PASTICHE, HYBRIDS, AMALGAMS: Interview with The Liars’ League
(Interviewer: Austin Eichelberger, Editor for SPACES)
Katy Darby: novelist, short story writer, teacher and co-founder of Liars’ League
Cliff Chapman: actor and Liar
Liam Hogan: writer and Liar
Paul Clarke: photographer, actor and Liar
The Liars’ League is a group of writers and performers who take authors’ submitted work and host events where the chosen work is read to an audience by professional actors. The group has it’s roots in London, but now has chapters in new York City, Hong Kong, and two more on the way. A few of their members took a reading break to speak with us about the organization and what it does.
Austin: Let’s start at your beginning: How did Liars’ League begin? Who spearheaded the project?
Katy: Once upon a time, about six years ago, I went to an author-read short story event with my friend Tim Aldrich. It just so happened that one of the authors read very very quietly, one read very fast, and one had quite a thick accent. We could tell that the stories were well-written, but they weren’t shown off to their full potential. So we had a drink and set the world to rights, and decided that the best sort of literary event would be one where actors (trained to project, emote and above all read clearly) read the stories, while the authors and audience kicked back with a drink.
We talked to a few other friends (Andrew Lloyd-Jones, a writer; Michael Caines, writer, academic and Assistant Editor at the Times Literary Supplement; actor and writer David Mildon; writers Tom McKay and Tessa North), and so LL was born. Our first event in April 2007 was also an unofficial birthday party for me – we charged £2 on the door and about 30 people crammed into a tiny room above The Lamb pub in Bloomsbury. Essentially, Tim and I started it, but Tim’s now living in Oxford with two kids, so I (with help from the other London-based Liars) do the day-to-day running of the League.
The line-up of the Liars has changed since then, with various people taking a back seat or coming to the fore as they move abroad, have kids, etc., and the current committee is me, Liam, Cliff, Paul Clarke, Paul Comrie (a writer and journalist friend from UEA), Tom, Andrew, Tessa and Michael. We’re hoping actor-author-Liar Ben Crystal will rejoin us too in August, once his hectic schedule permits!
Austin: I find the intersection of prose and performance fascinating. Could you each tell us a bit about the interaction between writing and acting in Liars’ League, and about the interactions – creative and otherwise – between the writers and the actors?
Katy: Writers write – that’s what they do best – but more and more often these days they are required to read their own work, and some of them would rather eat their own laptop than do so. I think LL plugs a gap in the market by ensuring that the performance of the stories is as good as it can possibly be, and that’s why we use professional actors. For obvious reasons, we especially love actors who can do a range of accents! Even very experienced actors (and we have many) are asked to audition for our company, because reading a story is different from acting in a play or film.
Once they are in the company and the stories for the month are selected, we “cast” each story from the available actors, which is particularly useful when the author writes a first-person piece in a voice that isn’t their own: for example, many female authors write in male voices (and vice-versa) or the character might be much older, or younger, or a different ethnicity, so we assign stories accordingly. We rehearse the stories a few days before the event, with tea, wine and the authors present if possible, and make “reading edits” if required. Then after the event we publish text, video and audio to the website.
We particularly look for pieces which will perform well aloud. Some wonderful stories just don’t translate from page to stage, and if, for example, a story includes a five-way dialogue between different characters, or textual tricks which won’t come across off the page, we’re less likely to use it. When in doubt I read the stories aloud to myself to decide. It’s amazing how much changes when you switch from eye to ear; live readings are a whole different beast from stories on paper.
Having the author at rehearsal is immensely helpful if they can manage it, but many authors live in the US or even further afield (we have read stories from China, Japan, Oman, Israel and elsewhere) so sometimes it’s not practical: in that case we may consult the author by email if the actor has any questions. There will always be a Liar present to direct the reading, though, and all authors get a link to the uploaded video and podcast after the event, so they can see their work live. At the event, the authors present can have a drink with the actors after the show, and some have become fast friends through the League. I even invited a few to my wedding!
Cliff: Everyone’s got something new to add. The stories are often picked particularly because characters’ voices are distinct and vibrant to begin with, good structure, good endings, very moving, very funny, subtle, clever. And not everything works on the page and also read aloud, so the writer’s work is largely done by the time it gets to rehearsal and hopefully they can enjoy it rather than worry about misinterpretation…I’d say, 90% of the time. There might be tiny tweaks, and sometimes validation/confirmation is nice too! Katy’s a very strong director, with a great eye and ear and understanding of an audience, which helps enormously. I completely trust her judgement, and note/remember as much as humanly possible, of course – and then having an audience in front of you does bring things up too.
Austin: Another interesting aspect of this project is the fact that you’ve basically taken the idea of a literary journal and turned it into something completely new: the event serves as the display of the collected prose, fulfilling the function traditionally taken by the physical (or digital) literary journal. What has it been like getting to know this new and unique process?
Katy: We always saw LL as a live reading series with extras which have been added as we go along. We audio-recorded stories from the first, mainly so that the actors and authors had a souvenir of the performance; this also meant that people who couldn’t make (or get into!) the event could listen later at leisure. We also publish the text of winning stories on the website. Since 2011 we have been videoing the readings and putting them up on our YouTube channel too – there are just over 200 HD videos in our online archive at the time of writing. But the best way to experience the buzz of a live event is of course to be there, which is why I’m delighted that we also have chapters in Hong Kong and New York, and (coming soon) Leicester.
However, as a novelist and short story event participant myself I know how thrilling it is to have a tangible record of publication, so we (and our authors) were delighted when Liars’ League author Cherry Potts set up Arachne Press (www.arachnepress.com) in 2012 and chose to publish some of the best stories from the League’s archive. There are now two collections of LL stories available: London Lies and Lovers’ Lies, both with about 25 stories in them. Lovers’ Lies also just got a very nice review over at Sabotage:
Cliff: It’s a live event first and foremost with a lot of tangible things to cut out and keep forever. The best of both worlds – it’s a great way to experience new writing in an environment that lets you appreciate it properly. I remember Jackanory, and that was an institution when I was little. It fills a gap that hasn’t been on TV for a long time. It’s not a play, it’s not stand-up, it’s not a band … but if you enjoy going to all of those things, they push different buttons. It’s a nice alternative to, and slots in nicely with, all of those for another good value evening out.
Liam: I’d say that Liars’ don’t view it as taking an established format (literary journal) and altering it, rather, to radically improve a very common experience – the reading aloud of a short story. That the website may now appear similar to a lit journal is by happy accident, or convergent evolution, or simply that beneath both is the story.
Austin: What challenges have you each encountered in dealing with this innovative journal concept and execution? How have you each found it similar to working on a traditional literary journal/magazine or in a traditional theater set-up?
Katy: I have edited a literary magazine in the past (Litro: www.litro.co.uk) and I have to say I do love not having to decide which stories we read all on my own, as well as not having to deal with page proofs/graphic design, etc.. I think the democratic process of the League is one of its great strengths: the fact that a story I might not personally vote for gets in and goes down a storm has made me widen my own tastes, and read with an audience’s eye. We read all the stories anonymously, and each story gets read by at least five or six judges (depending on who’s free that month), who then vote for their favourites, so we really are very thorough in our process.
We also give brief feedback to shortlisted authors, encouraging them to submit another story to us next time: with my writer’s hat on, I know how incredibly valuable and cheering it is to know that your story was seriously considered even if it didn’t make it, and I’m glad to say that a lot of “nearly there” authors submit again successfully.
I’ve also directed theatre in the past, and again, I find directing stories from the page much easier and quicker – mainly because the actors don’t have to worry about remembering their lines, but can concentrate on the performance. I really love our rehearsals, however long they take, because the interaction of actor, director and author (when possible) brings out new things in a story every time.
Cliff: Liars’ League is my favourite gig, without a doubt. Being on the reading panel offers challenges – it’s not always easy to squeeze reading dozens of stories into a month, but it’s immensely rewarding. Having to discount three or four very good stories for your shortlist is sometimes a strain! The anonymity helps! In the age of the smartphone the internet has been rotting my brain, so having all that prose to digest slows the decomposition quite considerably. As an actor, it’s beautifully brisk – enough time to feel you can do it justice, with pre-reading, rehearsal and an audience there, which is not always the case for something recorded, but each performance is less than a week from request to act to that lovely, lovely wine.
Austin: Could you each name a single performance that stands out in your mind? Why did you choose that one? What has each of you felt was the best theme thus far?
Katy: The best theme! Oh dear, there are so many I’ve loved. Sex & Death from way back was excellent, and this year I thought there were some great stories submitted for Short & Sweet and Man & Machine too. Performance-wise, Will Goodhand did a marvellous job on the reality TV satire Lavender Bunny and the Big Brother House a while ago, and Saul Reichlin gave a delicate poignancy to Rosanna Boscawen’s The Car Mover (April, Man & Machine). I also loved Louisa Gummer reading Carolyn Eden’s Upside Down Pudding in Twist & Turn in March. And how could I forget Martin Lamb reading Sumit Dam’s The Man with the Musical Penis – still one of my favourites, with a strangely sweet and romantic ending. But the recent standout has been the amazing Ed Cooper Clarke playing a gay, alcoholic French elephant in David McGrath’s The Elephant in the Tower: a challenge for any actor, and a masterpiece of grand guignol: hilarious and so terribly sad at the same time. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
Cliff: Difficult, but to pick just one, Gloria Sanders read Patrick by Rebecca Clarke a few months back and that stayed with me a while. Really lovely, moving, funny and heartbreaking.
Liam: Agree with Elephant (if nothing else because it is a recent classic), or for variation, other classics include When Scrabble goes Bad, and Hecho a Mano (a very sexy story about cigars). Themes – we’ve had over 60 of them, and though most are on the same format, those that have tinkered with it have produced memorable nights: Short & Sweet, for instance, and Fact & Fiction (true stories), or the annual Halloween (Tooth & Claw sticks out) or Valentine’s nights. Some themes are very popular and we had over 60 entries (average is around 30) for Short & Sweet, our flash fiction night with a maximum word count of 1000. Life & Limb, our forthcoming theme, has also caught people’s imagination, and Time & Space was pretty good as well (says the sci-fi geek).
Austin: I know you have chapters all over the world: London, New York City, Hong Kong. Those are all such huge cities that are so far apart – how exactly did the project spread after its inception? What has it been like being involved in a project that spans those three global cities?
Katy: Andrew Lloyd-Jones, one of the original Liars, moved to NYC a few years ago, and set up LL NYC in 2012: he recruited fellow literary and theatrical types to help him out over there, and it’s really gone from strength to strength. I read and vote on the submissions for NYC too, and it’s fascinating to see what different flavours the submissions and the events have: we love a funny, silly, surreal story over in London, as well as the more serious literary pieces, but NYC tends to go for more realism and localism in their choices – though they have read some excellent comic stories as well.
Hong Kong was started by Ysabelle Cheung, with whom I had worked on Litro, and also met through an LL event where we read a few stories from Granta (We continue to collaborate extensively with Granta, helping to launch most of their new issues). She contacted me to get our blessing and consult on how we organised the London League, and said she reckoned HK was crying out for something like Liars’ League. She was right – it started in January 2013 and every event has been packed out so far, with 60 or 70 people showing up to hear seven or eight flash fiction stories (the max word count in HK is 1200, to enable the actors to learn their pieces more thoroughly). I always watch the videos, but I hope to make it along to a Hong Kong event in person one day. The only downside (if it is a downside) is that my reading workload has tripled since 2007, as I now read the submissions for HK and NYC as well as London – in a good month, that’s nearly 100 stories!
Austin: What sort of response have you seen from places where you do not have a chapter? Are there any plans to expand to other cities? If you could each begin a chapter anywhere, where would it be?
Katy: People who’ve come to LL for the first time (or even those who only know about it via the internet, podcast, videos, etc.) have often been keen to replicate the format and so far we’ve had offers, discussions and ideas to set up one-offs or full franchises in Berlin, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Leicester (the last two happened – it must be an L thing…). Liars’ League Leicester is the newest member of the family, and if I could set up another one anywhere it would be in Sydney, Australia – that way there would be a Liars’ League on four continents. Global domination is the ultimate goal, naturally, haha.
Liam: Writers sent in stories from all over the world even before the other chapters abroad opened, and still do. (Likewise, London writers send work to US and HK Leagues.) As for where I’d put a chapter, Katy mentioned Berlin, which would be interesting, but Dublin would be good as well!
Katy: Amen to that. I do love an Irish accent….
Austin: Haha, who doesn’t? Of course, you’ve expanded in another global sense as well: posting a short reading series (“My Favourite Story”), as well as recordings and videos from events on your websites. How have those been received by your audiences? What about by other artists – have you seen more interest in the project since creating a means for your readers and writers to spread their work via the internet?
Katy: We started off with a MySpace page and just audio recordings (NYC still does podcast only) and moved into videoing the stories in 2011 when I got an HD camera for Christmas. I think people love listening to the stories and seeing them performed, even if they can’t be there, especially our international writers (many of our submissions come from the US). The videos definitely engage people in a different way – they’re as close as you can get to being there, which is of course the original and best experience. Speaking from an audience angle, I always love watching the videos of the stories from Hong Kong (somewhere I can’t just pop over to), and I hope some online fans look forward to the London videos with the same anticipation. I think the additional online content has definitely expanded our fan base and submissions base, because it means that authors and audiences can see what we do, and that makes them want to be a part of it.
Austin: How can people get involved with the Liars’ League? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Katy: Just come along to an event and chat to one of us, or email us (email@example.com) if you’re not able to get there in person. We are charming, friendly, open to most reasonable offers and have already collaborated with other literary competitions and magazines including Granta, the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook Prize,and the Willesden Herald annual short story competition. Oh, and we’ve read stories at Wilderness, Secret Garden Party, Brooklyn Lit Crawl (that was LL New York, obviously) and LSE Space for Thought festivals too: we’d love to do some more festivals, especially literary festivals, in the future. We love new authors and new actors, and if you get a story into one of our events we pay in kind by buying your drinks all night. We are British, after all.
Cliff: Buy me wine (any red, but there’s a good Malbec they do at the Phoenix)! Come to events, get a feel for the stories, take it from there really. I’ve read for the Clapham Library’s opening night and Arachne Press’s book previews so it’s a lovely opportunity to network. Come to Liars’ League, or come to see me act in Pilgrim Shadow at the Tristan Bates, 29th July-3rd August, at 7.30, where I’ll talk to you about it after the show. (Did I get away with that plug? Was that subtle enough, do you think?)
Austin: I think you pulled it off masterfully. Finally, a chance for some fun: Actors, if you could be the personal public reader for any author, living or dead, who would it be? And writers, if you could write every single role for any one actor, living or dead, who would you choose?
Katy: I’d write something for Christopher Walken or Tilda Swinton. Or maybe Ronni Ancona (a UK impressionist) because she could do all the voices. Or Toby Stephens, just to get within touching distance. I’ve read a few stories myself at the events, and if I could read the work of a modern author, Clare Wigfall is a wonderful short story writer.
Paul: I’d like to read forWill Self; not so much for the baroque word choices in themselves – more for the opportunity to indulge in outrageously milking every one of them.
Cliff: One single writer…JG Ballard pushes my buttons for atmosphere at the moment. As a writer, Patrick Troughton. Bit of a hero. They’re both gone, sadly: I should look at more practical ambitions…for living, Robert Shearman does wonderful short stories. And I’m actually sort of already a personal reader for a writer called Peter Muscutt, who does wonderfully dark stuff.
Liam: Single role: I’d also write for Christopher Walken, dammit! But as Katy got there first…hmm, as most of my stories require an amiable victim in a bewildering universe, I’d write the roles for Simon Jones (the original UK Hitch-Hiker TV series Arthur Dent) – just as long as he could still play Arthur Dent, of course!
Katy Darby studied English at Oxford University and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, where she received the David Higham Award. Her work has won prizes, been read on BBC Radio, and appeared in magazines and anthologies including Stand, Mslexia, The London Magazineand the Fish & Arvon anthologies.
Katy is a Writer-Liar: she teaches Short Story Writing, Writers’ Workshop and Novel Writing at City University, London, and her first novel, The Whores’ Asylum (paperback title: The Unpierced Heart) was published by Penguin in 2012. Her personal website is www.katydarby.com.
Cliff Chapman grew up on the Isle of Man, where he did lots of theatrical things before tunnelling out under cover of darkness to London, to train at The Actor Works. He also occasionally directs – including audio books for Fantom Audio. Cliff is an Actor-Liar and the stories he’s read for the League include Kiss-Killby Steve Wasserman, Investment Opportunities in the Isle of Manby Quintin Forrest, and Joe Leanby Bernie Deehan.
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, after sacrificing his degree on the altar of Theatre. He has a fondness for grotesques, villains and all-round bad guys – theatre credits include Berkoff’s Decadence, Moon in The Real Inspector Hound, and title roles in Vlad the Impaler, Macbeth, and Pericles – a rare outing as a good guy.
Paul is an Actor-Liar and has performed many stories for us including: Love is a Frozen God by Josh McDonald, Tries to Cook and Eat Gordon Ramsayby Francois Castile, The Patience of a Saintby Jonathan Pinnock, Christmas Futureby Niall Boyce, Alternative Navigationsby Nichol Wilmor, The Torture Orchestraby Sarah Ellender, Black Holes, White Dwarfsby Sam Carter, The Baron and the Porcelain Throneby Peter Browning, Ten Years Onby Rob Ganley, Rowly’s Rabbitby Graeme McFarlane, An Account of Six Poisoningsby Nichol Wilmor, Foulby Jack Fox, Hélène and Desireby Joshan Esfandiari Martin, The Miller’s Taleby Richard Smyth, and Coloursby Graham Buchan.
Liam is a Writer-Liar and stories he’s written for Liars’ League and Liars’ League Leeds include: How to Build a Mass Murderer(read by Clive Greenwood), Commuters’ Tails(read by Silas Hawkins), He Does Not Know(read by Ben Crystal), Bob, Justbob(read by Silas Hawkins), Stalemate(read by Freddie Machin), The King’s Computer(read by Ben Crystal), Rat(read by Silas Hawkins), The Tasting Menu(read by Lucie Howard), Remembrance Day(read by Will Goodhand), Sunset(read by Saul Reichlin), “Last Blood, First Ink” (read by David Rees), How the Elephant Fell(read by Rachel Spicer), and “Temp” (read by David Zezulka).