Under St. Marks Open Mic

Under St. Marks
theater in the East Village with Tuesday Open Mic sign.

little avatar I love this place. I wish I was there right now, or at least every Tuesday night. And to think I stumbled upon this place by accident. Wait, that’s not exactly right. I knew that Under St. Marks existed. It was listed as the venue for Frigid New York, a storytelling theater series that takes place in February. I wanted to attend some of those events, but wasn’t able to. One night in March I wanted to get a handle on the location so I walked in that direction. The “Open Mic” sign was a complete surprise. I did not go in that night, but I did later. While sitting in the theater the third time I thought to myself, “I think I’m addicted to this place.” One night some performers referred to the place as their church. I nod. I’m a convert.

So far, I’ve not been there at the beginning of the night, because I have been in classes until 10 PM. The Open Mic goes on well past 2 AM and I have stayed until the end. By that time I have been awake for close to twenty-four hours. I am bleary-eyed and exhausted by then, but have thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent there.

The Tuesday night Open Mic at Under St. Marks is a variety show. There are regulars and first-timers. There are people who return after their travels away from New York. There are singer-songwriters; there are poets, comedians, magicians, storytellers, playwrights, and performance artists who defy categorization. Nick, at the door, lets his Pantene® hair down and does standup at around midnight. There might be electric guitars, acoustic guitars, keyboards, cellos, ukeleles, and electronic instruments.

Today I’m going to try to convince you that what the world needs now is ukelele. You know, this is the underdog of all instruments. And I’ve always believed that, you know, it’s the instrument of peace because if everyone played the ukelele, the world would be a much happier place.
- Jake Shimabukuro, TED Talk, 2011

There is a house band: Michael, guitar hero; Henry, who does his own compositions plus Dylan covers (Bob himself should come and see Henry); and Dan, the enthusiastic host/MC who improvs on keyboard. And they accompany some performers. There is a real live tech person on board too, which you don’t find at most open mics.

I am fascinated watching Dan when he is playing keyboard, seeing how he seems to know just what to play in the moment. Why is this fascinating to me — I can’t exactly explain, but I can tell you a related story. I’ve added it in the inset.

Add to all of the above, Under St. Marks has heart.

I wonder if the name, Under St. Marks was coined after the yards at nearby St. Marks Church under which both the famous and infamous are entombed.

Under St. Marks
94 St. Marks Place, NYC

I have performed at many open mics. There was one I’d read about online and had been planning to attend. There were two unique things about that particular open mic. One was the statement in the description that told people to bring music if they had it and the host would accompany them. The other, perhaps not as unique, was that there was always a featured guest.

I was going to perform a story and didn’t have music. However, a guest from one of the earlier open mics at this place was an actor who, according to his bio, once played the part of Walter Cronkite which caused me to remember Jack Kerouac because the clip I have of Jack Kerouac is introduced by Walter Cronkite. That clip is Jack Kerouac at his finest, imo, and he is accompanied by Steve Allen tinkling out jazz notes on the piano.

My idea, when asked about the music, was to say I did not have music, but if the host would be Steve Allen, I would do my best to be Jack Kerouac.

This had been a kind of fantasy ever since I’d seen a bassist and a drummer accompany poets at House of Blues one night in Harvard Square. As it happened, one did not meet the host upon signing up, but one was asked to fill out a sheet of paper describing what one was going to perform — so I wrote that out.

When I was called onstage, nothing was said about what I had written on the paper — so I asked. The host entered into a multi-minute discourse on how he could play music only if it was written out with little dots on lines and printed on paper, while tried to explain what I had written though I did not get to explaining why. It was weird. The story went well despite all that and several people came up to me later to tell me they were touched by the story.

On the bus ride home I could’t help thinking about what had happened. How could someone who knows how to play an instrument not know how to play a few notes extemporaneously? It baffled me. I opened Garageband on the iPhone and in about twenty minutes made up a riff that could possibly be played in the background for a reading.