Interview with WordPlay’s Alan Olifson
WordPlay brings together Pittsburgh’s best storytellers to share their true, and funny, stories with a carefully curated soundtrack to back it up. With new stories and new music, each show is different from the rest. Creator and producer Alan Olifson, host of Pittsburgh’s monthly Moth StorySLAM series, brought this show from LA where it thrived for 5 years. WordPlay premiered to the Pittsburgh literary crowd last Spring. We got to interview Alan Olifson who gave us some insight into this up and coming art form.
What inspired the idea for WordPlay?
I had moved back to LA after living in Chicago for a few years and working as a stand-up comic. I was focusing more on the writing side of comedy at the time and started doing a lot of essay reading shows that were popping up. I enjoyed the time these shows gave you to tell a full story without having to hit a joke every 30 seconds. And with each essay being a full story, it would go through tone changes and transitions and it just occurred to me these stories could benefit from a soundtrack just like a movie can be really driven along by a good score. The original idea was to do the show with a band, but I found with a DJ it was not only more practical, but you could much more easily jump around to different genres and styles within a story.
How is the LA storytelling crowd different from Pittsburgh’s?
Not much, from what I can tell. Everyone loves good stories and so, like in LA, I find the audiences for storytelling shows here are a great mix of gender and age. We get college kids and parents bringing their high school kids; people who are retired, comedy fans, NPR fans, just a nice cross-section. Unfortunately, also like in LA, the crowds are not often as diverse culturally. But that does seem to be getting better as well.
What’s the decision-making process for the stories that eventually make it into the show?
I’m really just looking for good stories. Ideally, I’m looking for stories that are also funny or have their funny moments mixed in. But mostly I want a good story where there’s action moving it forward and not just commentary or more observational reporting. Stories of “this was the day…” are always great. That is, this was the day everything changed and I never looked at X or did Y or finally understood Z. But, well-written stories of the everyday experiences we all go through can be the best. So, to answer your original question, it’s not much of a process – I read every story that is submitted and if it’s a good, well-written story, I try to get it in a show.
I do sometimes get good stories that would just be too hard to score, though. They either have too much dialogue or cut around between different scenes too much. And as it stands now I unfortunately don’t have time to help edit and shape a story with potential – it has to come to me pretty much ready. But I’m hoping that will change as we streamline the submission process. I’ve also talked with Bricolage Theater – co-producers of the show – about setting up storytelling workshops that feed into the show. We think something like that could be a great addition to the show and a great way to get more of the community involved.
How involved are you in the music selection and prep for each story? Do you coach the authors at all?
Very. I work with some great DJs but for now I always do a first cut of what the score is – I sit down with the essay, break it down into beats and pick the songs or, more often, multiple song options for each beat. I then work with the storyteller and the DJ to fine tune it and the final result is a collaboration from all three of us.
You write your own stories and have performed in past WordPlay shows. What’s the difference between writing a story that will be read versus one which will be performed?
When you’re writing a story to be performed you can take shortcuts, do more of an outline and then just hit your beats and your jokes and improv a bit more, be a bit more in the moment. Which is great and fun. But when you’re going to read it, the fun and the challenge is getting it all down on the page as is. And I think you can also have a bit more fun with language and phrasing; things that might sound awkward or pretentious if just “told” can be great moments when the audience sees you’re reading it. Partly that’s why I like WordPlay to be a reading and not a telling; I like that literary bent it gives the stories. There’s also the practical matter of needing to be more precise when you’re timing things with music. Though even in a reading I think there is room for improv. I encourage all my storytellers to still be in the moment and riff on a moment if it seems right. They just need to always come back to the page and hit their beat so the DJ can get back into the dance.
The next show’s coming up on November 14th at the Bricolage Theater downtown featuring Paul Guggenheimer, from WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh, Alan Olifson, Gab Cody, David Montgomery, and Stephanie Reiss. DJ Keeb$ will be providing support on the turntables. You can get your $20 tickets here–students and seniors get in for $15 with valid identification.