Earlier this year, as I listened to Anchorage Music Co-op’s Teen Open Mic at The Nave, I mused about the benefits of intergenerational households and community living spaces. The teenagers trying out new stage personas and tender-fresh songs had an attentive, supportive audience: friends, parents, and locals, including elders, from Cook Inlet Housing Authority next door. It was a diverse crowd. There were even a couple of toddlers, who weren’t paying much attention, although no one seemed to mind.
Everyone was safe in that space to make mistakes. It is important to have such safe spaces for performance because, in the words of songwriter Chris Stapleton, “Nobody wins afraid of losing.” I find this particularly true in music and stagecraft, especially when those musical performances help young people find their identity. On a stage, young people can try out ideas about how to fit in as well as how to stand out. As messy as the process usually is, it’s beautiful to see teenagers experiment with pieces of their future selves.
At The Nave, that process was all the more beautiful for its intercultural character. I noticed a variety of subcultures — goth, punk, folk, and several others. The young performers each had intentionally stepped outside their comfort zone onto a common ground where they tried to be themselves and support one another. It doesn’t take a degree in intercultural communication to recognize the social challenges they were overcoming.
So what makes such a crazy experiment work? In an earlier blog post, Marian Call described an open mic she organized in Juneau at the Rookery Café. She said it was the crayons she set out on tables that made the difference. What were our crayons?
A little later this year, I went to another open mic, also organized by Anchorage Music Co-op, but this time in collaboration with Anchorage Cannabis Exchange. Being a summer affair, the jammers at the open mic were a different crowd. All ages were welcome (the lawn venue is separate from the dispensary), and the 7PM start on a Thursday night left plenty of time for a good night’s sleep. Most school-age performers were out for the summer, and middle-aged adults had taken their places.
The organizer and emcee, Shalah Rose, opened with a sound healing involving singing bowls and vocal improvisations. The ceremony helped jammers calm their nerves and put the audience in a mood to listen deeply. In fact, I don’t remember ever attending an open mic with a more attentive, supportive audience. Friends and family came to listen and offer congratulations. Every performer stayed for the entire show and listened intently to one another. No one talked during the performances, although some sang along.
It seemed there were a handful of listeners who hadn’t come to support a particular performer — unusual for open mics in venues without some other draw. We were there just to observe and enjoy. And just like at the teen open mic, our presence was important. It’s one thing to perform for family and friends at home, or to share our passion projects with like-minded folk through workshops and forums, but it’s something else entirely to perform publicly. An unknown audience is a hotter crucible.
The opportunities for trying out ideas, including ideas about how to structure open mics themselves, continue. Shalah also has in mind an open-mic/bazaar to provide visual artists the opportunity to bring new work to a shared audience.
So what makes them work? What are the crayons? In short, supportive audience members and contributors. Be a crayon. See you at the open mic!
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange, a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and a 2021 Connie Boochever Award recipient.