The local performing art scene in Kalamazoo has, for over a decade, been an unusually direct reflection of its outlet options. It has ebbed and flowed in a direct corollary with spaces where it was welcome. Which is to say more simply: we’ve badly needed more venues. Enter The Mix Kalamazoo 2 years ago and Mitch Burns (PoetLikePoe) & Marcel Price (Fable) with a plan for a new Open Mic called “PUT UP or SHUT UP”.
Seeking to extend the wildly successful formula developed by “The Drunken Retort” (Stella’s, Monday Nights, 8:30pm) in Grand Rapids, “PUT UP or SHUT UP” (PUOSU) was to be an artist-centric weekly Open Mic where neither audience chatter nor terrible performances would be tolerated. Talk too loudly while a performer was onstage? You might end up doing interpretive dance on a ‘twerk-box’ (patent pending) to a deeply nuanced spoken word piece about a deceased relative. Get onstage and start rapping about your bank account? 3 audience bells later and you’re chased off the stage like the spirit of the Apollo Sandman had hooked you. It’s exactly as simple, honest, and brutal as it sounds and yet provides precisely the right balance necessary to keep everyone engaged and focused on the performances.
Fans of “The Drunken Retort” will recognize this formula nearly verbatim, and yet, “PUT UP or SHUT UP” became a very different show in a number of meaningful ways. Most immediately different was the size of the room. “The Drunken Retort” is a shoulder-to-shoulder experience in a long, narrow whiskey bar where you negotiate for every movement and you become a part of the community quickly because physical intimacy is literally forced upon you. The Mix Kalamazoo on the other hand was a large room, probably 3 times the capacity of Stella’s with space to move and breathe comfortably; complete with overstuffed couches and a bar that feels like it stretches to the horizon and back. The frenetic, tense energy of “The Drunken Retort” was replaced by a more social, collaborative space. The ramifications of this simple difference were myriad: loudmouthed audience members had more room to be disruptive, but at the same time artists had more room to connect and collaborate. Impromptu onstage collaborations between artists who’d met moments before outside smoking a cigarette became commonplace and served to build an instant bonding experience amongst an artist community badly fragmented by an indescribable lack of options to perform. Singers invited rappers onstage with them, spoken word artists asked drummers to play beatnik style behind them, and bold poets invited guitar and violin players to improvise chord progressions beneath their stanzas within moments of meeting one another; and more often than not the output was breathtaking.
Cross-Pollination with its sister show “The Drunken Retort” became commonplace. Featured artists who came to “The Drunken Retort” on Mondays quickly began becoming the featured artists at “PUT UP or SHUT UP” on Tuesdays, which was to the benefit of all parties involved. Touring artists suddenly had multi-night engagements in West Michigan and audiences in Kalamazoo began to get to experience artists of a caliber not seen before as a direct result of this partnership. Artists like Buddy Wakefield, T. Miller, Danez Smith, Siaara Freeman, Michael Lee-Wolf and more were suddenly onstage in Kalamazoo for the first time and helping to throw gasoline on the embers of a freshly smoldering (and until recently all but nonexistent) creative scene. Those flames caught wind.
No look back at PUT UP or SHUT UP’s first 2 years would be complete without a full acknowledgment of the hosts of the show; a cast that has been far from static even in its brief history thus far. Originally hosted by Marcel Price and Mitch Burns with Andre “Skeezus” Ford serving DJ duties, this simple 3 man team shepherded PUOSU through its infancy. Marcel’s 10-week national tour in 2015 began what accidentally became a substitution-turned-replacement for the show’s 3rd host, Danny Rosea. An enigmatic singer, rapper and poet in his own right, Danny eventually took over as Marcel’s schedule rendered his available time ever shorter and he bowed out to focus on other endeavors.
If a show only 2 years old can be said to have a legacy at all, then PUT UP or SHUT UP’s could best be described as fostering an unparalleled amount of collaborative energy. Artists from the show have gone on to perform together all across the state, start writers workshops together, released albums and chapbooks together and still find ways to improvise together on Tuesday nights. There is a supremely genuine affection and respect that underpins all of these endeavors. Artists from the show genuinely look to see not only that other artists succeed, but that they get paid and recognized to do so. They value one another not only artistically and creatively, but practically and professionally. “PUT UP or SHUT UP” seems to somehow have managed to inoculate and immunize itself from the usual trappings and downfalls that surround creative people and their work. There is no seeking to take advantage of, or exploit one another amongst artists; on the contrary, they regularly look out for one another and recommend each other. It’s difficult to say specifically why this should be so, but if I had to speculate as an observer since day 1 I’d say the credit belongs to the hosts of the show; Mitch Burns, Marcel Price, Danny Rosea, Andre “Skeezus” Ford, and the owner of The Mix Brent Hermiz for fostering exactly the right kind of atmosphere and doing so with truly artist-friendly intentions. Take care of your artists, and they’ll take care of one another it would seem… and what more could an Open Mic in a small city hope to accomplish than that? Congratulations PUT UP or SHUT UP on your first 2 years. I can’t wait to write the piece on the first 5!