Eye - October 24, 2002
The space between a party and a show
Offbeat salon packs them in
During last month's standing-room-only Trampoline Hall event in the smoky backroom of the Cameron House, Toronto author John Stiles delivered a lecture on the subject of apple-picking in the Annapolis Valley, a Royal Bank employee named Ruby King gave a talk about life as a temp, and Steve Kado used a slide show to try to explain how the rediscovery of the coelacanth (a dino-fish once thought extinct) should incite people to "hit a pig [that is, a police officer] over the head with a beer bottle filled with cement" in the name of striking down liberal democracy.
During breaks, Trampoline Hall creator Sheila Heti and host Misha Glouberman served boiled chicken and broth out of a pot at the back of the stage. And at one point during the night, a woman from the audience displayed photographs she took of a boxing-nun puppet (which she borrowed from an audience member at a previous Trampoline Hall) punching the Parthenon.
The bill of events is obviously eccentric, but there's a successful formula behind Trampoline Hall's madness. The monthly lecture series has become the place to be for a certain subset of Toronto's youngish literary crowd since it was first held last December. The boozy events, which Glouberman describes as "playing in the spaces between a party and a show," have attracted standing-room audiences every month, often with people lining up outside the door.
Typically, three performers lecture on topics of personal rather than professional interest, then take questions from the audience. Most of the speakers are not polished performers, which suits Heti just fine. "Trampoline Hall has a neat messiness, a muddiness. There are accidents," she says. "Misha and I say that, in a way, every night is a failure."
Heti is the 25-year-old author of The Middle Stories, a book of fairy tale-like stories published to near-uniformly ecstatic reviews last year. In person, Heti looks much like her prose reads: she's small in a way that seems more precise than delicate. Her bangs are cut blunt across her forehead, her eyes wide, her skin pale. Within moments of meeting you, she will almost certainly ask to bum a cigarette.
Heti founded Trampoline Hall after attending a lecture and slide show by New York comicip artist Ben Katchor a year ago at the University of Calgary. The student audience at Katchor's lecture was, she says, "not engaged, they were talking or passing notes," but Heti was inspired by the unconscious theatricality of the lecture. "I wanted to bring that back to Toronto. To do something that would involve people without being collaborative," she says. Collaborations, she says, have a tendency to mediocrity. "You wind up with half an idea."
Lectures in the series have ranged from what many found a surprisingly insightful discussion of the number 32 by actor/writer/director Matthew MacFadzean, to the absurd, as when journalist Chris Turner's factual account of India and his travels in it progressed into an outright lie, alleging that pens are the objects of cult worship there. Another night was devoted exclusively to a discussion of Patrick Roscoe -- not the author but a computer-programmer friend of Heti's.
Glouberman says the eclectic nature of the events is a reflection of Heti. "Sheila has such a powerful aesthetic and sensibility, and that sensibility is there in every aspect of the show." It certainly informed the What Is Beauty pageant held in May, when seven female and four male contestants ("each more beautiful than the next," Glouberman announced) vied for an oversized cheque for $200 and the title of Miss Trampoline Hall.
The next lecture (Oct. 28) will be your last chance to catch Trampoline Hall in Toronto for a while. They're taking the show on the road for much of November, getting back into town in time for the regularly scheduled December edition. The Middle Stories is being released in the U.S. next month by McSweeney's, the burgeoning publishing empire built by po-mo superstar Dave Eggers. (The Anansi paperback edition was released in Canada Oct. 1.) Heti and Glouberman are working with McSweeney's to stage Trampoline Hall events in 10 American cities.
Glouberman says he isn't sure how well Trampoline Hall will travel. "I often say the series is the sum of its mistakes," he says. "Everything we've done has been based on terrible ideas. First Sheila comes and says she wants to start a lecture series, which is a terrible idea. Then she wants to hold a beauty pageant, which is an even more terrible idea. Now the tour with McSweeney's might be the most terrible idea so far."
Heti spent the past several months working with the McSweeney's crew to line up lecturers and venues (she typed "interesting people" and "Louisville" into a search engine to find one speaker), and McSweeney's has flexed its muscle within the geek-lit crowd to promote the tour.
McSweeney's and Trampoline Hall seem to share a penchant for successful chaos. Heti's book, for example, was printed in Iceland and missed the boat to Boston, so its release date had to be postponed. "With big organizations ... you don't miss the boat with your book. This is more lifelike. It's truer," she says, comparing their casusal subversiveness to the polished, plastic artifice of mainstream entertainment. "It's not like we're a reaction to the artifice, it's that the artifice is a reaction to the other. The messiness is not going to go away."