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TODAY'S PAPER
Entertainment

Can we talk?

Someone speaks, someone listens. It's called conversation, and it's coming to a neighbourhood near you

By REBECCA CALDWELL
Monday, June 9, 2003 - Page R5

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TORONTO -- Economists, listen up: The spoken word is the latest to fall prey to supply and demand. For while talk may be cheap, Toronto's craving for conversation is ever-growing.

Speakers series, salons and even simple coffee-house klatches are booming, thanks in part to the electric jolt the funky Trampoline Hall lecture series has put into the marginalized activity.

Created 1˝ years ago by author Sheila Heti (The Middle Stories), the Trampoline Hall series transforms the back room of the Cameron House, a Queen Street West bar, one Monday a month as the smoky air rings with the voices of three guest speakers. Hosted by Misha Glouberman, a mop-topped mix of Peter Mansbridge's smarts and Conan O'Brien's wit, this is not a typical lecture -- there are no dusty chalkboards or musty classrooms. And there are no tests, but that's probably a good thing since the people speaking are in fact not supposed to be experts in what they are lecturing on. Past speakers have pulled out universal truths in every thing from the number 32 to food photography to horse racing.

In an e-mail, Heti says her initial intention with Trampoline Hall was to make Toronto the best place to be in the world. Before starting the lecture series, Heti ran semi-private salons in her apartment with her husband Carl Wilson, a Globe and Mail editor. However, it also seems that she was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the dearth of good conversation and how the potential delight of discussion had turned into a regurgitation of the opinions of pop-culture columnists and never-ending discussions about work.

"There were very few people who were talking about things they knew little about," she writes. "In fact, the only ones who were doing the talking were people who had recognizable names, and they were just talking about whatever it was they felt like talking about, while the rest of us listened, then talked about what they were talking about."

In less than a year, Trampoline Hall became a cult event for verbally inclined hipsters tired of dull Monday nights. They are routinely sold-out, often turning people away at the door after waiting in hour-long lineups. An American tour, running in tandem with Heti's U.S. launch of The Middle Stories, received a write-up in The New Yorker, and there are plans to expand south more regularly.

Heti is not surprised at the event's success.

"People are sick of clean lines and digital animation," she writes in a tone that reflects the eccentricity of Trampoline Hall's lectures. "They are tired of stickers which don't peel off and sexy people on the billboards. They do not like the coiffed hairstyles of the men and women on the TV."

Of course, it's not entirely accurate to say that Toronto was a wasteland of opportunities to glory in the sound of someone else's voice before Trampoline Hall. The Empire Club of Canada, the country's oldest speaking series, celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. But it's not the same crowd that jammed itself into the Cameron House to hear filmmaker Mary Lewis talk about The Meaning of Life that will attend the Empire Club's gala luncheon at the tony Royal York Hotel this Friday with His Royal Highness Prince Andrew as the guest of honour. If Trampoline Hall is a stag night of speakers series, the Empire Club is the wedding reception.

Perhaps inspired by Trampoline Hall's success, it seems that more informal speaking events are popping up, or at least becoming more public. Local artist Germaine Koh and music producer Phil Klygo instituted Weework, inviting musicians, artists and other performers to their home in an eclectic domestic jam session.

And believe it or not, Toronto's Arts and Letters Club, typically thought of as the same ilk as the Empire Club, has become decidedly sexy as the home of "The Art of" speakers series, when one lunch event featured five panelists talking about the steamy practice of flirtation.

The lunch series, now on hiatus until September, was started by communications specialist Anna Withrow, who had earlier run the club's Red Salon series, a monthly get-together that featured spoken word performances, musical acts, comedy and a well-stocked bar.

"People have really lost the art of conversation," Withrow says. "If you tell them they are invited over to have a kitchen-table conversation, nine out of 10 times they will not come over. They need an excuse for that conversation to happen."

But people will take any excuse, hence the success of Conversation Cafés, a folksy but surprisingly popular activity where anyone and everyone is invited to meet at local coffee shops and talk about anything and everything.

Organizer Michael Kerman, who runs communications seminars in Seattle, launched the program last September, based on the original series held in the city.

Conversation Cafés is an idea that might provoke social panic attacks in typical eye-contact-avoiding urban dwellers. Still, a review of their Web site shows that a café is scheduled for nearly every night of the week. While attendance is designed to be small (from six to a dozen people) to maintain the intimacy of a conversation, Kerman says the appetite for the cafés is steady.

"There is a hunger for conversation. People want to come to the café to express their ideas. They want something that isn't a magazine, isn't the Internet, isn't TV. Something that's live."

Trampoline Hall occurs tonight at 8 p.m. at the Cameron House. Tickets go on sale at the Cameron House at 6:30 p.m. For information, visit

http://www.trampolinehall.net/

The Empire Club Gala Luncheon occurs June 13 at noon. For information, call 416-696-8551.

For information about

Conversation Cafés, visit

http://www.conversationcafe.ca/







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