It’s Seersucker Live … a freewheeling literary nonprofit that gives local authors, poets and playwrights their moment in the spotlight … sometimes.
With the sold-out Unchained Tour blowing through town and the ever-expanding Savannah Book Festival just months away, we wanted to take a behind-the-scenes look at the local literary scene, which may just harbor the next it-girl or -boy of the publishing world. Savannah is a town of characters, after all. We asked Christopher Berinato, aspiring novelist and co-founder of Seersucker Live—a nonprofit that’s a mashup of high (and low) brow literary readings, fine (and folk) art, live music, talk show and cocktail mixer—to give us a completely unbiased account of Seersucker Live: Episode 5.
When I arrive at the Sparetime to host the fifth episode of Seersucker Live, the only thing on my mind is a glass of whiskey. Zach Powers and I created Seersucker Live with the notion that literary readings can be nigh insufferable without a little social lubricant to grease the gears of expression and reception, so as soon as I find Zach, we approach the bar and pour ourselves a gentleman’s portion of bourbon as the bartender had not yet arrived.
With drink in hand, we’re ready to go … sort of. John Powers, planted behind the mixing board, gives me a thumbs-up to indicate that the microphones sound good. My beautiful wife, Courtney, arranges books and programs on the ticket table. Tonight, she’ll play the dual role of saleswoman and bouncer, stuck at the entrance all evening. Now, that’s love.
I realize, however, there are no light bulbs in any of the ceiling fixtures; only two red light bulbs of disconcertingly low wattage hang precariously from outlets over the microphone—their sensual luminescence conjuring images of a certain kind of district. This actually turns out to be a boon, because dimness engages an audience’s imagination much better than bright, flat, sobering light. Though there is plenty of sunlight streaming in from the windows running along two of the walls for now, once the sun sets it will be near-impossible to see.
Ten minutes after the show’s supposed to start, the seats fill up and we’re standing room only. (Sigh of relief.) There’s nothing worse than playing to empty seats.
Our secret weapon, musician Brian Dean, plays the piano and sets the variety show ambiance we always strive toward. Brian’s deadpan professionalism and witty improvisations on the keys elevates our show to a level of legitimacy that is difficult to obtain for other literary readings. His presence is understated, but without him we would have to charge less for tickets.
Brian plays our theme song and introduces Zach and me in a Don Pardo voice. Zach, in his standard uniform of an untucked button-down and seersucker sneakers, and I in my white seersucker blazer, looking like a dad on date night, open the show. We enjoy good comedic chemistry. We may not be Rowan and Martin, but we’re at least better than Ryan Seacrest and that other guy. We begin, like always, with some audience participation, a game we call “Lit or Lyric,” where we invite four volunteers—all of whom are women with “A” names— to the stage as contestants. The game is a hit. People laugh when we read Lil’ Wayne lyrics and nod approvingly when we read Hemingway. And I’m happy to report that the demonic lyrics of Slayer are easily mistaken for poetry—possibly even Milton. Maybe next time we’ll actually have a prize for our winner.
What the show lacks in star power, it makes up for in variety.
Our first performer is stand-up comedian, Phil Keeling. Earlier in the week Zach and I had decided that, since this was the fifth episode, the unofficial theme of the night would be high-fives. I ask Phil to deliver me his best high-five and we embarrass ourselves by swatting at each other like two cats fighting over a feather. A good high-five is supposed to pump up everyone, but I worry that our sad display may have demoralized both Phil and the audience. Nevertheless, Phil takes the mic in one hand and drink in the other, and begins to tell jokes appropriate for a red-light district. It’s more earthy than the audience expects, but Seersucker Live has always embraced irreverence. Some bits draw groans, but Phil is a seasoned performer who rebounds like a likable, self-deprecating Weeble Wobble. Phil ultimately wins over (most of) the audience. I congratulate him for a good set, and inform him that my priest and his wife are—and remain—in the audience, unruffled.
Part of Seersucker Live’s mission is to promote, what we call, good literary citizenship. Seersucker Live board members, Joseph Schwartzburt and Erika Jo Brown each read an excerpt from works they deem essential reading. Joe chooses a passage from a novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. Erika, with flowers in her hair, gives a joyfully erotic reading of Kenneth Koch‘s Alive for an Instant, and manages to plug Seersucker Shots, our monthly poetry reading.
Marketing may be our greatest strength. Did I mention that we were sponsored by Gallery Espresso, where I work? You should try the house blend.
Anna Chandler takes the stage with her red Fender Stratocaster and an accordion. Her high-five with Zach is way more impressive than mine and Phil’s. We boo them from the back of the room like sore losers. Anna reads a few short pieces that are very good then slings on her guitar and sets the tone dial to angora. She has a huge voice that belies her quiet appearance. I think our audience is in love.
Spitfire spoken word artist Marquice Williams publicly agrees to be Zach’s best friend and seals the deal with a brotherly embrace. A kindle of envy glows in my gut, but I’m not sure which one of them I’m jealous of. Marquice begins his reading with a rousing toast, generating so much goodwill from the audience that if he had been riding a horse and holding aloft a sword instead of a drink, we would follow him out the door into battle. I notice my priest taking mental notes for a future sermon. Now that everyone is in a serene, lofty mood, Marquice recites a chilling monologue about domestic violence. The shocking imagery is rendered so poetically—a strangled woman’s arms flapping like a bird’s wings—that Zach and I shake our heads in admiration.
Seersucker Live doesn’t need nationally famous authors when we can find stars like Marquice in our own back yard.
We end our shows the same, with readings inspired by a kooky visual prompts illustrated by Lucas Rager. The drawing portrays a couple of ragamuffin kids and a sleazy guy in a suit listening to a devilish, horned figure play guitar.
Phil redeems himself before those he may have offended earlier with a witty critique of bad comedy, called The Four Horseman of the Chucklepocalypse. Zach, Joe, Marquice and a surprise guest from New York named Kat Adonis each read their pieces in rapid succession.
I sweated over my story for three days, and now I cannot wait to share it with the audience. But by now, everyone is a little drunk on words and whiskey. There is some confusion about reading order. I’m geared up to wow my peers … but no one introduces me, and now it seems gauche to take the mic unannounced. Instead, I invite Anna back to the stage for an accordion tune. Clutching the pages of my stupid story, I realize that the show must end on this high note. Zach and I thank our guests and our beautiful, enthusiastic audience. Brian plays our theme and, if there had been any, the house lights would have come up.
It felt as if we had a successful night, but we weren’t sure until we got the word from Zach’s sweet, old grandmother, who informs us that she counted the “F-word” seven times during the program—fewer than the last show. Assuming that this is the rating system by which she judges performances, I guess we earned a respectable score.
I drink to that.
Seersucker Live hosts a Happy Hour for Writers the first Thursday of every month, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Abe’s on Lincoln.