Conversing with Jeff Geiger is an object lesson in the power of pure enthusiasm. As artistic director of No Shame Eugene, Geiger is a tireless advocate for the sort of populist, no-holds-barred participation in art that defines his outfit, which is less theatrical troupe than a renegade vaudeville venue in which anyone can participate. No Shame Theater, as Geiger describes it, approaches the planned chaos of flash mobs, where minimal rules harness maximum creativity.
“We’re much more of an intentionally community theater,” Geiger says of No Shame. “It’s chaos. It’s fun. It’s kind of like putting together a mixed tape.”
That mixed tape, as you will, comes together once a month in the Atrium Building downtown, during First Friday ArtWalk. No Shame shows consist of 15 performance pieces, each lasting five minutes or less and including everything from skits, dance and monologues to readings, short plays and musical performances — whatever floats your boat. It’s not unusual for a night of No Shame to include, among other things, a belly dance, a shark attack, a monologue about punk rock and a comic digression on “the non-mystery of the male orgasm.”
This Friday, June 6, No Shame Eugene celebrates five years of ongoing performances with a special show featuring the best five-minute acts from the past half decade. Also on tap is music by Betty and the Boy as well as performances by Eugene Ballet Company, Oregon Contemporary Theatre and Eugene Opera, all of whom were “challenged” to show up, Geiger explains with a smile.
“It’s big,” he says of the celebration. “It’s kind of cool, thematically, because the whole thing is based on five-minute performances.”
In fact, only three rules govern the madness that is No Shame Theater: All works must be original; all works must be under five minutes; and no breaking anything, “including the wall,” Geiger jokes.
“It’s an unjuried, uncensored show,” Geiger says, adding that the whole thing has a classic “late-night” format similar to Saturday Night Live or Chicago’s Second City. “It’s the first 15 pieces,” he adds of the monthly selection of live acts. “If there’s more, we do a lottery system, and we don’t know what we’re going to get. A lot of them are walk-ins. It’s anything — experimental, standup, sketch, prose, poetry.”
No Shame Eugene is a local manifestation of more than a dozen No Shame theaters around the country, including outfits in Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland and Fairbanks, Alaska. The movement originated nearly three decades back at the University of Iowa, when students Todd Ristau and Stan Ruth wanted to provide an alternative to something called Five Minutes to Midnight, a show that was exclusive to grad students in the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The inaugural No Shame performance was held October 1986 in the cargo bed of Ristau’s pickup truck, which was parked in the middle of a theater parking lot.
Geiger, who participated in No Shame’s original location in Iowa City, says the theater “was born in scrappy opposition” to the workshop show. “They basically decided they wanted something that was completely accessible,” he says. “Since then, there’s sort of a loose national movement.”
Jamie Hosler, whose Jan. 3 No Shame monologue “Eugene 1990” detailed his adventures as bass player for the punk band Cheese Gargle, says he enjoys performing in such a supportive grassroots venue. “I think No Shame is awesome because it’s homemade entertainment,” says Hosler, co-owner of Bijou Art Cinemas. “It’s not bland product from a big company trying to appeal to the broadest spectrum in order to sell things. It’s not all great, but a lot of it is very good, and if you don’t like something, it’ll be over in five minutes.”
Geiger says one of the things that makes No Shame Eugene special is the early starting time at 7:30 pm, as well as the fact that performances are all-ages and free. “Our operating budget is like a $1,000 a year,” he says. Also, the show is divided into two parts: The first half is G-rated or family friendly, with the second half dedicated to more adult or PG-13 material, and signaled by the menacing theme from the movie Jaws. Geiger calls this the “pre-shark and post-shark” split, during which “the kids just wash out of the room” as the more outre acts take the stage.
The shark, by the way — along with perennial No Shamer Jesse Wells, the “Mad Viking” — has become the informal mascot of No Shame, represented by several performers stalking the stage and attacking folks with shark masks perched atop their heads. As build-up to the five-year anniversary, shark mobs have been showing up around the city at places like the Valley River footbridge and the new WJ Skatepark.
The Eugene chapter of No Shame got its start when Geiger, along with fellow writers Tamathy Howald and Mike Anderson, began holding Thursday workshops in 2008, at the Tango Center on Broadway. As attendance at these workshops increased, the group moved around until landing at its current location at New Zone Gallery, where the first public No Shame show took place April 2009. They have since moved performance venues to the Atrium Building, where they now reside.
Howald, who first discovered No Shame as an aspiring writer in Roanoke, Va., says that she was immediately hooked by the theater’s egalitarian philosophy. “No Shame Theater attracts and retains performers and audience members who understand, appreciate and embrace its core philosophy,” she says. “Anything goes. Anyone can play. Anyone can join, in any capacity.”
Part of the attraction of No Shame, Howald explains, is just this sense of inclusion in the arts. “Audience members become performers and vice versa,” she says. “I think that is its appeal. Everyone sitting in the audience thinking, ‘I can do better than that’ knows they could be on stage next month, and maybe they will.”
No Shame Eugene’s free fifth-year anniversary show takes place 7:30 pm Friday, June 6, in the Atrium Building at 10th & Olive; for further info, visit facebook.com/noshameeugene.