Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Memories of Charlottesville No Shame and The People Behind It

I was taking a poetry class at Live Arts in the winter of 2001 when I was first introduced to No Shame Theater. At the time I was writing at a feverish pace. Between my mom's boyfriend passing away from a heart attack and the September 11 attacks, I had become pretty internal. I was running on full throttle escapism mode, and my drug of choice was songwriting. I had been writing since late 1997, but after those two events completely changed everything personally and nationally, the rate of production became frightening. I was writing so many songs (often four or five at the same time) that I actually don't remember some of them now. Every once in a while I'll go back into my old hard drive to dig up something and still find another song I don't remember writing. For a while, it became my life.

For the final project of the poetry class, we were all assigned to give a reading at No Shame Theater, an open mic variety show every Friday night at 11:00 in the old LAB space. So I decided that since my poetry was all really just a front for the fact that I couldn't play an instrument, I decided to sing a song instead. I'm not sure if I had heard Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" yet, but I sang it stomp blues a cappella on account of the fact that I couldn't play and didn't have a band at that point. I was so nervous that I think people were probably more impressed by the physical performance of fighting stage fright than the song. Still, I got good feedback from everyone. It was the kind of environment that made you not run off the stage even if your body wanted to. When they said, "dare to fail" they meant it. This was a space for people to hone their craft. To fall down and get back up, to take risks and learn from them. I was hooked, but sadly misinformed.

I was under the impression that No Shame was a seasonal thing that had come to an end. Little did I know it actually was one of the most consistent happenings on a Friday night in all of Charlottesville. No Shame Theater didn't stop for nothing, not even Christmas. It was blind luck that Lee Moyer recognized me in an audience at a play a couple months later. I was so in my own world at the time I probably would have never found out that it was still happening. Sadly I had been nominated for BONS (Best of No Shame, a quarterly round up of the best performances for a grander early evening show) but no one knew how to contact me and I missed it.

It wasn't too long after bumping into Lee before I returned. From late March of 2002 to December 19, 2003 I performed about forty times. I loved the space and the people. We were particularly lucky because our branch of No Shame was founded by the Co-founder of the original No Shame from back in 1986, Todd Ristau.

Todd brought that history and vision with him that made us a real art scene. He had a kind of punk mentality when it came to one scene plays and monologs. One of the few rules for performing was that pieces had to be under five minutes, and that was usually more than Todd needed to unnerve the living shit out of you. He had been doing this for years, setting them up around the country like fight clubs, and in Tyler Durden we trusted. The power pair of him and his super charming wife Joan "The Librarian" were a delight. Especially when he'd do an Archie Levine piece and she looked on nervously from the audience or concession stand as his face turned all sorts of scary shades of red from his performance as the pissed off commentator that makes Frank Black seem... sheepish. Another thing perhaps worth mentioning is that he got me into The Cramps, which, for those who know me very well, explains a lot in some reguards.

Then there was Clinton Johnson. He was the ringmaster that riled us up at the beginning of each show. It was kind of like the opening to Tom Wait's Black Rider album; Clinton introduced the circus of freaks, and, in the best sense of the word, freaks we were. The interpretive dancers, the poets, the short plays, virtually anything within state law could happen and often did. You wanted to throw yourself against the stage like Iggy Pop after Clinton was done with you (although another of the few rules was that you were not allowed to hurt anyone including yourself). No one could deliver the trademark reminder that closed every show, "Just think of what you got when you've got no shame!" like he could. Often ending at 12:00 to 12:30, he left you game for another hour of antics. Clinton is simply Clinton. If you know him or have known him... then... well... you know! How many people are willing to pick up their guitar (that are not "professional" musicians) and try and learn a song minutes before you go on stage because it looks like that rather necessary part of your band's trio isn't going to make it? On one scary night, he was. My favorite performance was his blues song, "Going To Have To Take You For a Ride." But anytime Clinton was on the stage it was a treat.

From as far back as I know, if not day one, to the very end Ursula Hull was the backbone of Charlottesville No Shame. When Todd moved to Roanoke, Ursula took over the show and kept it together to the bitter end. Somewhat quiet but outgoing, to the best of my knowledge she seldom performed and if so it was by request of a writer in need of actors. She wasn't really there for her own benefit per se, it was because she believed in No Shame and wanted to support what it was doing. Ursula ruled!

There are so many other great people who were a part of No Shame. Trent Westbrook often ran lights. I always got the impression that where he really belonged was in Warhol's Factory in the Velvet Underground days but time and space just weren't on his side. Fire breather Jane Jones worked the door and concessions - a girl who didn't just talk about running away and joining the circus... she actually did it! Both great performers. To this day I still feel sorry for inflicting my little performance experiment, "Another Zit," upon Trent to read. Still he was real nice about it. Few people weren't nice other than rare drifters who usually never came back.

There are so many other frequent performers I'd love to write pages and pages about. I'm afraid I'm going to leave someone out, but I'll give it a go.

Sherwood Ross was a hell of a great play write and singer songwriter of goofy protest songs. He looked like he was Terence Stamp's much more cheery older brother.

Sean Nitchmann, forever the kid in the Godzilla suit stomping Barbie dolls in an adults body, made Tenacious D harder to like than they already were by having a similar sense of over the top humor but doing it so much better. I'll forever be in Sean's dept for discovering the ultimate cure for earworms.

Sean's son, Justin Wolf, is one of the great young songwriters of Charlottesville. Justin also holds the claim to fame of being the first C-ville No Shamer to receive a standing ovation.

Tucker Duncan was our hip-hop spawn of Beck channeling Miguel PiƱero golden poet. Nuff said.

Before Richelle Claiborne was the queen of Charlottesville, she was rocking her great poetry at No Shame. Still have her first two books on my shelf.

K.T. was everyone's favorite self-proclaimed stalker. No Shame was her journal, her scrapbook to collage, and we loved being her pages.

Phaedron came into the scene a little later than I did, but totally go what No Shame was and once the scene had died he was one of the very few people who stuck it out till bottom of the well was cracked mud dry. Always admired him for that. He was one of those coattails of the beatnik generation types and seemed be involved in similar Hermetic spiritual studies as Leonard Cohen had been in throughout his earlier years which gave him a similar air. I liked being in a space where someone was bringing that kind of energy, I just wish there was some way footnotes could be provided at poetry readings!

Greg Hays was one of my favorite performers. He had a dry humor that wasn't deadpan, but implosive, like a deadpan cracking at the seams. He often played the irritated slightly geeky stiff, and played it well. It was always interesting when he didn't play it though. He has a good character or approach to characters that he'd developed, but when he showed he was capable of more, it would catch you off guard in the best way an actor can. Good writer too!

Brandon Allison, Tim Trotter, Seth Silverman, Sal Milione, Lee Moyer, Leeyanne Moore, and so many, many others! They were all wonderful people and talented artists. Who needed Saturday Night Live? We had Friday nights at No Shame!

I owe a lot to No Shame. It helped me beat stage fright, gave me a venue to be constructive in during a rather dark period of my personal life, and encouraged me to pursue songwriting as more than a phase. It also did wonders over all for my attitude. It made me more out going and less concerned with making a fool of myself. It also got me back in touch with the local folk scene and its next generation. Danny Schmidt performed "Cleopatra" one night and from there I got back into listening to the King of My Living Room gang, which have influenced me to no end. It was a venue for my second band Side Effects, and also gave me the chance to perform on a stage with one of my favorite guitarists from my generation, Liam Gilchrist.

I feel sorry that it is gone, but I'm glad we had it when we did. I only wish more people could have experienced it. Sure, some nights were a little lousy. That's what happens when you take the kinds of chances we were taking, but when it was good it was great. With the spirit everyone brought to it, there was never a bad night. If something went wrong, we had a laugh and tried to do better next time.

So happy 20th anniversary No Shame! From your beginnings in the back of Todd's pickup truck you've spread across the nation and moved countless people with laughter, shock, and tears sometimes in the same five minutes! It was one of the best things to happen to Charlottesville after Tracks closed down, and few people even knew it. The devoted were a family of artists, and though I was at most a cousin that visited periodically, I'm very proud to have been a part of that group and a part of this national underground movement. I hope everyone is having a blast at the weeklong celebration in Iowa City. I wish I could be there.


Blogger Cory Capron said...

Forgot to work in a link to the script library.

Check 'em out. Some great shot plays and stuff from the gang.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Tim McCormack said...

Yeah, No Shame was the first place I ever performed something. (The only place, come to think of it -- I've only ever written one thing I felt like performing.)

No Shame was good stuff.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Sean Tubbs said...

Why did No Shame stop?

7:35 AM  
Blogger Cory Capron said...

Why it stopped.

1. The core group was breaking down. People were going off to college, moving away. Not having Todd meant not having his new students to garantee filled seats.

2. Live Arts moved and though that dosn't seem like a biggie it wasn't as easy to pull people off the street (something No Shame was known for) when we were on the third (forth?) story. Plus being in an apartment building meant we had people who could just get out of bed

more later

8:57 AM  
Blogger Cory Capron said...

Basically not enough people were coming to justify keeping it up. By the end, the group was down to about five dedicated people and on some nights there were less than that actually there.

I always was under the impression that after live arts moved they were not really interested in keeping it alive and giving it the attention it needed to revive itself. Ursula and Co. gave it their all, but the scene had changed and there wasn't anyone (at least that were aware) to form the next gen.

I was caught up with my senior year and wasn't aware that No Shame was really in trouble until someone told me a two weeks after it closed for good. That's basically what happened for a lot of us. We assumed it would just always be there.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lovely epitaph. I came across it by chance today and it made me love those bad days all over again.

I wish I had a reason for writing that sort of thing again. My LJ is:

And I'm writing a novel. But No Shame was special.

Thanks again,

9:03 PM  

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