‘It’s where the artists go to see other artists’ – March 7 at None Too Fragile Theater
If you’re a local performer who doesn’t quite know where to fit in, there’s an ongoing series just for you. The Electric Pressure Cooker, hosted by local theater and storytelling group Wandering Aesthetics, is an “anything goes” cabaret style open mic, which offers a place on stage for storytellers, poets, dancers and musicians, among other performing artists.
The only limits are the imaginations of the performers themselves.
“We provide a countercultural space for artists to experiment, grow and develop their work and stage presence,” says Benjamin Rexroad, who, with his husband Kyle Jozsa, serve as co-artistic directors of Wandering Aesthetics. Rexroad and Jozsa conceived of this eclectic event, whose popularity has grown significantly in a short time.
The next Electric Pressure Cooker (EPCooker) takes place March 7, 8 p.m. at the None too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road. Wandering Aesthetics has gathered a uniquely loyal grassroots following, and this event showcases its spirit, where storytelling and expression are the focal points, along with a sense of camaraderie that you’re hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Dean Coutris, a local actor and co-creator of the Just Go With It improv group, says he’s thankful for these open mic events. “Being able to work out my material in front of an audience has been huge,” says Coutris. “I’ve also told some stories.” He points out the varied mix of performers at a typical show. “There’s been body painting, stand-up comedy, improv, music and that type of stuff. It can get kind of crazy; we don’t want to put a filter on anything.”
“I had never experienced anything like it,” says Connie Williams, who worked as a costuming instructor at a children’s theater in Hudson. “There where performers from 13 to 60-something, and at 51, my worries about being the ‘old lady’ at the event were completely dismissed after looking around at the diversity of the group of performers and audience members.”
She adds: “There was such a mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, and each of them seemed eager to welcome newbies to ‘The Cooker.’ My 16-year-old son, Robert, and I stayed until the last act left the stage.
“The range of performances is vast. There are bands, solo acts, musicians, storytellers, poets, actors, comedians, performance artists, improv groups – you name the genre and it has probably graced the stage at some point.”
Pressure Cooker shows are known to draw 100-plus people throughout the night. “They keep coming back because they discover that our stage is a safe space to perform and to develop material without judgment in front of a creative, generous audience of people eager to support them on their creative journeys,” says Williams, who does fundraising/grant writing, research and community relations for Wandering Aesthetics.
“EPCooker is different from most open mics because everyone, no matter what race, sexual orientation or gender, we are a family,” says India Burton, who, as co-artistic director of Ma’Sue Productions, is part of the Wandering Aesthetics extended family. “Even first timers are treated as family,” she says. “The EPCooker accepts everyone. It also allows people to express whatever talent they have. People do monologues, poems, dance, songs, bands are welcomed and even first-time comedians feel comfortable getting up on the stage.”
Origins on the Appalachian Trail
“The Electric Pressure Cooker was started after Kyle and I returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail, but we dreamed it up while we were on our walkabout,” says Rexroad. “We wanted to create a space in Akron we couldn’t find anywhere else. Yes, we have many open mics throughout the city. However, they tend to be geared towards one specific type of art – music, comedy or spoken word. We wanted something that would be more diverse and have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and even some weird stuff in between.”
This event has become part of Wandering Aesthetics’ journey from theater into storytelling. “Kyle needed a place to test out material and learn how to engage an audience in a new way,” Rexroad adds. “At music open mics, you try to do a spoken word piece and people’s eyes tend to glaze over. Our audience needed to be excited by the prospect of different types of acts. In order to create such an atmosphere, we had to create a safe space for artists and audiences.”
As part of the “anything goes” aesthetic, Rexroad and Jozsa instituted the “3 Rs”: Respect the Space, Respect the Audience and Respect the Performers.
“All acts receive equal amounts of stage time,” says Rexroad, who shares that the name is based on this line of thinking: Much like a diamond needs intense pressure and heat to flourish, so should our talented Akron area artists.
“Heat and pressure are transformational forces,” says Rexroad. “Diamonds are bits of carbon formed through extraordinarily high temperatures and intense, sustained pressure. The Pressure Cooker is a way to apply both heat and pressure to the Akron arts scene. Electric refers to ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests,’ written by Tom Wolfe. It is a way to reach back through time and honor our psychedelic, countercultural and artistic forefathers.”
It started with a flower shop
The seeds were planted a year ago as a small get-together in the basement of the Every Blooming Thing flower shop on 1079 W. Exchange St. Although the audience quickly outgrew the Every Blooming Thing basement, Rexroad is thankful for the flower shop and its owner Scott Sella. “They generously donated their space for us to hold gatherings and rehearse. It was a sad day when we grew out of the Blooming Basement. But we are eternally grateful.”
The first performance at None Too Fragile Theater in Pub Bricco in the Valley saw over 130 people, 29 acts and 6 hours of performance. “We weren’t just hosting an event, we were cultivating a community,” says Rexroad, who adds that KIX of Rubber City Theater Company has come on board as well.
Ryan Dyke credits the EPCooker gathering with helping the formation of his band, Copper Pennies, which has found its own following in under a year. “I had never been to a place where music, comedy and theater are all in one place. Dancing too, along with people reading stories,” he says. “I had been to open mics before at bars, and there were certain parts where I didn’t want to be there — I didn’t fit in. When you walk into the Pressure Cooker, it’s welcoming.”
Even when performers slip, the audience is supportive, says Dyke, who also performs with the Just Go With It improv group. The band plans its gigs around busy theater schedules and will play at upcoming shows at Market District in Stow and Canal Park, among other gigs.
Quoting his friend Seth, he says, “it’s where the artists go to see other artists.”
Williams adds: “It is a time when I turn off my cell phone and am fully present in the moment, which is not the norm for most of us these days. I also am frequently surprised and inspired by the level of talent that exists in the Akron area. Some of these folks have big artistic careers ahead of them, and it is great to be a small part of helping them build that.”
April Helms covers the arts as a special products editor at Record Publishing Co., but she also was able to perform at a recent EPCooker event. “It allows me to meet people I may never have met, and to experience the arts in a more hands-on way. It gives me a different perspective,” says Helms, who has a number of years of experience in theater and classical voice training.
Rexroad says he would like to launch a number of events based on EPCooker, “including a newsletter, a series of ‘performance videos’ (similar to music videos, but featuring all different types of performance) and a touring cabaret show.
“The cabaret show would feature 5 EPCooker acts that were ready to have their material developed further and showcased,” he says. “These ‘Bigger Than a Breadbox’ performances would be zero-waste events that toured and highlighted each of Akron’s unique neighborhoods. We want to get the community involved, inviting a ‘neighborhood’ act to be a part of the show, among other things.”
Find out more about Wandering Aesthetics by visiting the group’s Facebook page.