Spoken Word Takes a Turn for the Outrageous
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Spoken Word Takes a Turn for the Outrageous

How a new spoken word series is turning heads and making friends by breaking all the rules.

Alex Hood bass and Callum MacKenzie sax by Maite Jacobson

From Outrageous VIII: Alex Hood on bass and Callum MacKenzie on sax as the Rainbow Jackson Free Jazz Experience. Photo by Maite Jacobson.

Inaugurated last November at The Central, Outrageous has become Toronto’s outlaw spoken word series. The monthly sampling of poetry and song—open to anyone who’s wrestled with language for their art—features artists who don’t care for tradition or political correctness. It’s a mishmash of cultures, media, and styles, in which slam poets follow sound poets, free-jazz improv duos follow singer-songwriters, and the occasional ventriloquist or Slavoj Žižek impressionist makes an appearance. Together the artists form a community modelled after an aboriginal concept known as “the circle”—everyone who attends an event and steps into the Outrageous circle is expected to get along irrespective of conflicting artistic or moral stances.

Host and series creator Elizabeth Burns conceived of Outrageous as a space in which art could be anything anybody wanted it to be. She had become disillusioned by arbitrary standards of good and bad art, and with the notion that art history is strictly progressional—a straight line headed toward perfection. She wanted to strip these away so that everybody could be more comfortable: the performers could say exactly what they want, drawing from any artist they want, and the audience wouldn’t judge them for it. Burns and her team—co-host James Ryan Gobuty, photographer Glenn Pritchard, and marketer Theresa Burns—achieve this in two ways. One, they keep Outrageous a free show so that its value as an experience isn’t predetermined by whatever it means to give people their money’s worth. Two, they keep the show playful, making fun of themselves, the audience, and the upward mobility spoken word series are expected to foster. In so doing, they distance Outrageous from narrow definitions of what art should be.

Outrageous’s lawlessness is most evident in Burns’s brash stage presence and feigned indifference as host—you may find yourself simultaneously insulted and delighted. She’ll thank the audience for coming and say how sick she is of hosting in the same breath. If the audience won’t quiet down, she’ll silence them with dick jokes and expletives. She is a constant thorn in her performers’ pride: in the middle of jazz duo Lottery Tickets’ set at Outrageous VII she asked if they could play some music. Before conceptual artist Miles Forrester read at Outrageous VIII, she noticed he was wearing cut-off jean shorts and asked the audience to stare at his legs as he walked on stage. “As much as the show has made an overwhelming amount of strangers feel comfortable,” Burns says of her crass hosting style, “it has been successful because it has made people uncomfortable. I want to know that you’re actively using your mind here—that you are feeling something. And maybe if it sucks you’ll be inspired enough to find a better experience elsewhere, or to make your own.”

Elizabeth Burns and James Ryan Gobuty

From Outrageous V: Elizabeth Burns and James Ryan Gobuty. Photo by Glenn Pritchard.

By the end of Outrageous VII, the only instalment held at Habits Gastropub, the manager banned Burns and her comrades because diners were put off by the vulgarity onstage. Highlights included guitarist Yoav Gurevich simulating orgasm by guitar solo, and Lottery Tickets vocalist Alex Hood ripping his shirt off with Gobuty’s help and threatening to kill Burns for her heckling (about two-thirds of the way through the video below—unsurprisingly, heckling is something of an Outrageous staple). At Outrageous VIII, Burns, who frequently asks male performers why they haven’t taken their shirts off, led by example and removed her own. The night also saw Burns introduce poet J.C. Bouchard with a moving story about how the two of them, along with Bouchard’s young daughters, spent a relaxing afternoon at the park (Bouchard later revealed that he doesn’t have children). At Outrageous IX, when Bouchard returned to the stage for the open mic portion of the show, Burns and Gobuty tried to undress him while he read. His struggle to keep his rhythm (and a straight face) as Burns’s disembodied hand went for the next button on his shirt contributed to the show’s typically irreverent tone.

Outrageous employs an atypical curatorial process for choosing artists. “When selecting features, I don’t ask for examples of work,” Burns says, “and I really don’t want to hear a long list of poetic achievements. I just want to know you’re interested and that you promise me at least one piece you feel you couldn’t perform anywhere else. I can confidently say it’s worked out far beyond well. The idea is to do, say, think, and feel things that aren’t outright accepted at other places. [Outrageous] is the show for everyone, regardless of their tastes.”

At Outrageous the performance environment isn’t competitive. Those who abide by the constraints of form and subject matter that come with trying to crack the CanLit canon are welcome because their work is antithetical to the uncensored, unapologetic fare Outrageous offers. Oneupmanship is pointless when there’s no hierarchy to ascend and the goal of the show—to bring together disparate forms of creative expression—has already been achieved. The only measure of a work’s success is how well it’s received by a crowd as diverse as the city itself.

“If there wasn’t an authority on ‘good art,'” Burns says, “there would be no Outrageous.”

Outrageous X is happening at The Central on September 29 at 8 p.m.