J.C. Geiger

The Privilege of People’s Attention

A discussion with Eugene author J.C. Geiger

I met with J.C. Geiger at Wandering Goat Coffee Co. to have an “authentic exchange” about storytelling. It’s a phrase he used to describe having the “privilege of people’s attention.”

Geiger held my attention for more than an hour, at one point explaining the influence Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist has had on his choices. 

When faced with a decision, both in storytelling and in life, Geiger has often asked himself: What would make a better story? 

Speaking with him about the nature of creative decision making and “community” storytelling, I am reminded that the best part of my job as an arts writer is getting to have conversations, mostly with strangers, about things I care about — things we both care about.

Geiger calls this type of experience — a face-to-face conversation — an authentic exchange because it’s not designed by the artificial measures of social media platforms.  

Geiger is a 2018 Grand Slam winner of The Moth, a storytelling competition event. He and some friends initially went to the Story Slam in Portland. Their first thought upon seeing the long line was that it couldn’t possibly be people waiting to tell their stories. 

It was.

“We are always competing,” he says — with our phones. It’s why we’re hungry for real attention, he says, willing to stand in line for the chance to give and receive it.  

Story Slam took place at Holocene, a bar in Portland. Geiger and his friends dropped their names in a fishbowl and 10 people were selected to tell their stories. Geiger was the ninth one called.

He had just ordered a drink, thinking he wouldn’t hear his name. Then he did. He left the drink at the bar, told his story and won the slam. 

The Moth sends Story Slam winners to New York, where Geiger was given a “story coach.” Afterward he returned to Oregon and, countless rehearsals later, performed to a sold-out crowd at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, where he won the Grand Slam. 

Winning the Grand Slam opened doors to a burgeoning storytelling scene in Portland. He was invited to events like 7 Deadly Sins, another live storytelling event. 7 Deadly Sins produces other shows, such as Pants on Fire, where audience members guess which storyteller is lying, and Rough Draft, which promises a behind the scenes experience.

Geiger first heard The Moth Radio Hour on a “lonely drive through the Utah desert about five years ago.” My younger cousin, still in college, introduced me to it. I heard of it about the same time driving on the freeway in Los Angeles. I was surprised: Is this what college kids were into these days? 

Yes! The Moth is downloaded more than 52 million times a year and was cited by The Wall Street Journal as “New York’s hottest and hippest literary ticket.” It began in 1997, just a couple of years after NPR’s This American Life started. Its popularity, together with TAL, seems to have inspired a trend. 

Geiger tried bringing The Moth to Eugene, but started The Sloth instead. The Sloth Storytelling Hour meets 7 pm Thursdays at the Atrium building in downtown Eugene. 

Immediately following on Thursdays is a workshop for No Shame Theatre, another community storytelling event begun by Geiger. No Shame takes place on the first Friday of the month at the Atrium Building as well, after the Art Walks.

No Shame differs from The Sloth because stories don’t have to be true. You don’t even have to tell a story. Sing, tell a joke or read from a book (like Andy Kaufman did on the David Letterman show in 1980); it’s up to you how you use your five minutes. 

No Shame was created in Iowa City by Todd Ristau and Stan Ruth. They produced the first performance from the bed of Ristau’s pickup truck in a parking lot of a theater.

If this reminds you of how the first modernist painters in Paris sidestepped the Academy by creating their own venue, the Salon des Refusés, then you’re thinking along the right lines. No Shame Theatre began as a reaction against an academically driven group that left out people who weren’t up to the group’s standards. 

Coincidentally, the first venue that opened its doors to No Shame in Eugene was the New Zone Gallery, which holds its own annual Salon des Refusés, showing art that’s been “refused” by the Mayor’s Art Show (Salon des Refusé’s and the Mayor’s Art Show are currently showing through Aug. 31).  

Geiger published his first novel Wildman in 2017, which makes him a professional writer. But he doesn’t care for the distinction between professional and amateur. It goes against the grain of community storytelling he’s championed in Eugene. Calling for participants to No Shame, he welcomes “pros and no-talent hacks alike.” 

This year was No Shame Theatre’s 10th anniversary. Geiger hosted the event but has since chosen to step down as artistic director. It is, I assume, a decision that will make the more interesting story. 

The Sloth is 7 pm Thursdays; No Shame Workshops are 8 pm Thursdays and No Shame Performances are 8 pm on the first Friday of the month.

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