Wednesday, October 03, 2007

“Say What” Hostess Lisa B. Celebrates 3rd Anniversary

“Toga Party” Set for October 24 at Other Side Coffeehouse


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. the strains of a Scott Joplin rag, played by pianist Bonnie Barnes, herald “Say What!,” an open-mike night at the Other Side coffeehouse on 30th and Polk Streets in North Park. (The street address is 4096 30th Street, for all you Mapquesters out there.) “Say What!” is the brainchild of Lisa B. — her last name is Vincent but at the event she just goes by first name and middle initial — and at the suggestion of one of her “regulars” she’s hosting an Animal House-style “Toga Party” at the Other Side October 24, 8:30 p.m., to celebrate the third anniversary of her event.

“We’ll probably let people perform for 10 minutes that night [instead of the usual five], and it’s just a big celebration,” Lisa B. explained. “And we’ll unveil the new collage. We made a collage last year, and the owner of the coffeehouse was so sweet he put it in this big, huge poster frame and it’s hung on the wall for the last year, and people have called me and said, ‘I saw my face in a collage,’ or they’ve seen their other friend or they know people. So we’ll do that again.”

Zenger’s interviewed Lisa B. and heard her talk about the wide range of people who’ve participated in Say What! — which, unlike other open-mike events, isn’t just limited to poets or musicians or rappers but encompasses everybody with something to say they can get out in five minutes. She also compared it to her previous experience hosting parties for a living, told some of the wilder stories about Say What! and mentioned that she’d met her current boyfriend, Kevin, when he came one night to read.

Zenger’s: How did you get involved with hosting an open-mike night?

Lisa B.: For years I worked in producing nightclub events, rave parties, working with D.J.’s, dancers, bands, and making a lot of money. There was a lot of ego involved in that, and a lot of pride. I also enjoyed writing, and I’d go to different open mikes just to listen to the writers and the poets get up there and give it their all.

I always thought, “You know, I’d like to have an open mike myself one day. But I would like to do it differently,” I would go to one and it was only for the musicians, or it was only for the comedians, or it was only for the writers. I thought I’d like to have an open mike where everybody got up and got to do their thing. I’d also like to have an open mike that I wouldn’t get paid for, and that it would be more of a place for the community to come in, like a little artistic playground.

One of my friends had started an open mike downtown at the Hollywood Star, and 91.3 FM had endorsed it. But with them endorsing it, there were a lot of rules, what people could do and not do on stage, and it was just for rappers and poets. My friend and I would get frustrated. We wanted to have more free expression.

I’d known Marco, the [Other Side] coffeehouse owner from years ago, when he’d had a coffeehouse in Hillcrest, and he was a really cool guy. He was always really open-minded and a really neat guy, and I thought, “I guess I could have it at this coffeehouse,” because he wouldn’t censor me at all and he would like it.

So I went in and chatted with him, and I told him the concept: that it wouldn’t be just for musicians or for poets or actors or comedians. Anyone could get on the microphone. And that meant anyone. The Transgender hookers outside could come in. Professors could come in, students, housewives, comedians, actors, musicians, politicians, people who believed in God, people who were atheists, people who believed in the dark side. It didn’t matter.

We’ve had people come in one week dressed as a man and the next week dressed as a woman. We’ve had performances in 11 different languages. I wanted it to be truly a place where people could come together in their neighborhood and express themselves on a microphone, and be exactly who they were, not, “You’re in this environment, so you need to behave a certain way, or act a certain way.” I wanted their gift to come out, whatever it was.

Also, I wanted to get away from gigs where I was getting paid money. Like I said at the beginning, I used to get up and make a lot of money from throwing rave parties and club nights. So with this, I don’t get any money from this. I get a cup of coffee every week. That’s it.

Zenger’s: So what do you do for a living?

Lisa B.: I work for the Marriott Hotel downtown, as a cocktail server.

Zenger’s: That’d be interesting, to be at the bar at the Marriott and order a drink and it’s being served, and you’re thinking, “I know that woman from the Other Side!”

Lisa B.: It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve promoted it to people who’ve been at the Marriott. I’ve told them about it, and then they’ve come to the open mike. I work in the convention hotel. They’re at a convention for a few days, and most people won’t know about open mikes when they go to a city unless they look it up online, or if they have a friend who lives in that city who’s involved in the artistic community. So they’ve shown up.

Zenger’s: I’ve noticed over the years that attendance has been up and down. Why do you think that is?

Lisa B.: A lot of times that depends on the time of the month. The summer months people are traveling. It gets really hot in the coffeehouse, too, so they tend to go to other spots, air-conditioned places, or they’re traveling and they come back in the fall.

When we first started Say What! it was strictly word-of-mouth and a few e-mails. We’ve got on a couple of different Web sites that asked about poets or musicians. In the first year of Say What!, there were weeks we could have shot a cannon off in the coffeehouse and not hit anybody. It was like six or seven regulars who would show up every single week, no matter what.

In the second year, this new group of people started to show up. Now we have this solid group of regulars that show up every single week, no matter what. Other people come and go. I promote on a few Web sites, and I have an e-mail list that I send my friends, and I have flyers that I give out to people. I always have flyers with me wherever I go. I take classes and I’ll give them out to students. At work I give them out. On the street, wherever. I always have them in my car or on me. I’ll promote on MySpace, or wherever.

There are actually quite a few open mikes in San Diego. I know in Ocean Beach they have the Drunk Poets Society on Monday nights. Sundays and Thursdays at Rebecca’s Café they have an open mike night. There’s one I’ve been to at 32nd and Broadway, I don’t know the name of the coffeehouse. There’s another one right on Broadway and 7th that has an open mike.

I know in San Diego one of the challenges that we’ve had, as far as attracting more musicians, is that there are other open mikes that are just for musicians. And they have a bigger draw for the musicians as far as getting signed, being discovered, making contacts, finding out people that are auditioning for bands, so they can make more contacts and they will go to the bigger open mikes. Lestat’s has a great open mike for musicians, and Twiggs, which moved across the street to Mueller College, has a great open mike on Wednesday nights just for musicians.

I used to go to an open mike at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach, which was also an open mike where they had anything goes. I remember one time a woman got up and she barked for five minutes, like a dog. The host, Carlos Olmeda, he let her bark. He was like, “That’s your five minutes,” and I thought that was the coolest experience.

Zenger’s: What are some of the most memorable moments that you’ve experienced hosting this for three years?

Lisa B.: When we first started Say What! we had absolutely no rules at all. The thing was be exactly who you want to be. I didn’t want to have anyone not swear, not use certain language, not denounce religion, not talk about politics. So this girl came in, signed up, went on the microphone and removed her shirt. Her nipples were the noses of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and their hands met in the middle over her belly button. She went on to give a political performance.

I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was great. I don’t think one person, including me, heard a word she said, but just the drawings, the way she utilized her physical attributes to get the crowd and to have them pay full attention, was brilliant. But after that I found out that the coffeehouse might get fined if we continued that, and I didn’t want that because Marco’s been so supportive of us. So I had to make up the first rule, that we’d have no more nudity at Say What!

Another time, we had a performer come in, and he brought in his laptop and created this thing called “The Calling.” It was a parody of these 1-(800) numbers they advertise on TV, where you can hear about your life, your astrology. People went like, “I got bit by The Calling, and you can become part of it.” He did this whole thing on his computer laptop, and it was called “The Calling.” And it was pretty silly.

One of my favorite moments is this woman, Bonnie Barnes, who performs every week. For the first six to nine months, she only played the piano. Then one day I was really sad, and she said, “You know what, Lisa? I’ll get up and sing.” “Sing? Do you sing?” She said, “I haven’t in almost 15 to 20 years, but I’m going to sing tonight.” Well, she got up and she sang, and there were probably just seven or eight of us, and we clapped. Well, the woman has kept on singing since then, and now she sings with the San Diego Opera Company, the Junior League. She found her voice at Say What!

And then of course I met the love of my life at Say What! The first time he got on the microphone, hearing his words and then looking at him, I went like, “Who’s that guy?” Now we live together and have an amazing life together.

Because I’m so close to the people that come, we’re like a big family. There have been situations that have arisen at open mike that you would not think of. I have got phone calls and e-mails because different regulars sleep together, they have a falling-out with one another, and then one wants to boycott and not come to Say What! The other one’s going to be performing, and they call me for advice about what the other is doing.

So I find out more about my regulars’ personalities than I ever thought I would, and I love it. At the same time, there are times that I feel like the mom of all of them, and it’s nice because the regulars really have a love for it. They come every week and stay through the whole night. One thing I notice at some of the other open mikes is that people perform, and then they leave. At Say What! it seems like the regulars stay all night, and they see their “family” there once a week.

Zenger’s: What are you going to be doing with the event in the future? Do you anticipate it continuing pretty much as it is? Do you want to take it in a new direction, or what?

Lisa B.: I’d like to continue doing exactly what I’m doing there, because it feels right. In the past, when I would throw weeklies at clubs or bars, I would throw rave parties and then out of greed or ego, I’d want the night to change, and I’d want more people. It didn’t matter how much money I would make, or how many people showed up, inside it was never enough. At Say What! they show up every week, and it doesn’t matter if six people perform or 25 people perform. It always feels right.

This is how Richie Blue, who comes to Say What! quite often, describes it. You remember that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie they made, and there was that “Island of Misfit Toys”? That train that Santa couldn’t give out because it was missing a wheel, or a doll having a missing leg. That’s how he describes Say What! He says it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys, and it is in a lot of ways. It’s people who are on meds, people who need to be on meds, people who are brilliant and have degrees, people who are homeless and get to sit down.

Everyone’s loved there, and so I don’t want to change anything about it, because I love the feeling and I’m really proud of it, that people have allowed me to do it there. The only thing I think I would change is if it does keep growing, is finding a venue that would be a little bit larger so that more people could come in and sit down comfortably. That would be the only thing. Maybe something with a little stage area. I know that Marco, in a heartbeat, would expand the coffeehouse if he could. We’ve actually talked about putting in a little stage in there, but there’s just not the room for it.

I think I’ve had some really nice success here, because this corner of 30th and Polk can be a bit racy, and the characters that hang out outside can be a bit racy. So I’ve brought in people from other communities to come here on Wednesday night, and then they come back and become regulars, and it’s brought in people that normally wouldn’t go into that area.

When I first started Say What!, some of my close friends said, “Lisa, that’s a really dangerous neighborhood. Why would you do it there? You know, of all the neighborhoods, it’s so gritty. Why don’t you stay in University Heights, or go up to La Jolla?” Those neighborhoods are nice, it’s a well-heeled crowd, it’s a win-win situation, but I’m not going to get my artists there. I’m not going to get the people that truly love writing, that truly want to be heard, that truly don’t want to be censored.

Zenger’s: I would think that would be another problem moving it. I’m not sure how easy it’s going to be to find an owner as easygoing about it as Marco has been.

Lisa B.: Marco himself is very creative, and he’s very open-minded. I think he likes Say What! because of it. That’s his lifestyle. That’s him. So he likes it, for people to be exactly who they’re going to be. He’s very outspoken, and he’s always been that way. When he had his coffeehouse in Hillcrest, he was always very outspoken too. If there were more people like Marco, I think there’d be a lot more love and a lot more openness. He’s just cool. I like him.

He’s controversial, too. There was a write-up in one of the magazines — I don’t know if it was CityBeat or the Reader —a while ago, when Starbucks was coming in, and some people were for it and some people were against it. Myself, I’m not going to comment on it. But Marco commented exactly how he felt. He doesn’t hold back, and that’s one thing I like. He doesn’t have censorship on his mouth. And I adore him for that.

With me, with Say What!, I’m not going to say I agree with every performer that’s got on that microphone. And I’m not going to say I’ve disagreed. The thing is, I bite my tongue and I let them perform. I’ve only had to pull one person off the microphone ever — and it was really tough, because I didn’t want to but I did. I wanted it to be a true open mike, but he was so — he was being so racist and derogatory towards Blacks and homosexuals, I just couldn’t do it. Say What! is supposed to be a safe place for everyone to be exactly who they want to be, and if I let somebody get up there and start hating on somebody else, that person might not feel safe, and I really want people to feel safe there.

Sometimes the regulars have attacked each other on the mike, used the mike as their weapon n very clever ways. They’ve read a poem that was about somebody else, or they had a viewpoint on something that was against somebody else’s. And it was really hard, because I knew what was going on and I wanted to pull the microphone away from them, but then I thought, “No, that’s their microphone, and as long as they’re not attacking any one group, let them have it.”

I think it’s really why it has such a warm feeling when you walk in. People say they never really felt comfortable performing at open mikes, or they were scared to perform out of their house. They were a bedroom poet or a bedroom actor, or a bedroom comedian, and then they come to Say What! I make a huge effort to introduce myself, especially if I know somebody’s new, and thank them after, the way I’d want to be treated if I went to an open mike, like it’s more like being in a living room, not being in a competitive room.

One thing we wanted was that it be fair, that anyone could come in and sign up on the list, and then they’d perform. It would be first-come, first-served. That way, people couldn’t sign up for their friends, and then they would come in, and it wouldn’t be all of our friends. No matter what time they came in, they would perform and knock somebody off of the list. It’s been hard. One of my very best friends came in to visit from the East Coast, and I told her, “You’ve got to be here at this time.” Well, she showed up five minutes before it ended, and I didn’t put her on, because there were three other people waiting. So I thought, “If I make the exception here, I’m going to make the exception for another, and then it’s going to change. I’m going to change if I start making little favors here and there.”