This is the third in a series of interviews with some of the best open mic hosts I’ve seen on my informal tour of open mics across America.
The idea is to pull back the curtain on what it takes to be a host, what hosts want out of an open mic, and how to make an event work when you have no idea what’s going to happen. And maybe even hear a poem or two about open mics.
This week, it’s Maestro Jorge Mendez, who hosts what remains my favorite open mic in America at the Venue on 35th in Norfolk, VA.
Go long, she said. Give examples, she told them. Tell stories.
Tell me about the open mic you run (or have run)—the rules, the structure, the venue. How long have you been doing this? Did you launch it or inherit it from another host? That kinda thing.
The Venue on 35th was established ten years ago in March of 2007 in Norfolk, VA. The owner and founder, Patti Wray, opened it to the artistic public of Hampton Roads as “a place to play” like it says on the sign. Being a playwright, she wanted a place where she could produce and present her own plays but also provide a platform for local artists to come and share their art in a open, safe and encouraging environment.
The open mic, which never got an official name, was one of the first events to launch under the original host Malcolm Powell. There have been several hosts throughout the life of the mic, and the rules, day of the week, and time limits have changed and been adjusted by each host as necessary along the way, but its mission to heal through the arts has remained at the center of what we do at The Venue.
I started coming to the open mic on January 16, 2012. I had actually known the host at the time, Gayla Robinson, for many years but didn’t know she was the host of this mic when I first started attending. That was a total coincidence, dumb luck, fate? Take your pick.
I hadn’t seen her for a really long time and run into her at a mic I just happened to go to….what are the odds? In any case, I quickly became a regular.
The vibe of the room was what I didn’t know I needed. The love and energy of that room literally saved my life but that’s a different interview…
Within a few months I became the “backup host.” I’d fill in here and there whenever Gayla couldn’t make it. Around spring of that year I transitioned into being the regular host. Here it is 5 years later and I can’t imagine not doing it. I’m currently the longest running host of what is arguably Hampton Roads’ best loved open mic, and I’m unapologetically proud of that.
A Little Flattery and Some Introspection
In my (evidence-based) opinion, your open mic is one of the best I’ve been to. What do you think makes it great?
Your “evidence-based opinion” is very kind. Thank you for that. To answer your question, what makes it so great is the performers. It’s very important to us that our mic be truly “open” so that brings in a very wide range of diversity, not just in artistic genres but also in people. Any given Monday night you’ll see people from every walk of life, age range, race, belief system, sexual orientation, or whatever other ridiculous man-made category you can think of come together, strip away everything except humanity and just share art with each other.
We also work very hard to foster a supportive environment. Most open mics, at least around here, are held in bars and restaurants and a lot of times that means audience members that aren’t necessarily interested in your carefully crafted sonnet. At the Venue art is what we do so if you’re there, you’re there for the art. Almost everyone in the audience is also a performer, so there’s a different level of respect that fellow artists show each other. We understand the importance of being heard, so we listen.
There are so many things about your hosting style that I admire—especially the way you set up performers for success and your gentle but earnest (and usually damn funny) exhortations to respect the stage and the mic—but what it adds up to, I think, is that you seem to truly madly deeply enjoy hosting. Am I right? And if so, what do you love about it most?
I never really thought of myself as having a hosting style so thank you for that but yes, I REALLY REALLY LOVE what I do! I feel like the luckiest man in the world. I get to hand out free doses of the medicine that saved my life 5 years ago. Without getting too into it, I was in a really dark place when I discovered The Venue and I can honestly say that I would not be here if it were not for that little red building. So to be now in a position to share that with others is truly a gift.
It’s really indescribable the feeling of seeing someone get on stage for the first time and read us a poem. Or seeing a newbie become a regular and watch them grow artistically but also personally. I love seeing the shy grow in confidence.
I often say that the open mic portion is just a backdrop for what’s really happening in there, because what’s really happening there is people are healing.
I’m humbled and fortunate to get to witness it.
Your open mic charges a cover and alcohol is not available. Tell me how those elements affect the character of the event.
The Venue is nonprofit. We charge $3 for the open mic and $5 for our regular monthly special events (comedy shows, Slams, Showcases etc.) Every dollar we make from any of our events including the open mic goes toward keeping the building open. Our entire staff, including myself are all volunteers. We truly just love and believe in the work we’re doing there.
The Venue wasn’t designed with a functional kitchen as it was meant to be a theatre which means we can’t serve food. In VA to serve alcohol you must also serve food so that’s mostly why we don’t serve drinks. Just coffee, sodas and snacks. I don’t drink so it doesn’t bother me but I think that’s part of the formula that makes the venue what it is. I think if we did it would totally change the entire vibe.
We’re not a bar on a slow night holding an open mic to drum up extra business. Art is what we do, art is why we opened our doors and I know our audience appreciates that. They show it in their ten years of continuous support.
Let’s Get Deep and Personal
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of an open mic?
I think the purpose of an open mic should be to provide a platform for local artists to express themselves in a truly open forum without fear of judgement or unsolicited criticism. When I say “truly open” I mean for anyone. No picking and choosing who gets on your list. Open. In every sense of the word.
Do you have a philosophy or a manifesto as a host?
As host I feel it’s my responsibility to set the tone. The energy of the room is crucial to the experience everyone will have that night. The relationship between the crowd and myself is symbiotic. I feed off their energy and they feed off mine. It’s a very necessary give and take.
A big part of it is making people want to share. Without that there’s no show. It is extremely difficult to share anything in front of a group of strangers let alone things that are in many cases intensely intimate and personal so it’s imperative that I make sure people feel safe and comfortable. I always ask that everyone show everyone the same love, attention and respect they would want when it’s their turn on stage. The Golden Rule as applied to open miics.
I also think it’s really important to maintain balance. Our mic is mixed genres and I don’t deviate from the list order so a lot of times you’ll get a comedian following a poet that just ripped the crowd’s heart out or a musician that wants to sing a ballad after a comic just left everyone laugh themselves breathless. The energy goes up and down and with that so can the mood of the room. I’ve been known to make the crowd stand and “shake it off” after particularly gut-wrenching pieces.
What would you say are the 3 biggest keys to success—by which I mean longevity—for an open mic?
This is a good question there is a lot that goes into the longevity of an open mic. One of the more uncontrollable things is the venue owners. For any number of reasons they could decide to no longer want to host the event. That usually leaves the open mic searching for a new venue. We recognize that at The Venue on 35th we’re extremely lucky to not have that variable to contend with. So location! Location! Location! Is a big one.
The respect of the community is also a huge factor. Without the artistic community there would be no open mic scene. It’s important to always keep that in mind.
Lastly and I think most importantly is humility. The mic is never bigger than the artists that support it. All in all, the key lies in the performers. They’re the pulse of any open mic.
Have you ever written a poem about open mics? If so, is there a link or video I can share?
As a matter of fact I indeed do have a poem about open mics and one about The Venue itself.
Tell Us a Story (or Two)
What’s your idea of a Damn Great Night of open mic—in terms of talent, audience, or anything else?
I could literally go on for days about open mic stories, but immediately the one that comes to mind is when we broke our record for most performers in a single night. My previous record was 40-something. That night we hit 40 names about 2 hours in and people were still coming in the door. It started creeping into the 50s, so I told the crowd I wanted at least 60 that night so people started texting friends to come out and sign up.
We were well beyond the capacity of the building. People sitting on the floor. Standing in the kitchen. Sitting on and around the stage. It was nuts. We hit 60 at about 11:30 that night. It was really something. The love and energy in that room was palpable.
Another great night was the night we did an impromptu Harlem Shake Video back when that was a thing.
What’s the most bizarre or magical thing you ever saw on your stage?
It’s funny you ask about magical. I’ve seen a guy named Nicholas Tweedy levitate objects from our own kitchen and send them floating around the room and bend spoons while I held them. Joseph DePaul made a deck of cards open on its own while under a glass dome. One guy built a didgeridoo out of pvc pipe and played it, Norfolk has a super hero named Black Widow (google him) he showed up one night in full costume, mimes, clowns, mind readers, sword swallowers. No bull. We’ve had a lot of random acts come through. Like I said, “truly open.”
What’s the story behind Aesop?
I’m not sure where Patti found Aesop but he’s become the unofficial mascot of The Venue. I know he’s been there since day one basically. He didn’t always have a name but we finally decided he needed one so about 4 years ago we held a contest to have him named.
He’s a big smiling wooden cat that sits quietly on the end of the stage. Sometimes performers pet him between his ears for good luck.
Has your open mic been the catalyst for creative collaboration among your regulars or semi-regulars?
The energy of The Venue is highly conducive to people forming relationships between the artists that attend which almost inevitably leads to artistic collaborations. We had an event series that was based off that principle called “Mash Ups.” Poets worked with musicians. Comedians worked with poets. People wrote group pieces…
It was a great, great time. We haven’t had one in a while but maybe it’s time to bring that back. There are videos of some of the Mash-Ups on our Youtube channel V35TV.
Let’s Talk Rules and Technique
How hard core are you when it comes to open mic etiquette?
I’d like to think I’m not too hardcore about the rules and etiquette but the rules are there to ensure everyone has a fun, safe time and that everyone feels included. We have a 4-minute time limit, but when you have 30 plus names on your list on an average night it’s necessary. I’m pretty lenient, I think and if I have to give someone “the light,” it’s definitely because they’ve gone well beyond the time limit. It’s just to keep it fair for everyone.
As far as etiquette we like to think it’s pretty common courtesy stuff. Cell phone on silent, respect the performer, no talking during performances. That one I’m pretty strict about. I will not tolerate people being rude or disrespectful to anyone, under any circumstances—although we honestly don’t have a lot of that going on at The Venue. Most everyone gets it so to speak.
What’s the most effective way you’ve found to encourage good audience and stage behavior?
I think when I say “show everyone up here the same love and respect you would want if it was your turn,” it makes it clear we’re there for the performers. There’s a balance that needs to be maintained though between maintaining order so the mic goes smooth and being relaxed enough so everyone still has fun. We have rules but we understand that we can’t be so rigid that we take away from the human experience of what goes on there.
Have you ever had to kick out, or ban, a performer from your event? If so, what for?
I’ve never personally had to kick anyone out. We go above and beyond to avoid it going that far. We are adamant about being open to everyone so bans and kicking people out would go against everything we stand for.
There have been incidents where people were being continuously disruptive or rude but the room seems to find a way of removing those people quietly. I can’t explain it but I’ve seen it happen. It’s like the collective consciousness of the room makes it clear to the individual that that type of energy has no place there.
What’s your strategy on nights when, for whatever reason, the list is really thin? Say, fewer than 5 performers.
Our list averages about 30 performances per night but some nights are quiet. I actually really like when that happens because its rare, and with just a handful of people the vibe becomes more relaxed and intimate.
I still stick to the 4-minute time limit just in case we start slow but pick up later, but once we get through everyone on the list I go back to the start. Depending on how much time we have left and how many names there are I’ll adjust the time limit for the 2nd round.
Show Me Your Wishlist
Any plans to modify your format or otherwise tweak your event?
The format for the open mic has gone through several changes from host to host. When I first inherited it it was 2 hours on Mondays. It eventually grew to 4 hours, then 2 nights a week. We had to add Thursdays for almost 6 months at one point to accommodate all the overflow we were getting from Mondays. It eventually became unnecessary so we went back to just Mondays.
I’ve done a lot of tweaking over the years and I think the current format works. At least for now. I’m open to change though. The artistic community grows and changes, and along with it so must The Venue.
When it’s time to make changes the room will let me know. Ultimately, it’s their show. They do the navigating, I just steer so it’s important that I be able to listen to their directions.
You can find the Venue on 35th here on Facebook. Make your way there any Monday night to be part of Jorge’s magnificent open mic.
And if you do, tell Jorge I sent you.