Ryan Brankin calls himself a "lonely loner." But on Saturday nights, surrounded by people in an old church basement, he feels completely comfortable--even though he's about to get onstage and perform a five-minute song he's just written for the piano.
Every weekend, Brankin drives to the Wicker Park Art Center, 2215 W. North Avenue, from his home in Desplaines to perform in No Shame Theatre, a performance series hosted by Chicago's Agency Theater Collective. It's essentially an open mic with just a few rules: the work must be original and no longer than five minutes in length. Also, performers can't break anything "not yourself, not the audience and no laws," said Molly O'Grady, public relations and marketing director for the Agency.
No Shame "began at the University of Iowa in 1986 as a way to give students a voice, to challenge authority and theatrical tradition," O'Grady explained. "What developed was a student-run theatrical revolution that went on to attract a significant cult following. The movement has since been carried out to several different cities, including Austin, Nashville and Las Vegas."
The open mic had a home in Chicago for three years in the mid-1990s, but the Agency's artistic directors, Sommer Austin (a University of Iowa alumna) and her husband, Andrew Gallant, brought No Shame back to the city in early November. It now runs at 10:30 p.m. Saturdays.
Since it's return, the show has featured a range of performers sign up to show their skills: comedians, musicians, filmmakers--there's even a regular dog-trick act.
One regular performer, Huck Poe, "likes to do some unusual pieces on stage," O'Grady said. "Our favorite so far is when he took all the cream from an entire pack of Oreos and put it on top of one giant Oreo creation, and then ate it. This was all done to the "William Tell Overture.'"
Poe performed a sketch he called "Didg it!" in which he mimicked the sound of a didgeridoo while cheesy, prerecorded keyboard music played in the background. His was one of 18 performances that night--three more than the usual 15--and the crowd of about 50 in the basement loved it.
Brankin performed twice that night. Even though he's been playing the piano since age 10, Brankin doesn't take himself too seriously as a musician. "The out of tune piano" in the Wicker Park Art Center "goes along with my out of tune voice," he joked. "It's perfect."
Brankin's songs always have a bit of dark humor in them. His first song that night, called "Grandma," was "about how the medical industry sort of gets rid of the old people right away, especially in the poor neighborhoods. But I made it into a funny song," he said.
"Humor is probably the only way to communicate. If you come off as being serious, people won't take you serious. I think it's better to hide it behind something else."
Brankin perfectly fits the profile of the kinds of performers No Shame looks for, said O'Grady of the Agency Theater Collective. "Ryan's work defies easy categorization. He's emotional, playful, dark and mischievous. He embodies something that we really value with No Shame, which is using the event to push your own limits as an artist."
Doors open at 10 p.m. Saturdays, and audience members can sign u up starting when the doors open at 10 p.m., and signing up. Tickets are $7 ($6 if you post No Shame in your Facebook or Twitter status). Beer and wine are available for $3. For more information, go to wearetheagency.org.