Grab a bunch of poets, actors, dancers, musicians, professors and comedians. Assign them a topic. Set them loose on a single stage. Those are the basics of Albuquerque's Encyclopedia Show, one in a network of affiliated variety acts around the world. Add that it only happens once every two months and costs a measly $5, and you’ve got your plans for Friday, Oct. 7.
The original Encyclopedia Show has been running for four successful seasons in Chicago. The idea behind the production is to get a diverse collection of performers on stage, who use their talents to discuss—or in some way represent—the night’s theme, which is nabbed from that titular compendium of knowledge. The Albuquerque show has been running since December 2010. Eric Bodwell, one of the producers for the hometown version, says the idea has also manifested in cities across North America, and as far away as Germany and Korea. Since the Chicago version is the original, it selects the encyclopedic entry for each iteration, and other cities are asked to chronologically follow the blueprint Chicago has put forth. In the past it’s been things like bears, the future and explosions. This month Albuquerque is doing vice presidents.
In addition to the franchise show’s assigned subject, the local ensemble gets to choose an offshoot topic for each performer, who has five to seven minutes on stage. Along with Bodwell, Don McIver helps run the Burque version, which he says he and the other producers have evolved to become looser over time—now each performer is given a selection of topics, providing for more creative leeway. For “explosions,” they asked a physics tutor to come in and talk about explosives; he gave a mini presentation with props on TNT, dynamite and nitroglycerin, taking questions from the audience.
McIver says he’s surprised every time. “I don’t know what to expect,” he says, adding that he also likes “getting different art communities to be aware of each other.” Both McIver and Bodwell come from slam poetry. Because that community has so many of its own happenings, McIver says that he and other wordsmiths don’t often get out to see theater or other forms of live performance. With the variety show, he’s had to look outside the poetry circle to find different types of contributors. (The Encyclopedia Show is looking for more dancers in particular, he says.)
One of the things Bodwell enjoys most is watching participants go outside of their comfort zones—especially slam poets. “I love that performers I have known or just met pick up the topic and take ownership of their performance, regardless of their discipline,” he says. “I love seeing that, when someone breaks through their barrier.”