Recently, Tulpa Magazine had the chance to put a few to Janet, Ben, and Patrick, three members of the Quart Shorts collective.
Where did the idea for Quart Short come from?
Ben: The demise of the Spineless Wonders reading nights, something of an Adelaide institution that ran at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. I only ever attended one Spineless Wonders event, which I seem to remember was their last. I was impressed by the quality of the writing, and intrigued by the use of professional actors – something that immediately set them apart from other reading nights, more usually built around writers reading their own work, and not always very well! I was sad to see Spineless Wonders end, and initiated a conversation with founder Caroline Reid about whether it might be continued under a different team, perhaps even a different name. It seemed too good a concept to allow to disappear. For understandable reasons, though, Caroline was not interested, so the idea fell away again until one night, over a few too many glasses of red no doubt, Janet and I decided to bite the bullet and start our own reading night, borrowing the Spineless Wonders format – poetry and prose read by actors, and interspersed with live music – but giving it our own unique twist. We also felt that we had a chance to fill a niche in the Adelaide arts and cultural scene, which in 2016 seemed to have a paucity of live reading nights. How wrong we were! It’s extraordinary how vibrant the spoken word scene has become in Adelaide in the last few years. It was a beautiful surprise to suddenly find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Hearth, Soul Lounge, Draw Your (S)words, and others, and even more amazing to find it wasn’t the same thirty people rocking up to each one – there seemed to be a genuine diversity of audiences hungry for live readings.
Janet: We are enormously indebted to Spineless Wonders and their initial concept, but we added the innovation of working as a collective and seeking original submissions from writers across Australia.
Patrick: We evolved from the readings staged by Spineless Wonders at the Wheatsheaf Hotel about 5 or 6 years ago. I was cast to read a few stories and sharing the experience with the other actors involved, I realised it was a rewarding experience for both actors and writers. We’re very grateful to Caroline Reid for her many hours volunteering to make these nights happen.
What makes Quart Short stand out from other spoken word/literary nights?
Ben: Our use of actors. Our focus on short stories rather than poems. Our use of live music, not just as background but as an integral part of the audience experience. I also think our openness and inclusivity – unlike some other reading nights, we don’t cater solely to young audiences or strongly appeal to those with academic backgrounds. In this regard, I think we’ve always been a little bit uncool next to some of our (friendly!) rivals, and perhaps a little old-fashioned in respect of our preference for solid, well-crafted pieces rather than innovation for its own sake. There is a confessional flavour to a lot of spoken word, which I think we’ve always tried to steer clear of, not because it’s not important but because we feel it is just not for us.
Janet: The actors. Our ‘mission statement’ if you like is ‘good stories well told’. Patrick Frost has been a professional actor for over 40 years He also knows and has worked with actors with many years of experience. After Ben, Lisandra and I have selected the stories to be read on the night Patrick reads each story, decides which actor would suit the story, including the narrative voice, and then contacts that actor. He sends them a copy of the story, discusses the story with the actor, and what we might be looking for on the night and then, several days before the event the actors rehearse the story. Each actor is encouraged to bring their sense of what the story is trying to achieve, and say, to their reading. This intense collaboration makes for good literature and good ‘theatre’. Many of our writers are astonished when they hear the invariably nuanced, sensitive and professional readings of their stories.
Patrick: As Janet points out, we badged ourselves with ‘good stories, well told’ – so, our big point of difference is the actors’ voices, reading as narrators with character, nuance and sometimes, emotion to bring the stories to life. I’ve often described it as storytime for grown-ups!
What is the process for selecting stories?
Janet: I look for well-conceived, thoughtful, interesting narratives, a strong narrative voice and, because I am fussy about editing, material that’s free of grammatical and spelling errors.
Ben: The collective – Janet, Lisandra, and myself – each read the stories, and make comments and recommendations. I think there is a Quart Shorts-style piece (as our website has it: ‘we are looking for stories that surprise, delight, and challenge; themes, characters, and plots that make the mind whirl or the heart jump; and stories that will sound great when read aloud’) although personal preference – taste, dare I say it – can’t help but come into it. We robustly discuss our selections, and try to reach agreement. Sometimes this process is a joy, when our curatorial stars align, and sometimes it is painful, when, for example, we just don’t seem to be able to convince the others that we’ve found the next Raymond Carver or Alice Munro! I think curation is the right word here. It is not simply about the pieces in isolation, it is about crafting something like a journey for the audience to go on, and about getting the balance between different forms, styles, and themes, and between light and dark, funny and sad, and so on.
Patrick: I can leave the selection to Janet, Ben and Lisandra as they look for strong narratives or sometimes other aspects of story that will work well on the audience when read aloud. Sometimes they’ll ask me to read a story to see if I agree it will have resonance, be thought provoking, funny or perhaps controversial.
How do you feel Quart Short has grown over its lifetime?
Janet: It’s hard, from my perspective inside the collective, to answer this. If it has grown it is because of the hard work of the four organisers.
Ben: We have been fortunate to have had big audiences from the beginning, and still average around fifty per night, and sometimes more, which amounts to a very full-feeling space when the venue’s capacity is only one hundred. Our brand recognition has increased hugely, and it’s been nice to have been recognised by, for example, the Salisbury Writers Festival, which had us on a panel on Adelaide’s spoken word scene last year alongside members of The Hearth and Soul Lounge. To be honest, though, we have never been great at promoting ourselves. I think if Quart Shorts had a personality type it would be an introvert, the shy eccentric in the corner who looks interesting to talk to. Most of our growth and recognition has come, I think, from word-of-mouth, which is very powerful in a city as small as Adelaide. Over time, I think we have come to feel increasingly valued within Adelaide’s arts scene, particularly by the actors who seem to relish getting up in front of large groups of strangers and potentially making fools of themselves – how strange!
Patrick: I think principally, our growth has been with audiences. People seem to want to share the experience with their friends as if there is some comfort in being read to. There’s always a long list of people tagging their friends below our posts announcing the next reading night. One thing I would like to do is survey our audiences to ascertain the frequency of their attendance, their interests, their connections to writing or performance.
Most of our growth has been organic, I think. Social media has helped us connect at low cost, the music we stage each night creates more following, the writers whose work is chosen often bring friends and family, too.
Why are the events organised around the seasons?
Janet: Personally, I cannot remember, but it might have been for convenience and to give the collective, who all have busy lives, a breather between readings. I think we decided four readings a year was a good number and the concept of seasonal readings, quarterly readings, led to the name ‘Quart Shorts’, i.e. short stories read every quarter!
Ben: I don’t think this was planned. My memory is that the name Quart Shorts came first and, with that in place, it seemed to logically follow that we would hold the event four times a year. It does seem to have caused some confusion, though, with people thinking our events are themed around the seasons.
Patrick: The ‘salon’ idea seemed to lend itself to a seasonal approach, and hence, the name Quart Shorts to indicate short stories read quarterly.
Why Bibliotheca as a venue?
Ben: As well as being beautiful, intimate, and centrally located, the bar doubles as a book exchange so it made sense for lots of reasons. The owners, Marina and Roman, have always made us feel welcome, particularly I think because we drink a lot of whisky.
Janet: Bibliotheca has been outstandingly supportive and have never charged us for the venue. The proprietors have been marvellous and they seem to enjoy the readings as much as the public. It’s been a mutually satisfying and very productive relationship.
Patrick: As well as being a very cool little bar, Bibliotheca is a book exchange! It also creates a warm (or cool) atmosphere for each of our seasons. On a summer’s night the passing street traffic can even interact through the open window.
As an individual, what attracted you to Quart Short and what do you bring to the team?
Janet: The idea, exemplified by Spineless Wonders, of having professional actors read short stories is what made me want to continue what Spineless started.
In addition, I have attended many ‘readings’ of both poetry and short stories over the years; some writers do a great job of reading their own work but, to be brutally honest, many do not. When I saw what an actor could do with a short story (or poem), the varied, nuanced, sensitive and thoughtfully paced readings that honoured both the author and the text, I was moved to try and keep alive what Spineless Wonders started in Adelaide.
I think I bring to the team is the idea choosing only polished, professional, carefully edited writing of a high standard – possibly too high! As a writer I understand the struggle to produce professional, high quality work. I can’t spell to save myself and I need to check and recheck the basic rules of grammar when I’m editing my own work. Editing and polishing is hard work but doing that work is what makes a writer a professional story teller and communicator.
I usually sit in on rehearsals – they are often held in my house – and I have learned that actors also have a ‘grammar’, not quite like the rules of written or spoken English, but a way of approaching a text, whether it be a play, poem or story, that involves certain conventions around how to use one’s body, one’s voice and ‘spirit’. Quart Shorts, ultimately, is about communication. If you are a writer or an actor and you want to communicate clearly, if you want to be understood, there are rules to help maximise communication and it’s best to learn and use them. So, yes, I am the ‘grammar Nazi’, but that’s only because I make so many mistakes myself!
Ben: Primarily, my love of the short story form. I have never understood the average reader’s aversion to it or its status as a sort of minor, bastard brother to the novel. It’s great to see relatively new initiatives like the Short Story Festival celebrating the form but I still feel we have a way to go to recover and redeem the short story, and I hope in some small way Quart Shorts has been a part of that. In addition to my striking good looks and mordant wit , I bring to Quart Shorts a sharp, editor’s eye for good writing, a love of genre not necessarily shared by my colleagues, and an attentiveness to the relationship between form and content.
Patrick: I love reading out loud – it’s an ability every actor should be constantly refining. So, when Spineless Wonders was closed, I was very keen to join Ben, Janet and (initially) Annie Waters to make our version of a reading salon really come to life. Then, I discovered the casting of stories was a wonderful opportunity to share my love with other actors and give them an opportunity to shine!
What are your plans for the future of Quart Short?
Janet: At the moment things are up in the air, so watch this space.
Patrick: We’ll be taking some time out after Spring Shorts at the end of October to assess our ability to continue and, most likely stage at least one other specially focused salon in 2019.
Ben: A minor scoop for you: sadly, Quart Shorts will not be continuing as a quarterly reading salon after our final event for this year, Spring Shorts. While we hope to bring you one or two events per year in the future, we have found it increasingly hard to commit as much time as we would like to Quart Shorts and would prefer to gracefully bow out than to produce events of a lesser quality. We make this decision with a heavy heart but feel it is best for all concerned. We are incredibly grateful to all of the writers, readers, and musicians who have contributed so much during the last three years. For now, though, we are looking forward to a bumper Spring Shorts – and a well-earned rest after that!
Thanks to Ben Brooker, Janet Thomas, and Patrick Frost.
Submissions for Spring Shorts close on October 8th. Spring Shorts will be at the Bibliotheca Bar and Book Exchange on October 30.