Respect the mic
The Midtown Out Loud open-mic series relaunches in a new venue, but with the same focus on creativity and community
Heather Anderson always knew it was about family. About building community.
That was the idea, anyway, when she first launched Midtown Out Loud, the biweekly series that returns on Wednesday, March 19, after an extended hiatus.
The concept for MOL was first seeded two decades ago when she attended a poetry open-mic with her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend signed the teen up to read without her knowledge.
While this might have freaked some people out, Anderson, already an avid writer, was prepared. Sure, it was a little nerve-wracking, she said. But the crowd was nice. Friendly and supportive.
“It was the kind of place where, not only did you have to be brave, you had to be vulnerable, too,” Anderson said.
From there she followed the words, performing at various open-mics, including a poetry slam where she nabbed second place.
Her mother was at that reading, too, Anderson remembered, encouraging her.
“She was an English teacher; she was a big, big influence,” she said.
Anderson started her first open-mic series at a cafe in 1996 in Chico, where she was attending college. She modeled it after the reading she’d gone to with her mother, and, between the cafe’s built-in crowd and people she knew from her classes and dorm, the series grew.
Years later, new to Sacramento and hungry for community, Anderson launched Midtown Out Loud at Butch N Nellie’s Coffee Co., a cafe that later evolved into Mondo Bizarro, and then Midtown Village Cafe.
It was an instant hit. It was also family.
“From the beginning … it bridged a number of different communities, different ages, different genders,” Anderson said. “It had lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, and it had a really, really safe feel.”
Now, 18 months after her mother’s unexpected death forced Anderson to put Midtown Out Loud on hiatus, the series returns to a new venue.
“That was a real turning point,” Anderson says now of her mother’s 2012 death following an attack in her Southern California home.
The Midtown Out Loud crowd, full-throttle, turned out to help Anderson: They attended the memorial service. They sent journals and cards and poetry.
“I had always been a part of the experience from the mic out,” she said. “But [until then] I hadn’t actually been a part of the receiving end.”‘A celebration of bravery'
It’s easy to see why people flock around Anderson. With a bright smile and a halo of springy, sunshine-hued curls, she exudes genuine warmth.
She’s also a big hugger.
From the genesis of Midtown Out Loud, in fact, Anderson has always made a point of embracing every guest—be it a performer or audience member.
OK, sure, she said, maybe that sounds a little campy, a little “Kumbayah.”
“But now, if I don’t give people a hug, they demand one,” she said on a recent weekday morning at Shine, the downtown cafe where she’ll host the Midtown Out Loud relaunch with her sidekick, local poet Jen Ikemoto.
Often, it’s more than just hugs. Anderson is known to buy someone a drink if she knows someone is broke. Sometimes the generosity is more expansive.
Local poet and singer-songwriter Sarah Myles Spencer said the MOL crowd—and Anderson, in particular—got her through some pretty rough times.
“Once, Heather knew my bike was broken and I couldn’t get my kids to school,” she said. “So one day, she showed up with a bike for me.”
Unlike many other open-mics, Spencer said, MOL isn’t about seeking the spotlight.
“We don’t just come and wait for our five minutes onstage,” she said. “People show up in a regular, everyday-life way, … and Heather is always the first person to ask, ’What do you need?’”
It’s not always so serious. For Ikemoto, that need was more in the department of love. The state worker met the open-mic host in the early Midtown Out Loud days, where Anderson encouraged Ikemoto to use poetry and the stage as a platform to propose to her girlfriend.
“It was a love poem about cheese,” Ikemoto said with a laugh.
Cheesy maybe, but it worked, and the pair became fast friends. And the series, Ikemoto said, became integral to her life—and not just for what it did for her and her now wife.
After the death of her mother, Anderson stepped away, but Midtown Out Loud continued for a few months, with Ikemoto co-hosting with another local poet, Jovi Radtke.
“The community did rally around Heather,” Ikemoto said. “This was a sacred space touched by [Anderson’s] mom, even though most of us had never met her. There was just a big outpouring of love and support from the community.”
Anderson had put a lot of energy into building that up, pushing Midtown Out Loud not just as a forum for words, ideas and music, but as a place to foster change, growth and goodwill.
From the start the series attracted a crowd that, depending on the night, ranged anywhere from 30 people to upward of 100 (a number that, incidentally, didn’t include the 25-plus people who signed up to perform).
Anderson decided to capitalize on that success.
“We started to focus on community engagement [because] we realized that the people were gaining something from the family that was being created,” she said.
Whether it was helping someone find a new home, hosting a holiday food drive, or raising money for organizations such as WEAVE, the purpose was the same: Give back, build bridges, create community.
With the relaunch, Anderson said, she hopes to be “more strategic” about pairing with charities. The first shows will benefit the Real Poets Writing Project, a local project that pairs writing mentors with at-risk youth.
Real Poets mentor Kamila LaShaun says it’s a natural fit. She first stumbled upon Midtown Out Loud after moving to Sacramento. Soon, she said, the series changed her life.
“Midtown Out Loud helped me find my community and connect to so many other things,” she said.
Local poet and MOL regular Shane Salter echoed this sentiment.
“It’s like family, no one is judging you,” he said. “There are musicians and poets and comedians—so many different styles, and everyone is just here to listen. There’s just so much respect in the room.”
Anderson is big on respect. Midtown Out Loud gets a lot of open-mic “virgins” and performers otherwise nervous to share. Some of the material is intensely personal. Raw, rough and charged with feeling.
“If you’re stumbling over your words or you get really emotional about what you’re reading, you’ll hear someone yell out, ’We got you!’” Anderson said. “It’s a celebration of the bravery to get up there.”
This means intent listening, lots of applause and treating those minutes onstage with dignity.
“We’re here to have fun, but don’t forget your manners,” Ikemoto said. “Heather has really pushed that idea to ’respect the mic’—to respect the room.”
Now, while the pair is ready for the return, they’re also aware of its challenges.
“We’re trying to stay true to the vibe, and we know that new spaces bring new challenges,” Ikemoto said.
The decision to relocate to Shine was based on logistics, Anderson said. During the hiatus, Midtown Village Cafe changed ownership and then started undergoing renovations. So, with the blessing of their former hosts, Anderson and Ikemoto sought a different venue.
“We needed to find a space that was specifically focusing on local community,” Anderson said. “And Shine offers primarily local food, local beer, local wine, and they’re a big supporter of local art.”
Shine is considerably larger than Midtown Out Loud’s original venue, but Anderson is confident people will show up in large numbers.
“We don’t know what it’ll look like on the first night, but it’ll be massive,” Anderson said. “Our family is like an amoeba—it just keeps growing and forming.”