Against a backdrop of window frames looking out onto Locust, a girl raps to the beat playing from her phone. "This is me, liquefied to words", she belts into the mic, hand gesturing back and forth to the rhythm of her lyrics. When she finishes, sound applause smatters among the audience filed in rows of folding chairs, and she steps back to her seat, a grin glowing from her cheeks.
Returning to the podium, the host remarks with a wry smile," Oh boy, I don't want to touch the mic because that was on fire." Chuckles rise in agreement. He continues, announcing the next performer and welcoming her onstage. Guitar in hand, she gives us a tight smile while setting up the mic then proceeds to give us goosebumps as her silvery voice rises and falls to a song she had written a few weeks ago. There is a delicate, almost vulnerable, quality to the lilt of her music, something that tells us this is more than just an artistic whim - this is an expression of herself. An exposed sliver perhaps, fashioned into song, to be poured from lips and strummed from guitar strings. Just like the rapper who drew inspiration from her love of the genre, the poet who recited works written the day of, and the guitar player who sang a rendition of "Hate Street Dialogue," each person comes onstage with a piece of themselves to spare. A piece to give to us, in hopes we might resonate with them and give something back. Tonight, as the guitar player onstage draws out the last notes of her song, we echo back with warm applause.
Almost as old as the Kelly Writer's House itself, Speakeasy is a monthly event which was founded by Penn students nearly 20 years ago, among them Courtney Zoffness (C'00). Since its debut in 1997, the event's original motto, "Poetry, prose, and anything goes", has remained in use and stands as testament to the safe haven Speakeasy was meant to be and to this day, still is. As Jessica Lowenthal, the Kelly Writer's House Director, elaborates, "The goal of it was really to make sure there was a place for students and others...really anyone, its open, to have a forum for sharing their work...The idea is writing should be shared. Writing should be shared in community, that newly emerging writers, experienced writers, musicians, poets, fiction writers, can all come together to exchange their work."
Just as the event seeks to sow creativity wherever it may go, so is Speakeasy open to whoever wishes to come. It is unlimited to the scope of just Penn affiliated students, staff, or faculty. Lowenthal continues, "We at Writer's House are committed to this being a space for everyone, a space for all, so Speakeasy is one of the programs we enact both for the audience and the presenters. Anyone can present. And we really hope that the presenters do come from all over." From neighbors living near campus to high school writers- as long as you have a story to tell, regardless of artistic medium, anyone is welcome to share. Attendees sign up on a sheet to present their work, and while waiting for their turn onstage, they are members of the audience, each both listener and storyteller.
The first Speakeasy of the year, hosted annually during New Student Orientation, holds a special place in Lowenthal's heart. Traditionally taking place in the Writer's House garden, the event is exclusively for first year students. With its festive atmosphere of strung up lights and summer cheer, the event draws a huge range of talent from all over campus—newcomers who want to express themselves, strangers who just want to be themselves. Everyone knowing no one, yet each tied together by their shared understanding of telling a story and being heard. This Speakeasy sets the note for the year's events at Kelly Writer's House, monthly Speakeasies or otherwise. As Lowenthal explains, "I imagine it's different for different people, but there's probably something about watching others share their work, and watching others be vulnerable in their expression that allows someone to say, 'oh, I can do that too' ."
This sense of communion, this feeling of comfort and safety remains unique to Kelly Writer's Speakeasy. It is what inspires the pedestrian you passed on Locust last week to share his own poetry; it is what encourages that floor mate you never spoke to to play heartfelt music on stage, in public. And among the seated audience members at the Kelly Writer's Speakeasy, it just might be what urges you to walk up to the podium and uncover the artist inside.