Saturday, July 3, 2010

Trampoline Hall (The Phoenix, University of Chicago, 2002) by Andy Rathburn

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Public speaking is generally regarded as a painful thing, something best avoided, akin to sewage and "Family Ties" reruns. So it's no small feat that Sheila Heti would be able to give birth to a speaking forum that is not only open to but completely reliant on volunteers. However, with her public participatory lecture series Trampoline Hall, the tiny Canadian has done just that. 

First and foremost, Heti is an author. It took some time to publish her debut collection, The Middle Stories, but after being released to critical accolades in Canada, it will receive its American release through independent publisher McSweeney's this month. When asked if it was tough in the lean days, Heti brushed aside any difficulties.

"It wasn't so hard because I always had readers," she explained via email. "I would give stories to people I knew or send them out randomly in the mail or leave them on the subway. Of course, not getting published in Canada made me angry, but that doesn't mean it was hard. It's good to be angry about some things. Now that [the stories] are getting attention, it speeds up my life in some ways but not in other ways. I am surprised at the ways it is speeding it up and surprised at the ways it's not speeding it up. For instance, I don't have a desire to publish something again any time soon. I would like to wait a long time, I think."

While she was evasive about any specific message Trampoline Hall hopes to convey, one can't help but think it has a lot to do with giving others a forum to share their stories. The series has become a staple in Toronto, with shows selling out on a regular basis. And while the speakers may vary with every date, Heti does have some constants to help her with the productions. Her troupe, a tiny consortium of friends, got its start when Misha Glouberman, who now emcees the show, overheard Heti's idea at a party. According to Heti, Glouberman thought the idea was "terrible," but he wanted to host the shows regardless. She enlisted the help of tow other chums: Leah Walter, Heti's oldest friend and set designer for the series, and Carl Wilson, Heti's recent fiancee and Trampoline Hall doorman.

Past Trampoline Hall presentations have run the gamut from an in-depth discussion of the number 32 (the speaker realized it was about order, citing, among other facts, that 32 is the number of chess pieces used in the game, the number of sonatas Beethoven wrote, the amount of classes of crystal, and, of course, an important marker on the Farehnheit scale), while other speakers have talked about more personal subjects, like hating God or having a liver transplant. Basically, all is fair game. And what's more, Heti is taking it to the road.

Curious? You should be. Chicago's date alone will feature Heti reading from The Middle Stories, as well as three brave Chicagoans (Brian Bieber, Elizabeth Lindau and Starlee Kine) set to speak on whistling, birth control in Romania and a talk simply titled "The Run-down."

One might assume that at times a prima donna would try to grab the mic, getting more than her deserved 15 minute of fame out of the program. Heti, however, tries to steer clear of these types.

"I have met such people, but those I like to have speak are the ones who beg me not to make them speak," Heti explained. "I like pulling people into it. Those who are reluctant about the whole thing make the best lecturers."

That may give one pause. After all, Heti has not had the time to talk with the presenters for each tour date; they were selected after encouraged interested folks to email proposals Heti's way. It would seem there is room for disaster. But Heti washes away any worries with a general description of Trampline Hall's events, and said the presentations are "all disasters."

Of course, the whole enterprise calls to mind a mass of questions. For instance, why call on the general public?

"Who else would we call on?" Heti answered.

What is the message?

"There is no message. Or perhaps: There are some things a gal must do to make a city livable," she explained.

Do people ever just bail? Get stage fright and simply not show?

"No. People come close, but it has never actually happened.

And has Heti herself given a lecture?

"I have never spoken."

Why not?

"Because I prefer to skulk around and worry."

Fair enough.

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