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OUTspoken! continues to shine, celebrates milestone at Sidetrack
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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OUTspoken!, the monthly LGBTQ Storytelling Night, kicks off its fifth year on Tuesday, Aug. 7, at Sidetrack—with seven people set to hit the stage for about 10 minutes each.

About 300 have told their story at OUTspoken! over the past four years at the popular event that attracts 120-plus loyal listeners every month.

"Everyone on the team is thrilled that this event has been as successful as it has been," said Sidetrack general manager Brad Balof, who admitted to Windy City Times that OUTspoken! is one of his favorite Sidetrack events.

The milestone edition of OUTspoken! features storytellers Alexia Jasmeen, Bill Demaree, Shandee Ewert, Brian Michalski, Timothy Rey, Douglas OKeeffe, and Larry Dean Harris. Kim L. Hunt and Art Johnston serve as emcees. David Fink is the artistic director, with Moth Grand Slam winner Archy Jamjun curating the event.

"For the first few months [of OUTspoken!], we rented the chairs people sit on in main bar because we weren't sure what to expect," Balof said. "Our first month, Tracy Baim was one of the speakers and I remember her enlightening story about her history with LGBTQ media/press in Chicago. The second month, Angelica Ross was one of the speakers; now, she is a featured cast member on the FX series POSE.

"OUTspoken! now has a consistently full house, many return listeners. We also work in conjunction with the Legacy Project to showcase moments and anniversaries in LGBTQ history each month."

Fink added, "It is wonderful how many distinct LGBTQ stories we have presented. Audiences are getting larger, yet the event still feels intimate. There was a buzz in the room [for the first-ever OUTspoken!] and people all knew they were experiencing the start of something special."

So what's the appeal of OUTspoken!?

Multiple reasons, Balof said. "Mostly, it is a chance to participate in a shared humanity through listening to the journeys of other people," he said. "The stories are a brief and intimate look into someone else's existence. At the end of the day, the experiences highlight the paradox that for as much as people are different from each other, in most ways, we are the same."

Fink added, "People share emotional journeys and connect as humans, even if the storytellers look different and have different proclivities from most of the audience."

One of the most popular past storytelling sessions—for Balof and others—involved longtime advocate Cleve Jones.

The audience is always very attentive, warm and welcoming," Balof said. "Many have told a story themselves, so they know that while there sometimes is nervousness, the crowd is there, on their side, supporting the strength of the speaker to tell their truth."

Sidetrack opens back bar during OUTspoken!, so bargoers can watch the stories on TV in HD.

In 2016, OUTspoken! participated in the Creating Change conference in Chicago, and that was really fulfilling, Balof said: "Participating in Filet of Solo, [which is a] storytelling festival, was a great honor. Also, working with Sarah Alexander to bring OUTspoken! to a young adult program in conjunction with Chicago Public Libraries was awesome."

Balof said Sidetrack is working to make the stories available for download in the future.

Fink said he'd like to see OUTspoken! expand beyond Sidetrack, such as, to colleges with LGBTQ clubs.

"Kim and Art are amazing hosts," Balof said. "Their shared experience and history are a joy. Their compassion for the speakers, their reverence of the importance of community created by this type of event, and their encouragement of the audience makes each month's event memorable.

"David really guides OUTspoken!. He is one of the creators, was the original curator, and now serves as the artistic director. David's knowledge of storytelling, his history with theater and performance, and his positive attitude are great. Archy is a phenomenal storyteller and his love for the craft of storytelling help make him an awesome curator."

Annually, OUTspoken! presents a night of storytelling from allies of the community—and such past storytellers have included Jennifer Ould and Laura Washington, among others.

Balof said his wish list for OUTspoken! storytellers includes Billy Porter, Alexandra Billings, Neil Patrick Harris and Rosie O'Donnell.

OUTspoken! is held the first Tuesday of every month at 7-9 p.m., with doors opening at 6 p.m. For more about Sidetrack's OUTspoken!,!-LGBTQ-Stories .

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