Shaheen Rassoul Speaks of ‘Speakeasy’ | Santa Fe University of Art and Design: Journalism - October 4, 2012

"As always, awesomeness is encouraged"

“It’s where the wacky and interesting people of Santa Fe can come into a no-pressure environment and reveal a little part of themselves,” says Shaheen Rassoul, who co-coordinates Santa Fe Speakeasy with writer Gina Rae La Cerva.

Rassoul has met me for lunch at Counter Culture Cafe to discuss the vision and details of Santa Fe Speakeasy, a nonprofit, unscripted public storytelling event. “We want eye contact and stuttering,” says Rassoul, who believes that impromptu speaking is “a lot more dynamic, a lot more spontaneous, and a lot more real” than the standard readings. “Don’t script it,” he advises.

Santa Fe Speakeasy is held once a month at Backroad Pizza, and publicized through Facebook. Speakers are allotted a 10-minute space, but the time limit is lax if a story compels. There are usually seven to eight stories per event night. “After too many, the listener won’t absorb,” explains Rassoul.

Each night is themed so that the stories connect. Previous nights’ themes have included: ‘Firsts and Lasts’, ‘Meat’ and ‘Small Triumphs and Minor Victories’. Rassoul and La Cerva decide the theme for every month’s event, “but it’s not an exclusive think tank,” Rassoul adds. “If there is a story that someone would really like to share, we will build a theme around them.”

Speakeasy’s next event will be held on Oct. 23, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. It's theme is set as ‘Awkward.’

Speech ideas can be submitted at prior to the event date and preferably in four sentences or less. Ideally, Rassoul and La Cerva cut off receiving entries seven days before the event in order to go through all submissions and confirm that the speaker is still willing to participate.

Rassoul has recently come back to the U.S. after working on human rights issues in Afghanistan for the past seven years. Now back in the Fe, he has teamed up with La Cerva to create Santa Fe Speakeasy. Rassoul recognizes that Speakeasy is still early in its game compared to other, well-established public reading events like New York’s The Moth. “I don’t mean to replicate what they do,” he explains. “It’s a delicate act.”

Now is a time for growth, a time for Speakeasy to come into its own. Though he and La Cerva still get the word out through methods of “aggressive flyering,” so far, each of the events they’ve held has generated a healthy turnout of 30 to 50 people. Rassoul pauses, cocks his head in thought. “Maybe more,” he amends.

The projected growth of Santa Fe Speakeasy is too soon to tell; however, Rassoul is focused on a definite few goals. He and La Cerva hope to tap into the city’s Hispanic and American Indian communities, as cultures like these are where the art of public storytelling has its roots. A larger popularity would also be convenient, as receiving enough stories per reading, “would allow us [Rassoul and La Cerva] to sift through and pick out the gems.”

Thinking further, Rassoul remarks that he would someday love to see Speakeasy as a monthly event at The Lensic. Local radio station KSFR2 has already begun recording some of the stories, making them accessible to interested internet users and adding weight to Speakeasy’s presence in the Santa Fe area.

Does Rassoul ever share his own stories at Speakeasy? “It feels disingenuous to make the event and go up there with the mic,” explains Rassoul. “But who knows? I’m not principally opposed to it.” Rassoul has more than his fair share of anecdotes to tell, but concludes Speakeasy is more for those who need it.

For instance, a young man came in to read for Speakeasy’s ‘Firsts and Lasts’ night. The man read off of a prepared piece of paper “this story about ‘the first time he lived and the last time he died’,” Rassoul remarks. His hands and voice shook as he relayed a personal tale of troubled parents and troubled childhood, living his youth homeless in the arroyos, hopelessness and depression, then unexpected love, a healing woman, and the long road to redemption. The audience was knocked on its feet. Rassoul, himself, was moved to tears.

The young man has since not shown up to other Speakeasy nights, and refused to sign a release waiver for KSFR2 to share his story online. The act of reading his story aloud was his only interest, his one-time cathartic release.

Of course, not every story Speakeasy receives is as deep and dramatic. Sometimes the Speakeasy is about “the universal, the unique, and the fun,” says Rassoul, “taking the totally mundane and making it a bonding experience.”

As always, awesomeness is encouraged.