Halfway into round three of trivia, a race had formed in the packed back room of Sheffield’s. Everyone in the audience technically had a point after they unanimously shouted an answer, but two in the crowd had emerged ahead. Before the featured reader continued, co-host Jon Natzke interrupted him to shout, “The only people who should be answering are those with two points.” As a RUI veteran, I know this warning is necessary, as the crowd at “Reading Under the Influence” is a raucous bunch, and with a book and a drink ticket on the line, anything goes.
Trivia might seem like a weird companion to live-lit, but it’s been RUI’s formula for a decade. The resilient format that outstayed the show’s founders consists of two rounds punctuated by an intermission. Readers alternate between original work and published selections followed by trivia relating to the month’s theme. Themes have included “Leather,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bitter” and “Non-Denominational.” Aside from being fun, the trivia serves a purpose. As founding member Julia Borcherts says, “It allows the audience to come up with funny answers and bond with the writers so that during the break they’re not intimidated by the thought of approaching them. It takes away from a reading’s formal edge.” Also taking away from the formal edge is the presence of alcohol. Unsurprisingly, drinking is central to RUI’s identity. The packed nature of Sheffield’s backroom requires that readers perform near the bar. Original works are presented with the author taking a shot or donating it to the audience. Resident bartender Matt, a gregarious spirit who often gives hints when the audience gets stuck on trivia, feels as much a part of RUI as any of its hosts.
The nature of RUI and its inebriated audience requires that a piece be either funny or visceral. Some even manage both, such as Mason Johnson’s tale of a man visiting his dying father in the ICU. He notes the grim game his mother plays, where she attempts to spot patients worse off than her husband. This story and others elicited laughs from an engaged, standing audience, who seemed to have as much fun listening as they did fighting for drink tickets. (Brendan Buck)
Reading Under the Influence is held on the first Wednesday of each month, 7:30pm, at Sheffield’s Beer and Wine Garden, 3258 North Sheffield, (773)281-4989. +21. Cover is $3.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.