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“Not like other open mics”: thoughts on creating Smut Slam space

Open mics notoriously happen anywhere that the host can fit them. I’m not even talking about the alcoves and broom closets of Edinburgh Fringe. I have been on multiple open mic shows—comedy, music, variety, whatever—that just unroll in the front room of a bar, dropping crackly static and sweaty punchlines on whatever poor lushes happen to be hunched over their drinks.

I never heard anyone protest this too strenuously, because no one wants to be the squeaky wheel in a scene where performers are a dime a dozen. The venue doesn’t want to alienate its bar flies, er, regulars, and the organizers know that any venue at all is priceless, and because it is generally understood that comedians and musicians and magicians are performers who are going to be playing to drunk and/or hostile crowds for a good chunk of their performing career, it is also generally understood that they might as well get used to weirdness and interruptions and anger and side conversations and possibly thrown beer cans as early and often as possible. Performers just need to toughen up, is the conventional wisdom. It’s part of our training.

Given all this, I think that venues don’t always understand my extreme care when it comes to selecting spaces for Smut Slams. In particular, they don’t always get the privacy factor. I have gotten people saying, “yes, it’s all private space,” or “it’s all yours, we’ll just have a couple of regulars in during that time.” And then when I show up, it’s, you know, it’s the front room of a bar. Or it’s a side room that looks private but isn’t, a fact that everyone becomes acutely aware of when those two regulars break out into an argument during an especially moving story.

Smut Slam space needs to be … I was going to say sacred space. It’s not that exactly, but almost. Smut Slammers aren’t performers; they don’t need to toughen up or get used to bad performing conditions. I don’t want them to have to be tough; that just gets in the way of good, real stuff. Smut Slammers are delicate fucking flowers, and they need a space to bloom, someplace where people feel supported and encouraged in sharing some deeply personal shit. We Smut Slam hosts expend a lot of energy, trying to lay down this foundation, to create the comfortable feel. But we can’t create that feel in a physical space that just isn’t designed to hold it.

Smut Slam venues have to be private. In my tech rider for Smut Slam, I phrase it as “we must control access to the space,” because we are going to sell tickets to everyone going into the room. Almost always, if someone pays for a ticket, they are going to take the show more seriously; after all, they have something invested now. Also, with that single, controlled entry point, we can check everyone who goes into the space: how much have they had to drink, what’s their general attitude, how do they interact with staff/crew? Do we have to assign someone to keep an eye on the person in question over the course of the night? These are the literal security issues that having private, ticketed spaces helps address.

Controlling access to the space is as much about noise as it is about bodies. When audiences in a Smut Slam space can hear external chatter and noise and espresso machines, they understand that Smut Slam noise can travel outward too. Comedians and other professional performer types usually develop a second layer of skin over their eardrums, to help filter out that ambient noise. “Civilians,” as I call them… they don’t have those mental-auditory buffers. Most of them are sensitive, and rightly so.

And then, well, let’s go back to that ineffable quality of space. After a certain point in the proceedings, we have to shut the door on the space. No more folks; catch us the next time around. We guard the perimeter because goddammit, every Smut Slam is basically a roomful of strangers weaving a delicate web of shared vulnerability and trust. We stake out the space to make that web. We are holding some turf where the room can bloom. I don’t want just any randos stomping through that beautiful smutty garden.

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