, Will Richey, was one of the 10 finalists for the Masterminds contest that Elaine helped with.

Kelly
Kelly

Dear Elaine, Flattered as I was by the portion of your review that pertained to my performance, I have to confess that other parts of it had even me -- a big fan of the Positivity Pill -- struggling for constructive words with which to respond. I'd liken it to finding an even-handed reply to someone who looks through your photo albums and asks, "Are all your children this ugly?"

This is, of course, because I possess not one drop of objectivity about the Open Stage. I owe a debt of gratitude to that punch-swilling-and-corset-wearing horde of hug junkies. If you had seen my first performance there back in March -- flickers of bravado betrayed by trembling fingers, slumped posture and a shaky, sheepish grin peeking from beneath a generously proffered bowler -- and compare it to my act the night you came, you'll know what the past nine months of their unflagging enthusiasm has done for me as a burgeoning performer.

We occasionally find ourselves privileged to see the likes of Wayne Greene and other veteran performers in the lineup, but most of us are still amateurs in our chosen forms of expression, and we're fiercely protective of fellow newbies. So of course some rushed to defend themselves and each other when a theater critic -- who was doing her job -- visited and, understandably lacking the adoring bias we enjoy from one another, published critiques of their performances... and, for reasons I still can't fathom, of their bodies as well. (I'm twice the size of any of the "generously proportioned belly dancers," and my most outstanding features nearly rest atop my guitar when I play. I don't relish the idea of having my physique nitpicked any more than I suspect you would, but I'm still not certain how I dodged that bullet when I am, in every sense of the word, a bigger target.)

Having said all that, I'm writing to thank you for this review. Because many of us drink the kool-aid together -- quite literally; the punch bowl is less extravagant on some nights than others -- it's helpful to hear the perspectives of an intentionally distant observer, especially when it rubs us the wrong way. Criticism, whether we agree with it or not, is always an opportunity for growth. Even if we don't end up making any changes based on those observations, it's valuable market research we didn't have to pay for.

Yes, I obviously took exception to things you said, but on this point we agree: Open Stage is not for everybody. Yes, we find joy in playing with hoops and sticks and other age-inappropriate toys. We wear kilts and strategically obnoxious stockings because by Monday, most of our costumes -- by which I mean the khaki-and-polo-shirt getups in which we masquerade the rest of the week -- are dirty. And thanks to you, when we really like something, we've begun saying, "That's better than tits and a toy moose!" As I told someone recently, "My circus friends and me, we are some odd motherf***ers... but we're odd motherf***ers who hope to see a lot of good things from and for each other." We're not for everybody, but we're for everybody who wants us to be for them.

Just once more: thank you. Thanks for coming out, for offering us your feedback on our event and our individual performances, and for doing something we urge each other to do: try something new, even if it scares you.

Please come back anytime. I'll loan you a corset if you like... and the punch bowl is, as always, strictly optional.

All my best,Kelly Nygren

Masane Deviant Artist
Masane Deviant Artist

Clearly you do not know how to write an article. You definately need the Positivity Suppository in big doses. These people go where they can let go. Get your facts straight before writing this trashy article.

Renee Sitton
Renee Sitton

Did Glam'Amour give you permission to mention her given name in your piece? I sure hope so because if not you really stepped in it lady.

And did you also realize one of the "generously proportioned belly dancers" is pregnant?

Tunedex
Tunedex

A review as enjoyable as the show. I wonder if this is how Guy Laliberte started out. And though I should not be, I am forever amazed at the presumption (i.e., "you do understand") and thickness ("missed the point entirely") of goobers commenting.

Aeone Singson
Aeone Singson

The idea behind The Open Stage is simple and beautiful: To provide an environment that harnesses the courage to perform in front of a crowd without fear of oppressive criticism. Creativity and talent, just as any other skill, necessitates a nurturing environment to flourish and The Open Stage provides just that. To many of its attendees, this venue is a warm and comforting atmosphere that they can call their home away from home on Monday nights. They come as they want to, with beautifully constructed vibrancy in personality and clothing. In this venue on this night they are provided a place of solace to allow themselves to be immersed in the world outside of general societal propriety: a welcomed, and much needed break from the humdrum norm. The spectators are encouraged to respond positively to every performance. The coordinators of The Open Stage affectionately acknowledge that even seasoned performers experience the paralysis of stage fright. With that in mind, they have created rules to negate any behavior that would facilitate any injurious energy from spreading to the crowd and to those on the stage. This in turn perpetuates an amiable lighthearted mood that permeates throughout the entire venue and continues to encourage performers on their way to the stage throughout the entire night. Clearly, this article missed the point entirely.

Estee
Estee

"[G]enerously proportioned belly dancers"? Either the photo used in the article is a stock image, or someone's been watching *way* too much America's Next Top Model.

mevanecek
mevanecek

You do understand that it's common courtesy to use the nom de stage when referring to a performer who uses one, right, and not the real name? Incredibly discourteous on your part without having first obtained permission from the performer to use something other than the stage name. Dallas Observer writers as always exhibiting their class and sophistication.

Aguilera
Aguilera

Nice and sharp comment. I do aggree with that point. This article seems to be misleading.

Samantha
Samantha

The photo used was not stock. It was of me, a generously proportioned belly dancer. I was genuinely upset that this article would review an event that promotes positivity and encouragement to performers with such a sarcastic tone. Also, she should have taken some time to learn a bit about our style of dance before making a complete ass of herself while writing this article. It shouldn't surprise me; this is the Observer.

Judy
Judy

As one of the three "generously proportioned belly dancers" I was immediately offended and hurt by this article. Uh, seen many skinny belly dancers? And sweetums, thanks to belly dance I LOVE my sexy curves. And the reason we didn't smile? It was a tribal piece, not cabaret.. not supposed to smile. She missed the point of Open Stage entirely. This article was the straw that broke this generously proportioned camels back... I will never read this rag again.

Judy
Judy

Oh, Estee, THANK YOU... Obviously what I wrote above is directed to the dumbass who wrote the article. Loved your comment!

 
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