Start a diary reading event in your town!

by Ariel Meadow Stallings, Founder of the Salon of Shame

I’ve heard from folks who want to start something like the Salon of Shame in their town, asking if I have any tips or advice to offer. That means it’s high time to write this guide to starting your own diary-reading event in your town. Here’s hoping this is helpful!

Before you start: make sure there’s not anything like this already happening in your area!
Due diligence is really important. Search the web for things like “diary reading [your city]” and “embarrassing teen reading [your city].” Also check to see if Mortified comes to your town — you may not need to start a new show to get your fix!

1. Come up with a name
…and it can’t be anything like Salon of Shame, unless you ask reeeeallly nicely and you’re not in Seattle. It also can’t be Cringe, Mortified, My Teenage AngstWhat’s Your Damage?, Corner Diary, or Diary Disclosure. While none of us own the concept of reading awful adolescent writing in public, the organizers of each existing event have full ownership of their chosen name and it’s uncool to plagiarize. Be creative — “Salon of Cringe” or “Teen Angst Mortification” don’t count as original names.

2. Put your feelers out to gauge interest
Start talking to your friends and extended community about who might have material to read. Adult writers and performers often got their start as teen diarists, so check in with local bloggers, journalists, authors, actors, musicians, etc. If you can find at least five people to read, you’re good to go.

3. Do a test run
Gather a the people who’ve expressed interest in reading together in a non-public space. The first Salon of Shame was a group of about 10 of us gathered in my basement, trying the idea on for size and seeing if it felt funny or fun or horrifying. It also gave me the first insights into which readings worked the best.

4. Curate your show
Think carefully about who and what you want to include in your show. You can review the guidelines that we’ve established for Salon of Shame readers, but different diary reading events have different rules — for instance at Cringe, readers sometimes present other people’s writing, such as a note given to them by a secret admirer. Other events audition their readers (we don’t). It’s up to you to decide what your focus will be — only bad teen poetry? Can someone sing a terrible song they wrote in middle school? What about awful essays? What about bad art? Do you want to do a theme show, where readers all pick a topic (music, parents, prom, existentialism, whatever) and mine their diaries for material? It’s your show! It’s up to you.

5. Find a space
Really all you need are four things: booze, microphone, seating, quiet. A room of a bar is great, but make sure it’s an actual separate room. Everyone in the space should be a part of your event — you don’t want to be shouting over music, tv, or people talking, so just using a corner of a bar doesn’t work. A stage is nice, but not totally necessary. Spaces used for late night dinner theater and burlesque shows are ideal. Alternately, you can look for a small theater that has a bar … but it’s easier to find a bar that has a stage. Start small: a 50-person capacity is plenty!

6. Pick a date
We launched the Salon of Shame as a mid-week event because it was the cheapest way to rent a space. Most bar rooms and theaters ain’t got nuthin’ happening on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, so it’s easy to negotiate great deals on space rental. We’ve found that once we had an established crowd, bars were willing to waive rental fees because we brought so many drinkers on an otherwise quiet night.

7. Find an MC
You will need someone chatty to introduce the show, bring up readers, and keep things flowing. Avoid someone who wants to BE the show — the focus should always be on the readers — but a clever, witty MC will make your show feel cohesive and less like an open mic night (shudder).

8. Find your readers
Invite whoever kicked ass at your test run to come read at your first public event. At the Salon of Shame, we’ve never auditioned readers, but it’s nice to start a new show with at least an idea of what’s coming, so be sure to talk to each reader about what they’re planning to read, what your guidelines for time/topic, etc. Some folks like the idea of “celebrity” readers — local musicians, artists, etc. In my experience, the best readers are often just regular folks (some performers have a tendency to, well, over-perform) but your mileage may vary, depending on the format of your show. Give your readers free admission, guest passes, free drinks, or whatever else you can afford.

9. Make it cheap
Since the production values of the show are pretty much zero (microphone, light) your expenses should be low. Don’t initially charge much at the door — we started at $5 and worked our way up to $15 after 11 years.

10. Get the word out
This is just simple publicity: tell all your friends, as well as local papers, alt-weeklies, and bloggers. One advantage of inviting bloggers, journalists, and other writers to read at your events is that these folks may help you publicize your event through their own outlets.

11. Start a mailing list at your first show
Even if you think you’re only going to do a one-off event, start an email mailing list. If the show goes well, these folks are the beginning of your regular audience!

12. Keep it regular & keep in touch
If your first show goes well, don’t wait to do another one. Part of what makes Salon of Shame so fun is that repeat audience members start to feel a sense of camaraderie with each other and the readers. In an odd way, there’s a sense of community that can develop around the shared sense of shame.

Extra credit: Always reference your inspiration!
Whenever I’m interviewed about the Salon of Shame, I’m always very clear that I absolutely did NOT invent the idea — I was inspired by my friend Sarah Brown’s Cringe event in Brooklyn. (And before Cringe, there was Mortified!) None of us own the idea, but it’s polite to acknowledge your inspiration. 🙂