One bustling spring evening, Indianapolis’ Theon Lee Jones found himself presenting poetry in a noisy Broad Ripple bar. As usual, the longtime spoken word artist was without a microphone, making the situation at hand a little more difficult. Quickly he resorted to a trusted trick, in hopes of turning down the audience’s volume.
“There are certain consonants that people pay attention to, so I just went through the piece and kept hitting these consonants really hard and not even that loud,” says Jones. “I was just hitting them well enough, not even above the social volume. But after a while, the whole place was silent.”
Having done spoken word for several years now, Jones has become accustomed to performing in all sorts of environments and with all sorts of people, which has led him to acquire a strong arsenal of strategies for shutting up a crowd. He may once again have to think on his toes, as he performs alongside comedian Nathan Gropp at the Indy Eleven Theatre as part of an event called Poems for the People
“I feel like my performance is going to be challenged,” says Jones. “At the same time, it will be complimented. I can focus much more on delivery, than usual, without sounding like I'm just trying to make you cry harder than the last guy.”
In addition to being a spoken word artist, Jones is also an active local rapper (see him perform as a featured artist at the Jay Brookinz Beat Battle Championship on June 11). Ultimately, he believes that a lot of his spoken word experience has helped him to be a better emcee too. “I learned crowd participation from it, I learned networking from it,” he says. “I learned creativity, conceptuality. All of that came from being a spoken word artist.”
Having known Jones for the better part of six years, Poems for the People organizer Gregg DeBoor has witnessed his knack for seizing audiences. “We attended a poetry slam at Wabash University four years ago, and I saw how he can control a room with the ocean-sized talent he has.” It’s this and a number of things that led him to handpick Jones for his event.
“He has a message with his voice,” says DeBoor. “Theon isn't just shooting from the hip aimlessly with words. He speaks with intent.”
Like Jones, featured Poems for the People comedian Nathan Gropp also has experience with adjusting to his surroundings. Since dropping out of music school at Ball State and moving to Indianapolis seven years ago, he’s performed a vast gamut of venues, while learning to gauge audiences before delivering certain jokes.
“I think different crowds and different venues create different energies,” says Gropp. “It’s just understanding that different things are going to be reacted to differently by different people in different contexts, and you just have to be willing to adjust to that.”
While performing at one of DeBoor’s previous comedy-meets-poetry events, this idea of different crowds having different energies became very apparent to Gropp.
“I had a couple missed shots at the poetry show I did with Gregg where I told a joke, and it seemed kind of insensitive in that context culturally and socially. I had never had it not work in a club though,” says Gropp. If he had been in louder, dimmer bar, however, he thinks things would’ve been a little different.
“The lights can be on in a coffee shop, and everyone’s kind of doing the whole socially conscious thing,” says Gropp. “And then at a comedy club, the lights are down and everyone’s drinking on a Saturday night. It’s just completely different.”
Despite these points, Gropp admits that he really does love the idea of having poetry and comedy all in one place.
“The juxtaposition of a humorous art form with something more serious (generally) like poetry and spoken word is really cool to be a part of,” says Gropp.
These types of juxtapositions are really what DeBoor hopes to create more and more of through his events.
“Word is getting out there that we want to work with anyone who practices either poeming things out or shooting funnies,” says DeBoor. “Working with peers and encouraging others who have the same types of love for the things we do, can only make our scenes feel more whole.”
So while poetry and comedy on the same bill may seem a little weird, DeBoor hopes that all who attend Poems for the People go away having experienced something thought-provoking and new.
“Mixing a show where poems and comedy are cocktailed together is an odd thing to begin with,” says DeBoor. “But, it's a simple idea, it's a variety show, for the spoken word genre.”