One of the best things about Pittsburgh is how many long-running literary series the city supports. One of the favorites of the After Happy Hour editors is the PAGE series, hosted at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville.
PAGE is a reading series with a simple yet effective premise: every reader gets one page—time-wise, roughly 3-5 minutes. It makes for very entertaining readings with a lot of variety. Their next reading kicks off the new year on January 8 at 7pm (you can e-mail them at PageReadingSeries@gmail.com for more info).
The AHH crew is always looking for ways to improve our own readings and events. I reached out to the PAGE series organizers—Joann Kielar, Gillian Learner, and Heather Aronson—for some insight on their approach to running a successful reading series. You can read their answers below!
What inspired you to start the Page reading series?
Joann: Jill and I were talking about starting a series, inspired by a local short-reading series we attended.
Jill: I had been in Pittsburgh for a year or so, and met Joann who lived next door. I knew she was a writer but she didn’t share her work; I was curious. A man I knew slightly invited me to an event in his house called “Very Short Shorts”. People read short pieces they wrote. I was severely frightened at speaking in front of people—I made myself read a piece. I shook and quavered but I did it. I invited Joann to one, and she liked it also. That series was short lived, but Joann and I talked about starting our own event. I wanted to continue conquering my stage fright, and I wanted to write. She brought in Heather and things just started happening.
Joann: I mentioned it to Joy [Borelli] once, when visiting her gallery. She must have seen it as a good idea. She jumped right in, offered to be our venue. That was about 5 years ago. It’s been a great partnership ever since.
Heather: My involvement in the series has evolved over time. I was approached by Joann early in the process because we knew each other socially, and we had encountered each other at a reading program that inspired the current iteration of PAGE. A friend, Chris Rauhoff, had hosted a couple of evenings of public readings at his home in Lawrenceville, during which people were invited to read a page of their work, or a page of the work of writers they admired. Those readings were very informal, with authors/readers often getting up more than once to read another page or two. But Joann and Gillian came up with the series’ organizing principles, found ways to reach out to local writers and resources, and schlepped snacks, drinks, and a million chairs back and forth from the gallery, with Joann serving as the series’ gentle and thoughtful MC. I am a proud snack/wine/chair-schlepper myself these days, as well as the series’ Facebook liaison and unofficial “bad cop,” making it my personal mission to try to get readers to stick to the one-page, 600-word mandate. It’s usually a futile mission, but a scold’s gonna scold. I’m a scold.
Are you all writers yourselves?
Joann: My education is in the visual arts, but I love words. I have worked as a puppeteer/storyteller, Early Childhood arts educator, and adjunct professor in Humanities. Whenever possible I write and I love doing it.
Heather: Yes, I am a writer. I earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Arizona a hundred years ago and was among the first few Fiction Fellows chosen by the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing (back when they funded only one fellow in Fiction and one in Poetry). I published a handful of short stories in literary journals when my three kids were very small, but gave up trying to write when I found myself resenting the time I felt they were taking from my work; I didn’t want to be that kind of mother. I returned to writing when they were in high school, creating a blog called “Meanopause” which was a series of humorous essays about the absurd life we were all leading now that I had remarried in mid-life. When my youngest left for college a couple of years ago, I returned to taking my writing seriously, and am now busy gathering rejections for lots of new short stories (as well as one acceptance, as of last year). I’m not sure I would have gotten back to writing at all if it hadn’t been for PAGE, which gave me the courage to put myself back out there and introduced me to a host of wonderful writers, as well as a community in which I feel comfortable exchanging work and advice.
Jill: My background is in the visual arts. I am retired now, but was a graphic designer. I am now a painter. A life-long reader, I always wondered, could I write too? I flirted with writing off and on for decades, but now that I have PAGE, I have the discipline to write, to finish pieces that have been hidden inside me for my whole life. The warmth of the audience, the support of the writers, has encouraged me.
Have any of you led reading series before?
Heather: In graduate school, I helped organize a reading series dedicated to giving the fiction writers in our program the opportunity to share their work with the public. That series was a completely different animal from Page, though, since we drew from a limited pool of candidates and ran contests to match up writers with famous visiting writers. And of course we didn’t impose any time limits on the readers, since the readings usually consisted of two writers at the most. Also: no snacks. Though quite a bit more alcohol, if I remember correctly.
Joann: I have never organized a reading series before. I tend to embrace certain things I have no expertise in and then make it up as I go. The challenge is trusting that it will all come together.
What unexpected challenges did you encounter?
Jill: Keeping the readers to the One Page Rule, since we don’t prescreen or censor or ask what the subject matter is that will be read. Also, we have to bring in about forty or so folding chairs for the event that we store in our various homes. Very tedious. Our families help. Joann and I did it for a few years when we lived next door to each other. Now Heather and her husband and son help Joann out, and I don’t do it at all anymore (I am the oldest).
Heather: So. Many. Chairs. And yes, enforcing the time limit. You don’t want to be rude, but sometimes people get so carried away by the opportunity to read their work that they keep going and going, which isn’t really fair to the other readers or to the audience. We usually have anywhere from 10 to 14 readers a night, sometimes more, and it’s just not comfortable or feasible to allot more than three to five minutes to each reader.
You’ve had a pretty consistent home at BE Galleries. What drew you to this venue over others?
Joann: Serendipity and a generous response from Joy Borelli.
Jill: It’s welcoming, and the space is just the right size for our audience with room for a reception. The beauty of the art in the gallery also adds to an overall creative feel.
A lot of reading series start strong and lose their momentum after a few repetitions. How has PAGE avoided this slump?
Jill: A schedule of having a PAGE event every two or three months, as opposed to once or twice a month, is convenient and gives authors time to have a piece ready to read. The events are not held too often to become tiresome or too seldom to become forgotten. Having a stable venue is also important, especially such a great one as the B&E Gallery. Also, Lawrenceville (and Pittsburgh in general) is very supportive of creative events and has a large pool of talented writers and listeners who love writing.
Joann: We encourage variety in a brief format. Even the most timid and inexperienced writers can work up to a five-minute reading. Experienced readers must whittle their readings down to their best five minutes, and what could be better than that? We have met and encouraged many new writers and have been astounded by what we’ve heard. We strive to make everyone feel welcome and appreciated, so our readers are willing and eager to bring in other writers. Listeners enjoy our format and bring in friends as well.
Jill: We also limit how often people can read: three events in a row, and skipping a fourth. This is not a competitive event. The idea is to give authors an opportunity to read their work in front of a welcoming and friendly audience. The audience reaction, though always polite, is responsive to what they hear: laughing at humor, hushed silence from hearing a moving story, the whoops and whistles at clever word usage or unexpected twists, enthusiastic applause when warranted. Who wouldn’t want to read their work in this environment?
What has been the most rewarding thing about leading the PAGE series?
Joann: Hearing the many and varied voices of the Pittsburgh writing community. Appreciating that I grew up in such a place and still live here.
Jill: Hearing from the authors and listeners. Authors love PAGE, and some say it is the best reading experience that they’ve ever had. Knowing people are “getting” their works, that they are responding openly and generously to those who read, is so worthwhile to writers. We have repeat readers, and new readers, poets and fiction writers, puppeteers and essayists, sci-fi writers and memoirists, authors in their twenties and in their eighties. We have readers who have been published and have BFA’s and others who always wrote but never shared their work before. It is hard to put yourself out there, and the audience appreciates that. PAGE takes a lot of that fear away.
Heather: Without question, the best thing about PAGE for me is that it has introduced me to an incredible community of colleagues and friends, including Joann and Gillian and Joy, and inspired me to return to “real” writing after I’d taken off so much time to raise my kids. My husband and I have also begun to fill our home with some of the amazing art work we keep discovering at the gallery (sometimes to the chagrin of our adult children, who for some reason aren’t as wild as my husband is about Alfred E. Neuman in a sombrero eating glittering green mush). And now Page has inspired a couple of my children to share their own work on occasion; my eldest, Daniel Schatten, has even earned their first publication as a result of interaction with an editor at a recent Page evening. Honestly, it’s hard to think of ways in which I haven’t found participating in Page to be a rewarding experience. Maybe the Alfred E. Neuman Eating Mush painting. Though even that one’s growing on me.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to start a reading series in Pittsburgh?
Joann: Be nice. Don’t do the events too often. Trust the voices of others and you will be amazed!