Oh, This is the Stage

The stage at La Paloma Sabanera is about four inches high. You could barely call it a stage at all. It's a step, really, a raised platform butting up against the windows right next to the door. Before closing time, there are two round tables and four chairs stationed there, and if you want to put on a show you've got to wait for the locals to finish their coffee and gossip before you can move the tables. Sometimes this takes a while, because lots of people use La Paloma for the kind of meeting where you really just want to hang out with a colleague in a pleasant place and say at the end, "Great meeting," with a jokey expression on your face that means that it didn't really feel like work. You got an excuse to hang out at La Paloma, that's all. I've seen this expression on the faces of the unemployed and on the face of the mayor at La Paloma on the same day. Everyone knows it's a relief just to be there. Once those tables are empty, you have to lift the tables down onto the floor and rearrange the room a little bit. You throw your bag of books, or your guitar, or your clipboard, or your cables on the couch, and then you get down to the pleasant work of turning every chair in the room to face what was a second ago a restaurant and is now a STAGE. You're going to do something weird up there, something a little too big for its narrow depth. I've always loved watching people see La Paloma's stage for the first time. "Oh," they say sometimes, if they're musicians or actors, imagining a grand theater. People are always surprised or disappointed for a second, and that's the moment that they have to get down to the real work of being the artist they want to be. That very moment, they have to realize that they're going to make the best of this cafe/stage and that they're going to be absolutely fine. For some people, that moment is a millisecond, so short they don't even feel it; for some, it lasts too long and they start to panic. But everyone has that initial thought: oh, this is the stage.

The first time I performed at La Paloma Sabanera was as an improviser, and I stood in front of the door, one foot hovering on the stage, one foot off, deciding when to enter. I was blocking the door and a couple of times I had to get out of the way so that people could come in and see our show. My improv company Sea Tea was just starting to do long-form, experimental stuff, and we booked a few days with La Paloma to force ourselves to put it in front of people. Up until that point, we'd mostly done it in the living room of two of our players, and every time someone died during a scene and ended up on the floor, a corgi named Penny would run over and like his or her forehead. We were all really young and were rehearsing around dogs and roommates, or we lived in studio apartments with no space, or we were driving over from our parents' houses an hour away just to do some weird improv in a living room. It was a great time, but it was also a hard time, because just about all the improv we did was terrible. Just awful stuff, confusing or pretentious or something we vaguely remembered from old SNL episodes. But two or three nights a week we hung out in living rooms or restaurant basements, trying to get better at something we were pretty sure we would eventually be good at. In retrospect, it was insane; in retrospect, it was impressive that we beat on against the current of our own imperfections.

At some point, somebody said a phrase that I now realize is Hartford's "open sesame," Hartford's "Speak Friend and Enter." Somebody said, "I'll talk to Virginia."

We talked to Virginia. She said, sure, do a show here. She always does. We did a couple of shows that went like this: we'd do a few short, easy improv games; a band would play; we'd do a long-form set with a few scenes that were just ok and a few scenes that were a little more than ok, and then the band would play again. We took the scenes the audience of fifteen or twenty-five people liked, the little places that they laughed, and we built our style and our company off of that.

At every show we had to explain what improv comedy was. That's how it goes in a little city where you're trying to do something new. But at every show at La Paloma, the audience would nod and look open-faced at us, gazing at us, heightened four inches off the ground, and treat us with respect and buy into the grand illusion that we were towering over them, professionals, artistes. "Sure," the audience seemed to say every time, "it sounds perfectly reasonable that you're going to mime eating turkey-flavored ice-cream while wearing matched t-shirts. Show us more!"

I went to so many events like that at La Paloma. Events that had to be explained, events that were rough around the edges. Sure, play this song you just wrote last weekend. Sure, read this thing that's half a poem and half a blog post and half a video game script (and sure, it's three halves, who cares?). Sure, this is a wind-machine made out of a trash can, let's see if it works. Sure, yes, I will close my eyes and listen to the radio with you.

At one point a few years ago, when I was hemming and hawing around about being a writer with a capital W, no doubt complaining and whining to myself that there was just no space for me, that there was no community of writers here, that I couldn't get published so what was the point, wah wah wah, and I used to go to all these awesome reading series in New York and why didn't those exist in Hartford, someone said to me, "talk to Virginia." And I walked over to La Paloma after work and I said, "Hi Virginia, I'd like to start a reading series," and she said "Great!" and then for two hours, one night a month, for twenty-two straight months, ten writers would read their work. That is two hundred and twenty readings. That is two hundred and twenty instances of a writer stepping up on a four-inch stage and putting their work out there, because someone said "sure." And the readings got better and better and better. The writers kept coming back, even when there were only six or seven people in the audience, and even when there were fifty new ears they had to put their work in front of.

Virginia says "sure." She's said that to so many bands and musicians I have trouble keeping count of them all. She's maintained a space where doodling as an art form and all-night novel-writing sessions are perfectly normal.

The times I have felt most moved in La Paloma, though, are during the improv mixers organized by Sea Tea's Vlad the Improv-er. If you haven't been to a mixer-- and why would you have, if you aren't someone with a secret dream to try to do one little improv scene over a warm beer-- then it's hard to describe why it's so great. It has something to do with people coming into Hartford from far, far away, sometimes out of state, because they are desperately hoping to meet someone else who's kind of funny and fun to do scenes with. Vlad calls people up on stage, matching them up-- a veteran who performed in New York for ten years and was on an award-winning team, paired with a mom who's never done it and finally got a babysitter-- and then they shake hands and they do a scene. They just do a scene. They step up on the stage, they think oh shit, this is the stage, and then they think oh, everything's fine. And then the music comes on and they step down. It ends up being so simple that they love it, and then they come back. Some of those people are on excellent professional teams now.

This all makes it sound so easy, like La Paloma is a magical place and Virginia is some wizard who makes it all happen. But that isn't true at all. La Paloma is the place where you put your money where your mouth is. Since it exists, and since Virginia always says yes, you have no excuse. Make your art. Get your ass in there and pull out your calendar and pick a night. If you don't, it's your own fault. Nothing is more liberating than that. Do it. Go. Make it happen. Bring your audience. Explain what you're about to do. Make some bad art. This is the place for it. You're going to have to make bad art before you make good art, and that's what this place is for. It's an excuse-evaporator, a community-maker, a screen, a chapbook, your first LP. Really though, what it has is your first audience.

It works on the other end, too, the spectator end. If you think there's nothing to do in Hartford, no one trying new things, no one putting themselves out there, no individual artists, no risk-takers, no political action, no real conversation, no debate-- go to La Paloma. And if you still don't see what you want, maybe it's time to stop being a spectator. Get off the table, get out of the chair, move them aside-- oh, you're on the stage. Oh, this is the stage. You were on it the whole time.

La Paloma is many more things-- food and coffee and conversation and the best place in its neighborhood and everything else you've heard, if you live in Hartford, and everything you're imagining, if you live somewhere far away. I have made so many friends here that I can't remember specific meetings any more; those friendships have all blurred into one mellow memory. I had a friend who had moved away to Ecuador four years ago, seemingly forever, and just last week I ran into her at a La Paloma event. She's moved back and that's one of the places she went to first. Of course. Of course it was. I was overjoyed to see her but it felt so inevitable.

La Paloma is closing down. You must have heard by now. If you're from here, you heard it directly; if you're not from here, you heard it echoed in some other messy little space where people gather. A place where you know someone must be pretty cool just for showing up there. A place that answers that little call in your sternum that we so rarely acknowledge out loud: I need a place where I can try something new, where I can show up alone. I need to have a night that is truly surprising. I need the possibility that I am something more than what I was yesterday, even if I'm broke, or an alcoholic, or an introvert, or depressed, or just here in Hartford all of a sudden for god knows what stupid job transfer or family obligation or accident. I need a place.

When someone asked me where I'd move Syllable, my reading series, I went unusually silent. "I need a place," I said, "where if five people show up it's not embarrassing, but if sixty people show up, they can fit."

So it is with gratitude that I say goodbye tonight to La Paloma, and thank you for being my secret garden. I admit that when I came to Hartford the city seemed dead and full of weeds, depressed and angry and fraught. And I was, and still am sometimes, those things too. There were many fertile grounds in Hartford where I was able and allowed to repair and grow my garden, but only La Paloma has felt like a skeleton key. I wish I had made better use of it. I wish I'd been less selfish with my time, and spent more money here so that it would not be closing down. It's so hard not to feel personally responsible for its closing, since this place and this person gave me so many chances every day to make something of myself, and it. It is a reminder to me that there was always a first stage and a person who said "sure."

I have played on many bigger stages since those first improv shows at La Paloma. We had to move the mixers because we opened our own studio and we were overjoyed to fill it. We don't have to explain what the hell it is we're doing any more. We did that work at La Paloma. And so many of the bands that played their first shows here have moved on to New York or were playing earlier today at internationally acclaimed festivals. Or the radio producers who frequent this counter continue to broadcast to a hell of a lot more than thirty people. Or the films that were screened here were played for rooms of hundreds. We outgrew you, La Paloma, because that's what you allowed us to do. And we are so grateful. And we're so sorry that we didn't make it easier for you to stay here forever. And we promise that we will make that space somewhere else. And we recognize that it's our job now to do so.

There is something here, in this last 24 hours before those doors close, that I want to make sure I remember. In this little space, even if we went on to bigger stages, we were not discovered. This was never a place to show up and be recognized and made famous or talented. We had to move the tables ourselves. And then we pointed out to others: this is the stage. But, despite all I've said, it really never was a stage. There are no wings to wait in, there are no stairs to sneak up. At that first show, I was standing with one foot on, one foot off, ready to rise when the scene needed it. That's not a stage. That's a step. And when you're ready, you take it on your own.


La Paloma is closing tomorrow, June 27th. Tonight, in celebration of five years of incredible programming, there will be an awesome marathon performance of 40 bands, writers, comedians, radio producers, storytellers, artists, filmmakers and doodlers. Free, of course.