Hello. My name is Jason Lee Norman and I’m a writer who lives and eats in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Along with being a writer I also co-founded a reading series here in Edmonton called Words with Friends. My co-founder and partner at Words with Friends is Kasia Gawlak. Together we work to try and put on events in this city that showcase some of Edmonton’s best creative writing talent. Whether they are knowns or unknowns, professionals or amateurs, poets or storytellers, we want to create a venue where creative types can share their talent with other artists and also just people who enjoy a good show. We have done 9 events so far in the city and we also did a special event on a streetcar here in Edmonton and last spring we introduced something to Edmonton that we like to call the Word Crawl. We loaded everybody onto a bus and took performers to different venues around the city and they put on a different show at each place. I think we had a lot of fun doing this and the response by everyone who attended was very positive.
So that’s 11 different events in this city since June of 2011. That’s a lot, right? We think so. All of our events, except for the two special ones we had, were free to attend. Neither I nor Kasia started Words with Friends to make any money. In fact, I don’t even know if it’s possible to make money doing something like this. I’m not smart enough. All performers attend and share their work at these events free of charge and the venues that host the events are always kind enough not to charge us for the space. This makes us happy and the usually we think the audience purchases enough food and booze to make the venue happy too. In return, we offer the performers our eternal gratitude and maybe if they have a book or CD to sell, people will usually snap those up to try and support local artists in this city. This is all we can do, right? We provide a place for these artists to perform and we also provide an audience for them to clap and laugh and do all the great things audiences do.
Finding an audience in this city is no easy task. It seems that every day there is always a gala, concert, seminar, fundraiser, ice cream social, church picnic, hockey game, or Paul McCartney concert to compete for people’s valuable time. We know full well that a person’s free time is an extremely valuable thing. At the end of a long work day most people just want to curl up on the couch with a loved one and drink tea and watch something on Netflix. Asking someone to spend a couple hours of their Wednesday evening watching some poet they’ve never heard of or listen to somebody tell a story about Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel going back in time to save Anne Frank from the Nazis is a hard sell. Words with Friends events have always been well attended and we never take that for granted. Not only do they show up in strong numbers but they are always very supportive of the artists that go on stage and for that and more we are always grateful.
It usually takes me a month or so to organize one Words with Friends event. I have to confirm a venue and then start to fill a roster of artists who are interested in performing. A lot of the time people will email me well ahead of time and ask if there is a free spot to perform. Other times I send emails out to writers who I admire to see if they are free to come and read something for us. Most of the time these emails receive polite replies stating previous engagements or some other reasons why they cannot attend. No hard feelings. On top of poets and comedians and writers we usually always have one musical guest to play for people. Confirming a musical guest is also difficult and you want to make sure that the venue has the proper equipment to accommodate the band or musician that is performing. This usually involves a lot of emails back and forth with the venue.
On top of booking performers, Kasia and I work very hard to create Facebook events, update our website, and all the various other social media tasks that go into promoting an event. We have been doing this long enough to know that just because you create a Facebook event or tweet it to a couple thousand people on Twitter that people will attend your event. You never know what’s going to happen. All you can do is tell people about what they can expect if they show up and hope for the best. We built an audience slowly with Words with Friends but we quickly saw that after each new event we had there were more and more people showing up. We hoped this was due to the good time had by all and some word of mouth factor too. Needless to say a lot of work goes into putting on an event but it is all worth it when the show starts.
This Wednesday evening was Words with Friends 9. Our 9th normal event and 11th event in total. The event was supposed to take place at Bohemia on 97th street. We have had events at Bohemia four times previously and things always went really well. They are a small place but I think our philosophies matched up pretty well. They were always as happy as we were to see a full house on a Wednesday or Thursday evening. I had made arrangements Bohemia to have our event there since last month and everything was confirmed and we were even added to the online calendar on their website. However, when we arrived at Bohemia at 6:30 (about a half hour before things were supposed to get going) we found the doors of Bohemia to be locked and all the lights off. We knocked, we made phone calls, we sent emails. Nothing. No answer. People were going to start arriving soon and we had a musician who needed to set up. Kasia and I were sitting out in the cold like a couple of saps. Completely boned.
Two doors down from Bohemia is a little cocktail bar called Brittany’s. We had a small Words with Friends event there in June to celebrate our one year anniversary of doing these events. Ironically, we had actually deciding on not doing Wednesday’s event at Brittany’s because we thought it had been a long time since we had seen our buddies at Bohemia and wanted to return. So in we walked to Brittany’s with our tails between our legs to talk with Brittany the owner. On VERY short notice and even though we had snubbed her bar for our next event she still said that we could move everything to her place so we wouldn’t have to turn people away in the cold. In short, Brittany of Brittany’s saved us. She absolutely saved us from looking like idiots. We are very thankful to Brittany and would recommend that you pay her lovely place a visit whenever you’re in the area.
As I am writing this blog post at almost 5pm on Friday, I have yet to receive any communication from the managers of Bohemia. Not one call or email or anything. Just one single tweet that says there was some kind of emergency and that somebody actually showed up to open the place and they were only 30 minutes late. That last part is bullshit. We let everyone, including the staff at Bohemia who may or may not have showed up, know that we would be at Brittany’s for the rest of the evening. Nobody from Bohemia showed up to talk to me and explain what had happened and as of this moment I am still waiting for somebody to explain themselves. Am I actually the one in the wrong here? Do people not apologize anymore for their mistakes or screw ups or whatever you want to call them? Are Kasia and I being naive to expect any kind of explanation from these people? Is this how business works now?
I understand that Words with Friends events are free but sometimes we do have events that we charge attendance for in order to recoup the cost of renting different venues (like the streetcar for example). Imagine if Wednesday night was one of those events and people had paid $20 to see something that may not have happened. Imagine if you showed up to the Paul McCartney show and, oops, somebody totally spaced and forgot to open the place up that morning and now everybody was stuck outside. Imagine if a repairman says that he will be at your place between 2pm and 5pm and then actually just doesn’t show up at all and doesn’t even call to let you know that he isn’t coming. Imagine if someone backs into your car (like what happened to me last night) and then just drives away like it never happened (like what happened to me last night) leaving you with repairs to your car that you can’t afford.
Never mind all that actually. Imagine that people actually do what they say there are going to do and imagine that they show up when they say and conduct themselves in a way that has always been professional and courteous to others. Imagine the people who run events like Words with Friends and receive no salary and make no money from those endeavors and spend all of their free time trying to organize something that they think will be a greater cultural benefit to their fellow citizens. Now imagine that those people get treated with respect and imagine that every performer who approaches them and asks them for a spot on their stage shows up when they say they are going to. Imagine that people who they consider their friends look them right in the eyes and say, “see you Wednesday night!” and then Wednesday night comes around and they don’t show up and on Thursday morning there is no call of explanation, no email of apology, no, “sorry I had the stomach flu” or “my mom got sick” or anything like that.
I believe that Kasia and I are two people that do what they say they are going to do and be where they say they are going to be. I believe that we work very hard and I also believe that after getting the treatment that we’ve just received from a place like Bohemia means that we have to stand our ground and say that we can no longer take our business there because of the way we were treated. This isn’t out of spite or revenge. It’s just because we were sitting outside in the cold waiting for them to show up and they didn’t and when we asked them where they were they didn’t respond. They still haven’t responded which tells me that they don’t really care about us. Brittany’s cares about our business and cares about what we are trying to do in this city and that’s probably why you’ll see us all at Brittany’s next year telling stories, and reading poems, and playing music, and telling jokes.
I would like to apologize for anybody out there who I never emailed back in time or forgot to return a call or who I said I was going to be somewhere to and never showed up. I understand that shit happens but I also understand that taking responsibility for yourself is the most important thing.
Still waiting for that email…