This is the sixth in a series of interviews with some of the best hosts I’ve seen on my informal tour of open mics across America.
This week, it’s the host of Tongue & Groove in Raleigh (which I co-organize): Benjamin Molini. Ben and I met at an open mic and have been hitting events together in the Triangle—and once on a disastrous night in his hometown of Kansas City—ever since. His love and enthusiasm for our amateur vaudeville matches my own, and despite how well I know him, he managed to surprise me with some of his answers.
The idea behind the interviews is to pull back the curtain on what it takes to be a host, what hosts want out of an open mic, and how to make an event work when you have no idea what’s going to happen. And maybe even hear a poem or two about open mics.
Go long, she said. Give examples, she told them. Tell stories.
Tell me about the open mic you run (or have run)—the rules, the structure, the venue. How long have you been doing this? Did you launch it or inherit it from another host? That kinda thing.
Tongue & Groove has been going for a grand total of (I’d guess) a little over a year, spread across two or three years. It started out as an attempt to recreate some of the nights we really enjoyed at a different open mic that shut down. I like to think it has grown from even what we modeled it on, and I think we’ve found a permanent home at VAE, an art gallery pretty solidly close to the beaten path downtown.
Everyone has a set of 7 minutes, after which I’ll get gradually more irritating and ridiculous, and basically present an unmanageable distraction after 8:30 or so.
The venue makes that—and most of our rules—much easier to enforce, because we’re the only thing going on the nights when we’re there. No one has to read/play over bar noise, and I don’t feel like I’m inconveniencing anyone not there for the show if I make a little bit of a spectacle.
A Little Flattery and Some Introspection
It’s a little weird for me to ask why your open mic is so fabulous, given that I’m directly involved, but I do think we have something good going. What do you think is special about Tongue & Groove?
I honestly think that the first and most important ingredient is that we both enjoy it so much. I guess that’s a chicken-or-the-egg type of answer, but maybe the genesis is that we started it with great associations, so we came in positive.
The reason I think that that’s the most important ingredient is that open mics are made or broken based on their ability to attract new/unconventional performers, and I feel like it’s my job as the most visible figure to communicate constantly that if you’re up on stage, I’m not only tolerant and accepting, I am actively on your side. I am rooting for you and what you do.
And in order for that to be sincere, I have to communicate how much I enjoy the whole premise of the open mic. A lot of the good stuff follows pretty organically from there.
One of the things I love about your hosting style is what you often refer to as “artistic sorbet.” Tell me about that.
That basically comes from my background in slam poetry, where performers and teams often structure a lot of their performances to respond to the conditions under which they’re going on stage. Things like how late they are in the order, and who is surrounding them, can make poets who want a good score (which is pretty much all slammers) get much more selective about their work, and sometimes cause them not to bring out something that they’re less comfortable with, if they think it will be drowned out by a neighboring performer on the list. I know I’ve felt that way.
So following the idea from the last question, I think this is where the host should come in, because he/she shouldn’t be a neutral master of ceremonies who just reads the list in the pre-defined order. I should be doing something to active help you out—to clear away any obstacles to you doing exactly what you feel like doing.
At the start, that’s nervousness or trepidation. As the show goes on, that also means letting you have your own space on the stage, and not spend time wading through the energy of the person before you.
In effect, it means I have to bring the attention back to myself in a weird, brief, and ideally not particularly effective way. I tell a random story, a corny joke, or I sing a short and forgettable song. And I do it every time, so everyone comes in on the the same terms—right after some random distraction from the host.
Let’s Get Deep and Personal
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of an open mic?
To produce and experience great art. Or, you could say Great Art. Ironically, I really do think the goofy sideshow that we so gleefully sponsor is in the service of Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Mozart, and Shelley. I absolutely don’t think that the great days of art are behind us, and I believe—deeply—that in the same way that the best poems I’ve written took a lot of drafts to get there, great artists take a community of trial and error to become themselves.
Bob Dylan was just another irritated hippe for a long, long time before he was BOB DYLAN. If Dickens hadn’t been a broke copyeditor for so long, he couldn’t have written historic novels about being broke in a crappy job.
So basically, everything takes practice, and nobody starts from the top. I really think we have a role to play—and I’m not exaggerating—in service to the world.
Do you have a philosophy or a manifesto as a host?
Not specifically. I just really like all that stuff above, so basically everything I do is with the idea that I just want people to try. The failure part, when it happens, really doesn’t matter.
Whatever art form you choose, you’ve got your whole life to work on it, and you don’t always have to get it right.
What would you say are the 3 biggest keys to success—by which I mean longevity—for an open mic?
- Enthusiasm. Per all the answers above, if the host and organizers don’t enjoy what they do, the crowd just won’t have any energy. On the slow nights (which every open mic has at some point), a lot of that has to be sourced from the organizers. On the busy nights, it needs to be channeled and reinforced by them.
- Impartiality. Despite what I said above about the host being subjectively for you, not just an impartial arbiter, I mean that the host needs to be subjectively for everyone. I think it ruins an open mic when the host’s friends get earlier placement, longer sets, a particularly long/warm intro, etc. etc.
- Weirdness. Frankly, no open mic is going to have the equipment or logistical support of even a vaguely well-executed concert. It’s just not what we’re built for. People come to an open mic because they want to see something different, and if you can build an environment that attracts the interpretive dancers, the dream journalers, and the multilingual singers from a different culture, and you get to see the contrast of that right next to the amateur American blues player, you’ve done this thing right.
Have you ever written a poem about open mics? If so, is there a link or video I can share?
I have, and I’ve performed it at ours, though never recorded, I don’t believe. It’s basically just a much shorter version of this interview.
Tell Us a Story (or Two)
What’s your idea of a Damn Great Night of open mic—in terms of talent, audience, or anything else?
A successful open mic has all the characteristics above, and any given great night is about 20% really solid, practiced, talented performers, 60% sincere amateurs who (if the host has done it right) just enjoy what they’re doing, and 20% absolute wildcards, some of which will go well, some of which will go exceptionally poorly. That’s important for everyone.
What’s the most bizarre or magical thing you ever saw on your stage?
Honestly, it was probably just at last month’s show. We’ve been doing this thing where I put out the challenge to all performers and audience members to try to come up with a closing song that we’ll use at the end of our show. Recently, a friend of ours who is not by nature a performer got up with a few of her family members and friends as the last act.
Apparently they had prepared for this, as they handed out lyric sheets to the crowd, and the whole irregular, unpolished bunch of them poured their absolute hearts into singing a version of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which she’d modified for our open mic. It was spirited, it stumbled a few times, and by the end of the song, every guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cajon, and chair seat had joined in.
My favorite part about it was watching Sarah, our friend leading the performance, grin joyously every time another voice or instrument matched the melody.
Has your open mic been the catalyst for creative collaboration among your regulars or semi-regulars?
I don’t know that ours directly has accomplished that yet, though I hope it will. We are definitely the performance venue for some new collaborations that started with our spiritual ancestor open mic, but I think that’s all we can directly boast so far.
Let’s Talk Rules and Technique
How hard core are you when it comes to open mic etiquette?
Pretty hardcore. And not really for my own sake or when I’m attending one in general, but much more as the host.
Basically, if I’m just in the audience at a show I don’t know very well, I (and most people, I think) are never going to call someone on going over time or tell the people talking loudly in the back of the room to keep it down. There’s just no space for us to do that.
For exactly that reason, I think the host is responsible for nearly 100% of the open mic etiquette, and I’ve found that if you make a point of it once or twice, you don’t usually have to get in people’s faces.
What’s the most effective way you’ve found to encourage good audience and stage behavior?
I’d say it’s all about context. If I’m addressing stage behavior, I’m usually doing it from the stage, probably right after the person in question has left. In those instances, I usually think a soft touch is the best. I tend to make a lot of jokes—better if they’re self-deprecating—about time limits, or excessive profanity, or whatever the problem was.
When it’s audience behavior, I think it has to be addressed while it’s happening, which means I’m usually doing it while someone is performing. For that reason, I try to be brief, quiet, and focused on eye contact. As above, sometimes the rest of the audience relies on the host to not be the nice guy.
Have you ever had to kick out, or ban, a performer from your event? If so, what for?
Ironically, the only time I have kicked someone out of a show was before I was the host.
I was at our spiritual predecessor open mic, and while a guy was (quietly) reading his poems, one of his friends stood up, and—without warning—threw his keys at some people in the back of the room because he felt like they were making too much noise.
I didn’t really think about it, but I just stood up too, and said something bizarre, like “I am SURE I didn’t just see that shit!” while pushing my chest out like an orangutan. Pretty much the same way any primate has ever challenged another. We could have been fighting over whose tree this was with equal dignity.
I like to think that I’ve gotten better at that, but I haven’t had much cause to find out with our current set-up.
What’s your strategy on nights when, for whatever reason, the list is really thin? Say, fewer than 5 performers.
Our stated premise is that if the list goes really quickly, we’ll just rotate back through for anyone who wants to go a second time. I also like to make a point to give time to the organizers, or anyone else who would like to perform.
Usually on those nights though, there’s also a pretty small audience, so it helps to change the physical arrangement of the room. Stages don’t make sense for fewer than 10 people, so if you change things up—maybe put people in a circle and just go around—it tends to take some of the awkwardness away and return everybody to a cooperative/supportive tone.
Show Me Your Wishlist
Any plans to modify your format or otherwise tweak your event?
No. Our event kicks ass. I really really love it.
If you could perform at (or just attend) any open mic, slam, or other poetry event in the United States, all expenses paid, which one would it be?
I’d probably go back to the Green Mill in Chicago. I had a fantastic time when I was there, and I felt like the standout difference was the house band. Not only were they extraordinarily talented musicians, but they also were able to interpret really weird and vauge signals from the performers, adding huge layers to literally anything that was taking place on stage. I’d go back there just to watch, but it was a genuine pleasure and an honor to perform there the one time I did.
Are there any questions you wish I had asked?
Anna: What’s the hardest thing about hosting an effective open mic?
Ben: For me, all of the small details. Who has the key to the building? What time are we supposed to get there? Why hasn’t the Facebook event been created yet? Who brought beer? Who’s bringing ice? What do we need to coordinate with the owners of the venue?
The only thing—again, without exaggeration—the ONLY thing that makes this whole endeavor a joy and not mostly a chore is the inexhaustible intelligence and ingenuity of my co-organizer, Anna Weaver, who complements me so effectively, and does so somehow with so much beauty and grace.