wide open stage
Wide Open Floor’s niche is tough to peg. What would you call a show that presents a troupe of zombies —in full undead makeup and raggedy regalia, shambling slowly closer to the improvisational house band and occasionally lapsing into modern dance—on the same bill as a steel pan player, a couple of poets and an excerpt of a one-man play on Aldo Leopold?
Emcee Marcus Ellsworth gives eight minutes to anyone who asks, but insists “It’s not just an open mic; it’s a chance to be open, to know you have audience that’s receptive and supportive,” he said. “Anything can happen.”
Wide Open Floor was originally created by dancer and Niedlov’s Breadworks co-owner Angela Sweet. More than anything, it answered a need for artists to have a venue to present their work to the most exacting but supportive audience possible: other artists. Based on a similar performance series she participated in college, these public artist-to-artist exchanges began in Chattanooga at the 2010 edition of MainX24 and soon became a monthly series at Barking Legs Theater.
About a year ago, Sweet passed the baton to Ellsworth. As a veteran of slam poetry competitions, he draws a sharp distinction between that competitive world and Wide Open Floor. All comers are welcome to perform, but when artists approach him he suggests that they come see a show before signing up, because the mentality is so different from most performance art.
Normally, he says, “You come to show your work and it’s about you. When you’re done, you don’t care about anybody else who’s up there.” At Wide Open Floor, on the other hand, “When a person is on stage it’s their room for the duration of their eight-minute set. But the reality is that it’s about you sharing your work and then watching other people share their work, and then hopefully connecting, engaging in discussion, maybe learning from one another.”
Shows are an eclectic mix of storytellers, musicians, poets, comedians and actors, and Ellsworth relishes seeing these circles expand and overlap. For example, after watching each other perform several times at Wide Open Floor, poet Laurie Perry Vaughen and dancer Elizabeth Longphree collaborated on a piece about Vaughen’s grandmother. Another poet, Janelle Jackson, went from an eight-minute slot at Wide Open Floor to being a headliner at Manifest, a spoken-word series. Michael Gray, organizer of the River City Sessions music and storytelling series, has tested some of the stories he tells there at Wide Open Floor.
After its first year, Wide Open Floor had cultivated a circle of repeat performers that was something more than a community of friends and less than an ensemble. Although it was not an exclusive group, Ellsworth wanted to be sure no one felt excluded.
As a gay, black male, he says he encounters many people who feel excluded from some arts venues in the city, but “I don’t believe in that. In my experience, actually Chattanooga—especially the Chattanooga arts community—is very accepting, open-minded and diverse.”
Last October, he wanted to show how serious he was about diversity in Wide Open Floor. Supporting the Tennessee Valley Pride event, he recruited gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender performers to Wide Open Floor and encouraged all performers to work with the theme of pride ... of any kind.
“The turnout was incredible,” says Ellsworth. “It was the first time we nearly packed out the theater,” which had been running about half full at best.
Wide Open Floor’s wide-open community continues to grow, along with its popularity. In March, Wide Open Floor presented “Act Two,” a spinoff that gave four regulars a longer time slot: Christian Collier doing spoken word performance, Robin Burke playing steel pans, Eliza Luminara doing tribal fusion belly dance and Andy Pyburn, whose “absurdist erotica” has been a consistent crowd pleaser at Wide Open Floor.
Ellsworth plans to poll the audience at the next Wide Open Floor on Friday on who they’d like to see given a bigger showcase if “Act Two” continues. That show will also be an experiment in itself, as he challenges performers to go back to basics.
“The show’s become a little tech heavy, relying on AV and pre-recorded music,” he says. “We think it’s taking away from the potential for interaction. Why not work with the visual artists in the room? If you need music, we have a full improv jazz band, the Undoctored Originals.”
Another expansion is a sort of a pre-show at Graffiti Gallery in North Chattanooga, which has an exhibit opening every first Friday—the same day as Wide Open Floor, but at 5 p.m. For the last few months, Ellsworth has brought performers to the gallery, which has loaned a few pieces of art for the 8 p.m. Wide Open Floor performance.
“Some people have thought we’re an ensemble, but we’re really random performers coming together from everywhere,” says Ellsworth. “It’s unique. It’s comfortable. It’s like hanging out with a bunch of old friends after a while.”
Wide Open Floor
$5 • 8 p.m. • Friday, April 5 • Barking Legs Theater • 1307 Dodds Ave. • (423) 624-5347 • barkinglegs.org