At a table off to the side of Sidetrack's main bar, a group of seniors are pulling out notebooks and pulling up stools. This is Radclyffe Hall, Goodman Theatre's LGBTQ senior writing group and part of the theater's GeNarrations program for older adults. On the particular day this writer saw the class, it didn't stay seated for long: Led by Chicago writer Deb Lewis, the seniors started stretching and running vocal warm-ups. ( Their favorite is "mother pheasant plucker." )
While it has its thespian elements, some participants were surprised to find that the class is more writing than acting. But the theatrical basis returns as the class discusses Goodman's current production, Gloria. Most of them have seen the show as part of the workshop, and it inspired this edition's theme, "aftermath."
"Usually people think of disaster," said Lewis about the "aftermath" theme, "but it can also be the aftermath of something wonderful." Theme, however, isn't everything: Lewis realizes inspiration is fickle. "Maybe there's a story right now that it just wants to come, and theme be damned, we'll make up a story about how it fits the theme," she explained.
After a spirited discussion about how much blood they could see from their theater seats, the writers turned to their notebooks. As they read aloud from their works-in-progress, Lewis encouraged her students to get their voices up, to exaggerate, to read dreamy slow or in a monotone to see what works for their words.
There are tales of finding one's way to college through obscure Catholic theology, of drunken car accidents, of burning out as an actor. Dion Walton, a drag queen gone butch, wrote about throwing thousands of dollars worth of gowns into a dumpster and ripping the sleeves off a denim jacket before he heads into Touche for his first go-around as a leather daddy. Eva Sky had the start of a story about being the subject of a documentary. Natalie Kevin read an evocative piece about a visit from her Republican sister, a woman who's going deaf and who ends up punching Kevin in the middle of the Walnut Room. They visited Christkindlmarket, which Kevin described as having "clumsy exhilaration" and "hot cocoa with the taste of hot dog water."
"I view them as fellow writers," said Lewis of her students. " And I've got a little more experience in some cases. Not every caseNatalie is a poet, award-winning. I am not the only brain in the room, and I like to draw upon different people's strengths. I've got what I'm reacting to in a story, but other people will pick up on something completely different."
This is obvious in the feedback, where students were gracious but fair and genuinely curious about the details of each other's narratives. They encouraged Sky, who apparently is often reluctant to share her work, to keep going with her current story.
"I got nudged into doing this, and I found, with the support and confidence [my classmates] had in me, that I kind of liked it," said Sky, who's told stories with Chicago Voices at the Lyric Opera, about the workshop.
Walton has performed around the city in his new life as a storyteller and is currently writing his autobiography. "She's helped me really pull out my creativeness in writing," he said of Lewis, who he calls "inspirational."
Carol Hedin has, along with Walton, been part of Radclyffe Hall for seven years. "I used to write before I was married," she said. "I discovered I could write again."
"In our generation, people were silenced between all the craziness and prejudice," said Kevin. She likes connecting with people like Hedin, who as a young woman shared Kevin's interest in activism, and thinks relationships in a group of people of similar ages and life experiences help support the community as a whole.
Lewis agreed. "I feel like, especially now, seniors who've been through the mill of being gay in a hostile society have a lot of wisdom to impart to a generation that has seen Will and Grace on television, and may not have an idea of this is how bad things can get," she said. She brags that of the five GeNarrations groups, Radclyffe Hall has the reputation for "spicy stories."
"Each new generation thinks they invented sex, drugs, rock n' roll, getting drunk, dancing, wild parties, and it's like, 'no, no, we have folks around here that can teach you how to do it right,'" Lewis laughed.
A seasoned teacher who's been with Radclyffe Hall nearly from the beginning, Lewis confides that this gig is her favorite. "I've come to have a real affection for each person in the group for different reasons," she said. "I love it."
What does she think makes an ideal Radclyffe Hall participant? "Willingness to write, willingness to rewrite, willingness to play around and be silly once in a while," Lewis said. "Willingness to perform, even if they've got nerves. To be open to hearing other people's stories. Somebody who's experienced is welcome: someone who's never done anything like this is welcome. The more diverse the group, the better it is, the stronger it comes out."
And performance is the goal. GeNarrations concludes in a citywide storytelling showcase, and Radclyffe Hall has its own show at Sidetrack coming up. But first? Walton's performing after class this evening at Outspoken, one room over at Sidetrack. It's a story his classmates have heard before, that he's worked on in classes like these, and they can't wait to hear it again.
Information about GeNarrations can be found at www.goodmantheatre.org/Engage-Learn/education-programs/GeNarrations/ or by calling 312-443-5581.
Radclyffe Hall's next workshop cycle starts the week of April 24. For more information, email Deb Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org . The class showcase will be Wed., Feb. 22, 5:30-7 p.m. at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St.; it is free and open to the public.