Whose Idea Is It Anyway? The Terminator, The Infinite Wrench, and BUGHOUSE!
Who invented the curated open mic storytelling night? Was it the folks over at Second Story? The Moth? Scott Whitehair? Who gets the credit for that particular format and, in getting said credit, what benefit is derived? WNEP Theater created The SKALD, a curated open mic storytelling competition, in 1999, but you’re not seeing anyone from that company declaring intellectual property rights.
Interestingly, each claims no providence over the format as none of the people involved in these groups or Scott care much about it. The format is a rich canvas for the different shows to create new improvements on the skeleton and flesh it out in their specific artistic way. The format wasn’t stolen or plagiarized in these cases so much as stripped of specificity and re-clothed in improvements, making wholly unique live experiences for a completely different audience.
The utilization of a given format, show or story structure to create something unique is commonplace. One could argue without it, innovation becomes impossible.
The Lion King is a kid-friendly Hamlet and West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet with a slightly less tragic ending.
Harlan Ellison, known for his work for science fiction sued James Cameron for plagiarizing his written episode for the series “The outer limits”. The episode was called Demon with a Glass Hand, the plot was of a cyborg soldier in human disguise who happened to be from the future and was sent back in time.
Director Albin Grau approached the Stoker estate to make Nosferatu based on Dracula, but he was quickly declined. Instead he went on and made small changes to his script so that he can go on to make one of the most influential films in horror.
Anime fans would know that Christopher Nolan’s work in Inception was not an original. His movie is a copy of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paprika. Paprika is about psychologist who creates a device to enter her patient’s dreams. Not only did he borrow elements from the story but his editing and framing can be compared side by side.
In Chicago, after a bunch of interpersonal mess and accusations, the long-standing theater collective known as The NeoFuturists elected to eject founder/creator Greg Allen from the fold, take the show he had created and directed for decades, lift the format beat for beat, and rename it The Infinite Wrench.
The Infinite Wrench adds the slightest of tweaks to Allen's show, providing the audience the same "menu" of 30 play titles, which they "order" on demand, each play beginning when its title is snatched from a clothesline strung above the stage. The ensemble still gives itself 60 minutes on the same darkroom timer, and they still order a pizza for the audience when the show sells out. But now, at the end of each play, the performers yell "Next!" instead of "Curtain!"
Allen should take all this as a compliment. The form and structure of Too Much Light can hardly be improved on, although the new show's adding a "wrench" each night—some spontaneous mucking with the show's conventions—creates an extra bit of meddlesome urgency (on the sold-out night I attended, someone decided the show would end when the pizza delivery person showed up).
Recently, after over a year and a half of running BUGHOUSE! in Chicago with the correlating live podcast, Literate Ape decided to bring that show to Las Vegas. It’s unique in Nevada and the local public radio magazine decided to run a feature on our arrival:
In a time when public discourse usually takes place through social media shouting matches, a new local show is instead encouraging people to engage each other onstage, before a live audience. Bughouse!, an interactive show that blends comic, dialectic discussion with storytelling elements, debuted in April at the Bunkhouse Saloon, where it now runs once a month.
Co-founders Don Hall and David Himmel conceived the show in Chicago in 2017, under the banner of their digital magazine Literate Ape after concluding that people too often base their arguments on emotion rather than logic.
“We kind of hit on the idea that nobody knows how to argue anymore, everybody wants to just scream at each other,” Hall says. “There’s no persuasion going on.” The show also derives inspiration from Chicago’s Washington Square Park — better known as Bughouse Square — a popular free-speech zone for more than a century. Hall, a longtime figure in Chicago’s live literature scene and former host of the city’s Moth Story Slam, brought Bughouse! with him when he moved to Las Vegas earlier this year. (Himmel maintains the show in Chicago.)
Of course, we were thrilled but, apparently, one person on Disqus anonymously known as “Oscar D” but much more likely to be revealed as “Ian B” was not so excited.
Keep in mind, this is the same person who claims to have penned the term “Live Lit” despite it being used long before he even came on the scene at a time when he was unsuccessfully trying to launch both a film and standup career.
The accusation is in error. The format, much like The Infinite Wrench, is much the same. The idea, however, is completely different in in that respect, “Oscar/Ian” is wrong in his reply.
The idea behind his long-running show is to showcase the performers ability to write clever essays on topics with no meaning — Hot vs Cold, Night vs Day, Chaos vs Order — and demonstrate a quasi-McSweeney’s (or, as I call it, McSwenis) tongue-in-cheek intellectualism. The idea behind BUGHOUSE! is to showcase the ability to argue real world topics — Equity: Opportunity or Outcome?, Intersectionality: A Great Unifier or A Devastating Divider?, Trickledown Economics: Truth or Horseshit? — and do so as persuasively as possible.
Both ideas have merit and involve writers and the fake competition created by Marc Smith’s Poetry Slam as co-opted by The Moth but the intent and result are resoundingly esoteric from one another.
On the other hand, the angry, bitter narcissism that is demonstrated by a false insistence that is was he who named a movement and demands the credit for it certainly supports a claim to having invented debate, the number of six writers, the time limit of seven minutes, or the audience determining winners.
“Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives—the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going. The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.”
I encourage “Oscar D.” to come out to Las Vegas, hop up onstage at The Bunkhouse Saloon, and debate me on the topic of Intellectual Property: A Gate or a Fence?
But only if he uses his actual name rather than that of an L. Frank Baum character.